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.
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.
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 🙂