My Travel Memoirs : South Korea

I have always wanted to write about my travel, and I have always procrastinated. Well, now that I am on it, I realize how difficult it is to recount the details.. especially if its so far in the past. I can only provide some glimpses of my travel at this point 😦

My first international travel was to South Korea for my MS. After I landed in Incheon International airport in Seoul, I took a bus from the airport to Daejeon, which is where KAIST was. Seoul in the north, and Busan (Pusan) in the south are the two biggest cities in South Korea. Daejeon (Taejeon) is in between the two. If you take an express bus from Seoul to Daejeon, it takes around two hours. By KTX (which runs at ~300 km/hr), Seoul to Busan takes around three hours, and so, in three hours, you can almost cover the length of South Korea. Take a look at the map below to get a better idea. The places are marked in red dots. The southernmost red dot is on Jeju island, a beautiful place to visit.

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My initial days in South Korea were passed in awe. Coming from a huge country like India where the distribution of technology or benefits is highly skewed, I was charmed by the way technology had entered almost every sphere of their society and how punctuality was valued, and honesty and sincerity was the inherent fabric of the society. I had once dropped my wallet somewhere in Seoul, only to find it inside a package which was mailed to me one week later by some unknown person with every thing including credit cards, alien registration card, cash etc. completely intact.

Inside the campus, language was not a big issue as many fellow students / professors knew how to speak English but outside, it was difficult. However, because of this, people were shy to speak but very welcoming nevertheless. But, language did play an important role to be able to mingle in the society. In KAIST itself, there was a rule that if even one foreigner registered for a class, the medium of instruction would be English. However, this did pose some issues as some Korean students would find it difficult to grasp a subject and its technical jargon in a language foreign to them. But, KAIST was focusing on globalization and so was the rest of Korea. If you took subway, you would see all young students (high school and above) reading English test books, because now, it was necessary to pass an English test to get employed.

It was in Korea, where I was exposed to the culture of Norebang (Karaoke room). Literally, there was a Norebang place every few meters in the busy parts of almost any city in Korea. And, they were open till very late. Big cities like Seoul and Busan, never sleep and the nights are lively but safe at the same time. Transportation is amazing and there is hardly any need to own a car unlike majority of the US cities. In my lab, our professor used to take us on group dinner every Thursday, and after dinner, we used to do bar hopping. Note that Korean society is a very hierarchical society and in a group with traditionally minded people, not doing what the elders say is tantamount to showing disrespect. And, hence, this is how I first drank alcohol (Soju, a Korean drink) even though during my time in India, I was a teetotaler. There is also a bomb shot which is very popular in Korea where you arrange Soju shot glasses on top of beer glasses and push them into it. Check out this video.

Another interesting custom was that during our group dinner, the youngest of the group had to serve the spoons and chopsticks. And, a younger person while serving / accepting Soju needs to use two hands. Fun fact 1: Did you know that Korean chopsticks are generally made of stainless steel whereas the Chinese ones are made of wood and Japanese ones are made of a number of materials ? Also, their lengths and shapes are different ! Korean barbecue is my favorite (specially Sangyeapsal / Pork Belly) and I have also had crab and live Octopus, which is considered a delicacy ! I love Galbitang (Beef Short Rib Soup) as well. The interesting thing about Korean barbecue restaurants is that you sit on the floor and cook the meat at the table itself and eat. Here’s a picture of my favorite Sangyeapsal with lots of side dishes.

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BTW, when I first landed in Korea, I did not know how to use chopsticks. And, it took me a long time to really get used to it. There used to be a vending machine in my university cafeteria which served hot noodles with chopsticks (Yes, I am not kidding ! You just select the type of noodle, and few minutes later a hot noodle soup in an Aluminum foil bowl will come out of the slot.. ) Anyway, I used to practice my chopstick skills on the noodle bowl almost every lunch 🙂 And, once I learned how to use them, I used to compete with my lab mates as to who can pick up maximum number of small slippery beans with chopsticks without dropping them 🙂

Korea is a highly developed nation. It has its idiosyncrasies too. For example, it is almost a stylistic trend that all older ladies (Ajumas) keep short hair. Also, cosmetic industry is a huge success there. If you have traveled in subway, you would have inevitably seen young girls using their pocket-sized mirrors or glass doors on subway for makeup.  And, there is a huge obsession with branded products and an undeniable US influence in many aspects of the society.  Given its strategic geographical location, in addition to being a big ally of US, it also welcomes tons of native English speakers for teaching English in schools etc. During my time in Daejeon, I traveled a little to other parts of Korea with my lab members, and with friends outside my lab as well. Here are some snapshots of my travel (Navigate over each image to see the caption)…

After I completed my MS in Daejeon, I moved to Seoul, an amazingly vibrant city. Whether its the bustling city life with sky-scrappers, or the view of the soothing Han river, or the taste of ethnic culture at Geongbokgung Palace and its beautiful fall colors, Seoul has it all ! And, this is where I met my fiancee, Natalia 🙂

 

In Seoul, I have had the opportunity to attend a Korean wedding of one of my friends. I was amazed at the respect that students in academia give their advisors. The wedding ritual was performed by the student’s advisor (instead of a Church priest, albeit a big chunk  of the population does not follow any religion), and it is a common ritual, at least in academia circles. Also, when you go to the wedding reception, instead of taking a physical gift, you take cash and deposit in envelopes available in the venue. There is a social norm about how much cash you should bring depending on who you are and you should deposit the cash in the proper envelope (bride side envelope or groom side envelope) and write your name on it. Fun fact 2: Did you know that in Korea, you wear a promise ring before engagement, which is different from the engagement ring ? Fun fact 3: In addition to the usual Valentine’s day celebration in Korea (girls give gifts to boys), Korean couples celebrate White day on March 14th (Boys give gifts to girls) and Pepero Day on November 11 (11/11) and give each other peperos. As you can clearly see 2 peperos placed side-by-side look like the number ’11’.

During my time in Seoul, I traveled quite a bit. Some of the most popular neighborhoods in Seoul were Itaewon (known for its night life, and for being a multi-cultural tourist hub), Hongdae (night life), Namdaemun Market (Korean traditional market), Insadong (for arts, crafts and culture), Gangnam (famous for Psy’s Gangnam Style..), Cheonggyecheon Stream (for a nice evening walk, or near the Han river) etc. Whether its watching the historic Korea-Argentina match on a huge screen in the streets (in which I was caught up between supporting Korea or supporting my all-time favorite team Argentina with Messi :P), or spending new year’s eve and sun-rise at Haeundae beach at Busan with balloons in the sky, or travel to Everland Amusement park with its infamous T-express, Gangneung, Yongweol, or Seoraksan, I had a really memorable and fun time with some wonderful friends !

Well, to sum it up I spent an unforgettable few years of my life in South Korea. And, I miss those days. I did have the opportunity to visit Daejeon, once again in 2012, where I could meet up with some of my friends and relive those moments. Korea, with all its traditions, idiosyncrasies, and fun is a wonderful place to spend some time 🙂

 

 

A perspective on the diversity of societal dynamics

It was 2007. I just landed in Daejeon, South Korea. It was my first international trip and I was excited to visit my lab. After I arrived, I called my lab and a lab mate came out to greet me and took me to my professor’s room. We were in an elevator when his first question to me was about my age. For me coming from an Indian background, this came as a surprise. How someone could ask my age the first time he spoke to me, I thought. Another day, during a lab meeting, a senior lab member was asked a question which he could not answer at that time. The professor then asked others. I blurted it out. After the lab meeting, I was surprised to find out that many younger students knew the answer but nobody volunteered to answer it because we are not supposed to answer because a senior could not. Later this became clear to me, as I came to learn that Korean society is a very hierarchical society where age is the most important factor, and friends are generally people of same age. On a different note, once I was asked to get some work done on a project and after working hard when I got about 80% of the targeted output, I was happy to report it. But, I was asked to keep working till I achieve the complete target. Koreans are perfectionists, I thought.

What surprised me was when once I settled in and met with more people, I found people who did not care about age and who were less stringent about rules and work ethics. This taught me a valuable lesson that, probably, we cannot and should not generalize anything. If I think about it now, I was actually unknowingly being racist when I was generalizing. What is racism? From a simple Google search, I see its definition being “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”.

During my later years, I once had a discussion with my professor and I told him about some racism related incidents that my foreigner friends had faced in Korea. For example, multiple times, when a friend of mine sat in a train, the person sitting next to him got up and changed seats. My professor was sorry but I was shocked when he told me that many Korean tourists faced racial incidents when they visited India as well. In fact, some days earlier, I saw a video where some students from Africa who are studying in India, had appealed to the mass recounting incidents of racism they faced in India. We are worried that in some countries abroad, there is racism. Racism against Indians. But, if I give myself the time and freedom to reflect, I realize that I might have been unintentionally racist all my life. In fact, we all have been. How often do we generalize characteristics (good or bad) about a race or people living in a region rather than looking at a person individually! We talk about Biharis, North-east people with Mongoloid (Asian) features, Bangals, Ghotis, Tamils etc. During my undergraduate, we used to talk about ‘Northis’ (Students from North) vs. ‘Southis’ (Students from South). Inside a state, we divide people according to which region they come from. Countless such examples! The greatest irony is even our perception of beauty is defined by skin color. In India, TV channels publicly broadcast commercial products which promise people that they will be ‘Fair & Lovely’. I would like to ask “Are only fair people beautiful”? Is the perception of beauty connected to what color your skin is?

Our innate human nature is to categorize things because this makes comprehension easier. But, we should be careful about this because we need to accept the existence of diversity. Yes, in some societies like in Korea, Japan, and China, due to their societal dynamics, it might be easier to generalize about what the do’s and don’ts in a young person’s behavior are and there will be fewer exceptions compared to some other societies like Western countries or even India. But, exceptions exist! Diversity is present! And, we should embrace this fact.

Due to my work, I have had to visit several countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. One thing which was common was that, inevitably before each visit, I had heard comments about the people in these countries. But, most of the times, my personal experiences have been different in that it is difficult to come to a general conclusion about how a race behaves. It is always about the person, and not a race in general. Before I visited Germany, I did hear that ‘Germans are rude’. My personal experience during my stay there was completely different. The people I interacted with were willing to hear me out even though I did not speak in German.

After my brief stint in Korea, I went to United States. It was a big difference in terms of societal dynamics. People there were much more individualistic and there were fewer occasions when any general taboo was associated with any domestic social issue. In my initial years, during a meeting with my advisor about my research direction, my professor asked me what I wanted to do. In Korea, I was always told what to do by my professor. Of course, we would brainstorm but it was never left completely on me. This feeling of independence was new. This was a welcome change. Given the fabric of the society in US, we know that it is a multicultural society and a country where people from different backgrounds have immigrated since a long time. Probably, this is the reason for the absence of any one defining metric. But, still there are myriads of examples of racial tensions due to skin color, ethnicity, religious background, gender, and origin. Some people also generalize things about third-world countries. So, as you can see, generalization exists in many forms; if not in traditional terms of religion, region, caste, race, or color, then in forms of development, language spoken etc.

Well, does this mean that individuality should be the norm? No, I would rather say that a balance is necessary. A culture is defined by its values. It gives us an identity as a group. And, values are something that everyone follows. So, it is generic. Also, cultural values do define the personality. But, even though we should be able to understand and perceive a culture by its values and respect its identity, we should never judge or have pre-conceived notions without being open-minded. Being free to think and act while staying within the wider boundaries of societal values might provide the right recipe for progress, understanding and acceptance. The notion of good and bad is something that needs to be cultivated in one’s self rather than blindly followed. Only then, the feelings will be just and true. Let us conclude with this thought by Ani DiFranco:

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”

Let me serve you a sandwich of Indian high-school and pre-engineering education …

Two days back, I was at a restaurant in Atlanta with three of my friends and somehow, we started reminiscing about our school and undergraduate days. All of us were from some ‘elite’ schools and colleges at different parts of the country but there was a melancholic resonance in all our upbringing. Lets take a step back and try to relive through those past moments.

It was the last day of high school and time for 10th state board exams. You were the ‘first’ boy/girl in class and people had huge expectations from you. You felt good. Why wouldn’t you, after all, you were the center of attraction. You were expected to slog for the next three months to be in top 10 in the state.

Next three months, you didn’t study even close to what you should have.  Because, there were few subjects in the entire curriculum which actually interested you. You truly felt happy when you solved a difficult problem in mathematics or science but somehow, you could not concentrate in other subjects. You were asked to be systematic and methodical in the exams. Instead, you liked solving challenging problems but you were haphazard. You were asked to improve your handwriting but it was too late. It was time for the exams. You felt confident for some of the exams and for others, you studied frantically to cram in everything few days before the exam.

Three months later, it was time for results. There was rumour all around that you got 4th place in the state. Everyone congratulated you beforehand. You went to the result’s office. You did great but you were not in top 10. Deep inside your heart, you agreed with the results. It rewarded discipline and hard work, which it should. But, instead of enjoying your results, you felt like you let everybody down. Your parents were very welcoming nevertheless and they tried to cheer you up but you could see and feel that others were disappointed. Your first taste of failure, not because you did bad but because the expectations were unmatched.

Things became normal again for the next two years. You were in HS. You were in science stream because you love science. Though for many students, they chose science because it has good job prospects. It was time for 12th (HS) state board exams. You did great in 11th. And, expectations were back. People expected you to be in top 10 again. And, you failed them again. Your neighbors and others were of course disappointed. However, this time what mattered more was the engineering entrance exam. Your teachers, other fellow students only waited for results for entrance exams for IITs and NITs. HS didn’t matter. In fact, you were not supposed to study for HS. You were only supposed to study for these entrance exams. So, you took admission in an HS School where attendance didn’t matter and you could ‘pass’ irrespective of what you did in the two years of HS. Your were told that your only focus should be entrance exam. And, when the results of the entrance exams came out, you saw a weird discrepancy.  Students who excelled in the 10th and 12th board exams were not in top positions for entrance exams and vice versa.

But, wait a second! Why did you choose engineering? Well, for most of the students, you hardly knew what engineering entailed but you chose it nonetheless because almost everybody from science, if they have an opportunity, either chooses engineering or medical fields in India. It was a safe choice after all, because you would get lucrative jobs after you graduate even if a big chunk of the jobs wouldn’t be related to what you initially studied. So, you slogged for something that you were not even sure what exactly it meant. But, you enjoyed the Physics, Math, and Chemistry problems. So, you didn’t complain.

Is this expected ? Is this a success of our education system or is this a failure? Many of my friends faced continuous pressure that a neighbor’s son cracked IIT and therefore, they had to crack it too. They had to get in the top coaching centers which were expensive (and required affluent parents), and in turn required extensive preparation. Where to start? and Where does it end? You are expected to give up on life for these two years or maybe more. And by the time you get in, most of the students need counselling. Recently, the director of a top engineering institution visited my university to attract students to come back to India as faculty. He mentioned that students who get in, are in bad shape most of the time, and they need counselling, and they have a class in their curriculum just to take care of these students. I sometimes wonder, is all this rat race to get in these institutions worth it ?

Well, maybe… Because it does open a lot of doors and options for you. Of course, you can excel anywhere and you do not need to be tied to an institution for it. But, a top institution helps. Somehow, branding has become the norm of society. And, you can’t blame. How is a recruiter / admissions committee member supposed to know how good you are at what you do? How are they going to judge the things that you have spent time on for years, in a matter of minutes or hours? The issue is not the institutional dependence but rather the social dynamics associated with it. The issue is the process.

How can the process be revised? Well, for one thing, couldn’t the state board and entrance exams be revised to have more things in common? And, the irony is other than the fundamentals, we hardly use anything that we spent so much time studying so hard, once we enter the institutions we want to. In many other countries, to enter into top institutions, your application process consists of your performance throughout the school, community service, and your profile in general. There is a clear connection which is missing in Indian education system. Yes, we definitely learned a lot during the process but if it had been included in our school curriculum (rather than in coaching center’s curriculum), we would not have to divide our priorities and it wouldn’t feel like the schooling was not as useful as we would like. Because, it can be and it is sad that we think otherwise.

Another matter is the appropriateness of the testing methodology. It is not clear to me as to what the entrance examiners / recruiters are looking for in a potential candidate to justify the format and structure of the exams. If it is just problem solving skills and analytical skills, then this is definitely not clear. The tendency to judge a person’s capability in different spheres of Indian academic system only through tests in narrow fields is overlooking the holistic review process that a student should go through. And, this is becoming an issue not just in India but in other countries as well, which is evident from this interesting video on Standardized Testing.

What are the societal dynamics? The continuous burden of expectations to get in somewhere, the preconceived notion that your career is over if you cannot make it to those top institutions, the relentless comparisons with other students in your batch and in your locality, the surprise with which they greet you when they find out that you have a job even though you did not go to a top institution, the ignorance of the fact that you missed your chance by 1 mark but what matters is that you did not get in / did not get the top 10 position. I wonder, is there only one path to success? Yes, 1 mark is a significant difference in such a level of competition but it is definitely not a difference when it comes to the capability of a person. Yes, a matured person should be able to withstand all this because it provides perspective. But, for a child or a young student, it is too much of a pressure to handle. As a society, we should be more considerate and keep our minds open. That is why, I appreciate this particular aspect of the society in some other countries where they are more open as to how a student can succeed in life. Your results and academic achievements are private. This is not a metric by which you are judged socially. You are not supposed to ask how you did in an exam. The irony is, now after passing all those stages, if I look at my peers, I see people with more varied interests achieving wonderful things and from whom I learn a lot everyday. But, a majority of the students who slogged relentlessly and groomed themselves to be interested in a very narrow area, are lost somewhere in the middle. One could argue, maybe the system does work and it naturally sifts through the group. But, I think otherwise. Yes, kudos to those who have survived this mad race. But, there were many talented individuals who got ‘lost’ because of this format and unrealistic expectations about the ‘right’ path and metrics of success. Maybe, it is time to reflect and take a step back to think one more time..