Sunday, November 4, 2012

gagweonsa conclusions

The past couple weeks have been weird for me. I mentioned awhile ago in a blog post that certain aspects of living an ungrounded, relatively migratory lifestyle can be emotionally taxing. I'm sure that eventually, I'll adapt to this whole thing where people have a limited, brief impact on each other's lives, but I'm not there yet. I get so invested in anyone who will let me, and then, when they're gone, I revert to this hermit-like, detached state (people are starting to become annoyed by my refusal to pick up the phone, answer text messages, or charge the darn thing). It's not pretty.

So that's how I've been for a few days. I took a trip this past weekend, on a whim. Just me. I really just wanted to get away, you know? I'm not sure what it is I want to escape... I just want to. It's kind of relaxing to separate yourself from your life for a bit, lose your identity, and run. So, I went to the train station, covered my eyes, and picked a random city, ending up in Cheonan, which is a city about halfway between Seoul and Daejeon. I thought up an alter ego, in case anyone asked my name. No one asked. I'm not sure if I'd prefer anonymity or a new identity altogether.

I did a bit of people watching, tried some street food I couldn't identify, and did that thing in which I sleep in a sauna with a bunch of random strangers, just because it's so cheap. I read a little bit of Anne of Green Gables (my ultimate escape-from-reality book), tried the most ridiculous face mask I could find, and in the morning, saw one of the most beautiful things I've seen yet in Korea (second only to the sunset on Docho Island).

각원사 (Gagweonsa) is supposedly one of the largest sitting Buddhas in Asia, constructed over a period of three years in attempt to reunify Korea. At 15 meters (about 50 feet), it is a massive human construct, though oddly in perfect harmony with the changing leaves of 태조산 (Taejo Mountain). I've read a bit about Buddhist philosophy, but I don't pretend to be a practicer or understand its implementation and the little idiosyncracies between the little sects. I honestly don't know if the observers of Buddhism that paid tribute to Gagweonsa believe the statue to be imbdued with holiness, or if they view it on a more symbolic level. For a couple of hours, I sat a fair distance away from the statue, and watched people bow to the statue, roll beads in their hand, light incense, and make laps around the feet of the statue. For some, it seemed like a ritual. For others, it was different.

Sitting in silence with only the natural beauty of the surroundings, my thoughts, and numerous cultural barriers, I came to a few conclusions. First, I came to a realization regarding people, and it's a bit harsh: from the moment we break free from the womb, every person in our lives is expendable. Not the roles that they fill, but the people who fill them. I mean, don't get me wrong, people are still precious little snowflakes, it's just that there are an awful lot of snowflakes in the blizzard that is humanity. Yes, people need various forms of attention, affection, and love, but it's purely luck that the people who are involved in our lives are the ones to fill those roles. Any attachment that we have to those people is not an attachment to the actual identity of that person, but to their contribution to our lives. And they are not the only people capable of making that contribution. Sure, it's convenient to keep them around--trust me, it's frustrating to constantly replace the cast of your life's theater. But honestly, we are not in love with people, we are in love with the roles they play and ideas of people that our perception has pieced together. I found this thought to be oddly comforting, and simultaneously painful--it made me feel a bit more strong, but for some reason, also more guilty.

My other conclusion: I am so petty. So, so ridiculously petty. The world is this huge weight, this incomprehensibly complex system containing so many overlooked majesties and so many ignored problems, and the discretion I use to choose what to appreciate or what to lament is purely based on proximity to my own affairs. The most relevant example: when a person's timeline progress diverges my own, I care only about how it affects me--how my life is changed by time and the world. A self-involved being, it's very difficult for me to put the emotions of others in front of my own.

The only explanation manifesting itself in my mind at the moment is my constant struggle with the idea of reality. I have no way of knowing that the world around me is an accurate representation of reality--that everything I know isn't just my own mind or a massive hallucination, or that I'm not actually a psychological patient in an asylum who fabricated people and events or a character in an RPG that my larger, more complex existance may be playing. There is absolutely know way of knowing what in this world is real, and ultimately, all I have is myself. Only recently did I come to terms with the fact that, while an interesting topic of speculation, dwelling on the real-ness of "reality" does not benefit me one bit, as I cannot change the way I perceive reality on the grand scale. I'm still accepting that it doesn't matter whether or not people are "real", because this "reality" is the only "reality" I will ever know under my current capacity of knowledge.

Which brings me to the corollary of my conclusion regarding the pettiness of my concerns: I need to be more concerned with the way every entity interacts, observe the amazing structure of the microcosmic world, and find ways to benefit the grand scheme. Although I am but one actor in this massive system, infinitely large and infinitely small, I cannot be so naive that the best way I can benefit myself or the world is to be concerned only with things that are obviously relevant to me and my interests. There is so much need in this world, and it's so easy to ignore it unless it clearly applies to me. And yet, while there is so much to worry over, there's also so much to admire. Too often am I overwhelmed by worry, that I miss exactly how extraordinary my life is. How extraordinary everything is. Every. Little. Thing.

When I stopped, in front of Gagweonsa, underneath colorful lanterns dangling with prayers, sounds of chanting and distant gongs enveloping me, I was confounded. And when I stop now, typing on an artifact of human ingenuity in a mechanical engineering building representing the progress of an old culture into the advancement and formation of an entirely new cultural identity, I am also blown away.

That's the thing--people need to just stop more. The world needs to stop more. But it doesn't. The world moves so fast, and it's remarkably hard to cope with the rate things flash by. There is so much to take in, so many missed opportunities, so many problems and there just isn't enough time.

The world is just too much.

Monday, October 29, 2012

kaeri field trip

As a field trip for Introduction to Thermal Nuclear Hydraulics, I recently visited the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI). Over the course of the visit, I was able to see some really awesome test reactors and research labs, primarily relevant to thermal hydraulics applications in reactor safety--an excellent aspect of nuclear technology to familiarize myself with, as this is the primary focus of my research lab at KAIST.

As the tour was given in Korean, one of my fellow peers translated for me. Consequently, there may be gaps, inaccuracies, or misconceptions in some of the information I am able to provide. Nonetheless, it was nice to see the implementation of the diagrams and equations we've been covering in the thermal hydraulics course, as well as in the literature I've recently read on critical heat flux and boiling processes.

ATLAS (Advanced Thermal-Hydraulic Test Loop for Accident Simulation)
image taken from KAERI website

One of the major highlights was the ATLAS (Advanced Thermal-Hydraulic Test Loop for Accident Simulation), which is essentially a scaled-down version of the APR1400 (an Advanced Pressurized Water Reactor developed in Korea), except without the fission process. The primary application of ATLAS is to evaluate the consequences of LBLOCA (large break loss of coolant accidents) and SBLOCA (small break loss of coolant accidents) through breaks and ruptures at various points in the system. In other words, ATLAS is used to find out what exactly would go wrong if the hydraulic system has a break or rupture. It was a really awesome experience to crawl around in the various lime green levels of ATLAS and see the various coolant loops, as well as gain perspective as to the actual size of an APWR.

FTHEL Facility
photo taken from KAERI Thermal Hydraulics Safety Division website

Another aspect of the tour that was particularly interesting to me was the Freon Thermal Hydraulic Experimental Loop (FTHEL), which is used to evaluate critical heat flux. This facility uses Freon (chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC) as opposed to light water. Because Freon is a nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable refrigerant, CHF conditions can be obtained at lower temperatures than with water.

In addition to the above facilities, I was also able to observe the operation in KAERI's equivalent to NASA's mission control. The tour also covered numerous other exhibits which my memory is having difficulty fully recounting, ranging from laser applications in CHF to research facilities I can't begin to describe.

Overall, it was an amazing visit, and I'm very fortunate as an American engineering student to be able to witness the developement of nuclear technologies in Korea firsthand. Korea is definitely gaining traction with its role in the field of nuclear technology, and it will be interesting to read the researched produced by KAERI and its real-world implementation over the coming years.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


the gang

It began with the seven of us, huddled in the rain at the campus taxi hub. The only other girl to RSVP had dropped at the last minute, on account of coursework, and so it was myself and six guys, representing Germany, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and good ole ‘Murica. And so, we got into the taxi, initiating the routine of myself telling the first taxi where to go, then getting into the second taxi with the remainder of the bunch, and having the exact same conversation in Korean as I have with every other taxi driver. It usually goes something like this:
Katherine: Take us to ------, please.
Taxi Driver: -------?
Katherine: Yes, ---------.
Taxi Driver: Ah, yes, ---------.
[30 seconds to a minute elapses]
Taxi Driver: You speak Korean well.
Katherine: Oh, thank you, I studied it for a year in the United States.
Taxi Driver: Oh, you're an American? Are they American as well? (pointing to back seat)
Katherine: No, they're from Norway/Germany/etc. We're exchange students at KAIST.
Taxi Driver: Ahhhh, exchange students.
Katherine: Yes, and we're going to ----------.
Taxi Driver: Yes, ----------. It's very pretty.
Katherine: Oh, really? That's good.
[conversation proceeds with discussion of the weather and surroundings, or silence]
 However, this taxi ride to Seodaejeon Train Station occurred during rainy rush hour trafic on a Friday evening, and consequently took about four times as much time than it would take normally. Needless to say, it resulted in the taxi driver cussing at traffic, swatting things with a newspaper, and taking really sketchy and poorly paved side roads in order to get to our destination.

When we finally reached the station, we purchased our tickets for the cheapest train to Mokpo, and the guys ordered the most revolting burgers I have ever seen, as I watched in disgust and sipped my lemonade, passing time until we had to board our train.

waiting at the platform. my posture is sucky.

If you weren't aware, Korea has an excellent public transportation system. Trains and buses enable the populus to travel in style to anywhere they desire. Our train to Mokpo, a southwestern port town, was equipped with noraebang (karaoke), video game systems, a fully-stocked concession cart, and likely other things I neglected to investigate.

Prior to leaving for the trip, I had heard of brilliant lit archways that decorated Mokpo. Upon arrival, I was rather disappointed--as it was fairly late in the evening, the Mokpo that greeted us as we exited the train station was a desolate ghost town, void of any traces of life, stores closed, and brilliant lights of legend shut off. In fact, the only activity we found in the city was two blocks of night life, somewhat near the jjimjilbang (Korean spa) where we slept for the night, also in proximity of the location at which I left my camera in a taxi cab, lost forever to the clutches of South Korea.

I'll cover the jjimjilbang and its glory later this week, but I should note that the guys were not fully aware of what exactly a jjimjilbang is when I said that we were going to stay there overnight. For 8,000 won (<$7.50 USD), we were given a set of uniform clothing (to be used only in co-ed areas), and allowed overnight access to saunas, hot springs, showers, and a hard wood floor on which to sleep. I'm a big fan of being naked, and am not opposed to sleeping on the floor, but I can't say that the guys were as excited about the prospects as I was. My only lament: that I didn't have an alarm clock, and was forced to constantly check the clock throughout the night in paranoia, so as not to wake up later than 6:30am for the next day's activities.

The following morning, our first task was to acquire ferry tickets to an unchosen island. Initially, we had intended to go to Jindo, an island with a reputation for its breed of dogs. However, the internet lied to me, and I was deceived into thinking it was accessible by fairy ferry, when in fact it is only accessible via a man-made bridge (or by the "Moses Miracle", at which the tide recedes and creates a land bridge during late spring). But, the spontaneous youths that we are, we decided to board the first ferry off the mainland and found ourselves taking a high-speed boat with a cabin resembling that of an airplane to Docho island.

couldn't resist including this--such a wonderful picture. little girl looking out the window at the ferry terminal.

really super fancy ferry

Docho Island (도초도) is connected by a man-made bridge to the larger Bigeum Island (비금도), comprising two of the one-thousand-and-four known islands in the Shinan (시난) island group, also referred to as the Angel Islands, as the word for "one-thousand-and-four" and "angel" (천사) are the same. Together, the two islands have three recreational beaches, a national park, numerous mountains, a good number of jangseung (장승) and a thriving salt industry.

We were very fortunate in that the first person we encountered on the islands was an English-speaker and curator of island history and folk art at the Shinan Cultural Center, Secretary General Kim Gyung Wan. He flagged down a mini-van taxi, and gave the taxi driver an itinerary of a tour of the two islands. And so, the seven of us crammed into the van for the strangest, most wonderful taxi ride of my life.

just using my communication skills. saw a noticeable improvement in my language skills after this trip.

The taxi driver first wrote down a paragraph of text that I presumed to be the itinerary in poor handwriting (which I spent the day unsuccessfully attempting to translate) on an oxford notebook I thought to bring, and then took us on a tour of Bigeum island. Bigeum has two beaches, the first of which is referred to as "Heart Beach", because of it's shape. The entire time we were in its proximity, the taxi driver kept raising his eyebrows and motioning for me to kiss any of the six guys sitting in the middle and back seats, a proposition I politely declined (this wasn't the first, nor was it the last time a taxi driver attempted to matchmake me).

heart beach, picture taken by the taxi driver

On the second beach of Bigeum island, the driver fearlessy floored the pedal down the length of the beach, less than eight feet from the water. The feeling was surreal. We were a little confused, as he started to do donuts in the sand, only to stop the van, and get out. Pressing our faces to the window, we watched as the taxi driver bent over, and picked up a two-foot-long dead fish that had been washed ashore, and attempted to shove it into a closed umbrella. One of the guys in our group caught on to what the taxi driver was trying to achieve, and handed him the plastic bag he was using to protect his camera bag from the weather, and the taxi driver dropped the fish into it, the tail still exposed. And then, he put the fish next to me. The taxi driver picked up a dead fish off the beach, and sat it next to me. In the taxi. That, itself, is extremely strange, however, the feeling of "what the **** is going on?" (I get that feeling a lot here) was heightened by the fact that I have an irrational fear of fish. And a fish rode in the taxi next to me, all the way back to Docho, where we were dropped off for lunch, as the taxi driver left us to presumably sell or prepare the fish.

couldn't make this up if I tried

We ate a very traditional family-style Korean lunch at a small in-home restaurant on Docho, called Jinmi Shikdang (진미식당). It was the best meal I had in Korea up until that point--the rice had a slight lavender tint, the kimchi absolutely blew the kimchi of the cafeteria away, and the various side dishes were amazingly delicious.

all sorts of delicious

After leaving us to our lunch, and taking care of the fish, our faithful taxi driver returned to us for a tour of Docho island, whose attractions primarily consist of jangseung. Jangseung are shamanistic statues, usually made of either wood or stone, intended to protect a village from spiritual intruders. Think: the Korean equivalent to gargoyles. Or spiritual scarecrows. They typically have humorously "frightening" expressions, and protuding teeth. Very fun to imitate.

At the second jangseung on the island, the taxi driver had us get out to take pictures, and then he left us. The jangseung was in the middle of the field, which was next to a rural road, with little actual civilization in visible sight. And so, we occupied our time by taking pictures, infringing on the jangseung's personal space, and wondering if the taxi driver was actually going to come back (spoiler: he did).

wooden jangseung and alternative energy

stone jangseung

Another Jangseung later, our driver took us to the national park on the southern coast of Docho, where he directed us to a beachside pension, at which the seven of us stayed the night for about $91 USD. Pensions are a little hard to describe--they're sort of like time shares. Ours had two rooms, a kitchen, a television, adequate bedding, porno lighting, and no furniture whatsoever. Once again, I have no opposition to crashing on wooden floors.

Once we dropped off our things and freshened up a bit, we immediately made for the beach. The water was a bit on the colder side, but it wasn't too bad--we didn't stay in for very long. The sand was much more interesting--it was so fine and densely-packed that if you lay on the ground with your ear on the sand, you could hear the footsteps of someone twenty feet away, or the finger taps of someone ten feet away--we had a bit of fun with that one. After a short time of being on the beach, the seven of us found ourselves passed out on the sand, asleep for hours. This was an excellent idea at the time, however, as pale as I am, several weeks later, I'm still marked with the repercussions of my poor decision-making.

a beautiful place to crash

After we had finally regained consciousness, we individually attempted to wash off the sand in the sad excuse for a shower in the pension, and then headed down the road to a small outdoor seafood restaurant. As we walked toward our dinner, we looked out to the sea, and noticed the tide had drastically receded--so much that boats which were previously anchored in water were now completely dry. We had an excellent dinner, during which I forced myself to swallow fish, and was immensely thankful for an ample amount of non-seafood kimchi. Over the course of the dinner, a drunk old man I presume to be the owner continuously sexually harassed me and made suggestive remarks toward me, marking the first time I was not thankful in this country that I have a moderate knowledge of the Korean language. But, this is what happens when you're the only girl travelling with a group of guys--you get singled out a bit.

Frustrated that he couldn't completely convey his drunken remarks to us, as a result of the language barrier, the old man went next door to fetch an elderly innkeeper who had taught English in Egypt and Argentina, and now occupied his time as a farmer and an active biker. We scheduled an appointment to hike the surrounding mountains with our new English-speaking friend, and then watched the sun set on the beach, lighting the coast with a neon glow. I have seen very few things in my life more beautiful than that sunset--no picture does it justice. It was the kind of beauty where everything just stops, and nothing else matters. A good way to end the night.

my torment

stunning picture, but nowhere near the majesty of seing it live

And end the night, it did. By 8:30pm, five of the guys were asleep (even sleeping through my mocking their old lady sleeping habits), and the other pair of us ended up crashing a little after 11:00pm, after an hour or two of introspective chatting.

The next morning, we took a hike up the mountains that surrounded the beach, with the former English teacher. I should note that while it was very beautiful, we don't really have mountains in Houston, so I was slightly wiped out by the end of it. I'm a little bit of a wimp when it comes to the outdoors. I'm getting better, though.

we don't have this in houston

me after the hike--not staged at all

The taxi driver greeted us slightly after 7:30am, and took us to the island port, where we bought a conveniences store breakfast and our tickets, and boarded a slightly more sketchy ferry than the one we took to the island. Instead of chairs or benches, the ferry had two empty rooms, resembling a yoga studio, where in normal Korean style, we were obligated to remove our shoes. I have no complaints as to the seating situation of the ferry, as (once again), I do not mind sleeping on the floor. Actually, I don't remember too much about that ferry ride, as I spent most of it unconscious from the excitement of the weekend.

that's me, curled up near the upper right corner

And so, after we arrived back in Mokpo, we boarded the KTX train to Daejeon, equipped with stories, sunburns, and stronger friendships.

(Yes, I know that was a super cheesy conclusion... I couldn't come up with anything better.)

***Major photocreds to Tormod Haugene and David Kalwar***

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

To my fifteen-year-old self.

Hey, Katie.

It's so strange that people call you that, you fifteen-year-old, you. Most people don't any more. Prior to graduating from high school, you are going to decide that it would be symbolic and stuff to transition to a more mature name, recognizing your more mature identity. Maturity takes awhile. And over the next couple of years, it's going to be thrust upon you so hard, sometimes you won't know how to cope.

These last two years of high school won't be easy, but you've gotten this far. You are going to hate yourself for being incapable of believing what the people around you believe. You are going to feel so much shame for your identity, and the people that are supposed to support you won't always be there. In fact, most of the time, those people are going to be the catalyst for your internal hatred and shame. But it's important not to blame them. You and I both know they're just looking out for you, in a weird, twisted way.

Over the next three years, you are going to make incredibly close friends. These people are going to carry you through the hardest times of your life. And then, you're going to lose them. And that loss will be partially your fault. Those people will be invaluable resources to you, and you will love them so incredibly much, but you can move past them. You're stronger than you think you are right now.

Your capacity to make rational decisions is incredible--sometimes, the choices you will make astound even me. But making the most rational decision isn't always easy. You will alienate people. You won't have of the chaos and emotion and horrible mistakes that make life so beautiful. But ultimately, it's up to you to decide if that decision is worth it.

And I'm not saying you won't make mistakes. Because you totally will. You are going to hurt people--people you vowed to yourself that you would never hurt. And you are going to do things that you won't be able to take back, as much as you want to. And these are just some things that you're going to have to deal with, but once again, you're pretty damn strong.

It's pretty incredible, actually. How strong, and independent, and hard-working you're going to be. After you deal with all the crap that surrounds being an agnostic in a small town, you'll go to college. And the first semester is going to be awesome. But then, what will seem like the weight of the world is going to be thrust upon you. Don't worry, though. You can carry it. I mean, don't get me wrong, there will be people along the way to spot you, but you end up pulling through.

You cannot even fathom how awesome the person you will become in three years time is. Frequently, I think about you, my former self, and I wish that I could go back, and give you a good look at the person you will grow to become. It would blow you away. And I know you're pretty adorable now, but if I do say so myself, you are going to be so stunning. You're going to realize that there is nothing wrong with who you are, and that there's no point in hiding yourself.

I know you realize you live in an incredibly sheltered bubble, but your impression is nowhere near the magnitude of reality. You have not been told many things, and it's up to you to discover them yourself. Staying ignorant to the world is definitely easier, but you should never try to deprive yourself knowledge. Try to educate yourself as much as possible in every aspect of the world. Keep an open mind to new ideas. Be as loving and accepting as possible to anyone who needs your love and acceptance--there are more people out there than you'd think.

Hang in there, champ.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

the south korea diet

The difference between day #3 and day #10 of living in Korea--the top row would be from a week ago, and the bottom row, from today. Click to enlarge, if you simply must have a closer look.
Koreans are notorious for their concern for aesthetics and beauty. And in many respects, the stereotype holds true. Department stores allocate what seems to me, a girl who can't live with out her artificial face, too much area toward the cosmetic industry. Clothing stores sell only one size, not because the clothing is versatile, but they expect everyone to conform to the same body shape and ideals of what "beautiful" means. Always yearning to stay busy, fitness is glamourized, as far fewer Koreans lead sedentary lifestyles than their American counterparts. Out of fear of becoming "Korean black", countless people walk around with umbrellas in broad daylight so as to avoid getting a tan (ironically, I have yet to acquire sunblock here). Korea sets a high standard for their people, and many are able to meet that standard.

Stair-climbing machines in a park on campus
Although Korean society does at times ostracize those who don't conform to the template, fitness and health is a much more accessible concept here than anywhere else I've been. Although there are "junk food" options in convenience stores, the average cafeteria meal, always consisting of rice, kimchi, and some form of protein, is much more healthy than the pizza at North Avenue Dining Hall at Georgia Tech. And while the primary gym is expensive and has a lottery to determine eligibility of membership, nearly every park is adorned with fitness equipment, and nearly every residence hall has a gym with all of the machines you need to fine tune every aspect about you.

Some equipment in the main gym, which permits
 entrance based on a lottery system
As someone who wanted to form healthier habits, and become a better form of the person I am (or am leaving behind), Korea is an excellent place to establish a new lifestyle. I'm on track to get back into running 5Ks by the end of October, and hopefully from there, 10Ks by the end of the semester. Side note: people from outside of America get really confused when I refer to a five kilometer race as a "5K". This week, I'm cranking up the bodyweight fitness and ab work, hopefully undoing any damage freshman year at Georgia Tech may have done to my body. And even though I didn't expect to see visible progress after only a week of being here, I definitely have. But I guess that's what happens when you walk everywhere, eat only Korean food, dance like a maniac, and actually start putting conscious effort into your fitness.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

the educational aspect

A few of my textbooks, and a couple handy Korean language tools.

Korea is a lovely country, and cultural immersion is an invaluable experience. But first and foremost, I am a student, and I am here to study. Luckily, my experience with professors here is evidence of them being much more approachable and informal than professors in the United States, or at least at Georgia Tech. For instance, on one of the first days in the country, I was hanging out in a park near the international building with a few other students, and we were approached by two professors of Biotechnology, who proceeded to buy us coffee, and give us their contact information for future reference. As much as I love my professors from home, I have never experienced or heard of anything close to that amount of hospitality on behalf of a professor in the United States.

This semester, I'm registered for 18 hours, 15 of which count for credit at Georgia Tech. I don't think it will be too bad, though--the courses seem fun (at least for me, they do), I don't have a lab, and none of the courses as of yet seem to require anything near the time commitment that Georgia Tech's CS 1371 (an introduction to computer science for engineering majors that primarily taught MATLAB) required.

Without further ado, the courses I attended today:


In my first class at KAIST, it was simultaneously shocking and completely expected that I was not only the only foreigner, but also the only female in the class. Consequently, the professor felt the need to single me out and ask me details about America and challenge me to cite statistics about the average American vocabulary or GDP per capita. I mean, I like attention and getting to know my professors, but not when I feel like I'm annoying the rest of the class solely because of my nationality. On the plus side, there's a kid with blue and white hair in the class, so I don't feel nearly as outlandish.

The professor is pretty great--he studied, taught, and worked for awhile in the United States, so he's an affiliate of American Nuclear Society, and makes frequent trips to Atlanta, California, etc. His teaching style is exciting, and big on the conversation, which is definitely a positive thing, as far as staying awake is concerned. The actually class is an introduction to fluid mechanics and thermodynamics with nuclear applications. Because at Georgia Tech, thermodynamics is typically taken concurrently or prior to fluid mechanics, and at KAIST, only fluid dynamics is offered this semester, I thought it was in my interest to take this course, even though it technically does not transfer to Georgia Tech. Also, I'm pretty interested in researching with the professor of the course, so it would be awkward to try to weasel my way out of the class. And, he managed to incorporate full-slide picture of Harrison Ford into a presentation on nuclear energy, so the class promises to be exciting.


I'm definitely going to have to go out and buy something to keep myself awake for this class. The professor is understandable and considerate, but the class doesn't feel like it's tailored to the individual student. Of the classes I've been in thus far, it feels the most like a Physics or Calculus lecture at Georgia Tech--a big, impersonal class.


This course is equivalent to Mechanics of Deformable Bodies at Georgia Tech. At KAIST, they expect you to have a background in fluids (which I'm taking concurrently), and to have taken a prerequisite akin to Statics. Although, my Statics professor at Georgia Tech didn't do the greatest job of preparing me comprehensively, so I'll have to review a bit harder than the other students in my class in order to be completely secure in the material.


Based on the material, this was the next logical course after Georgia Tech's KOR 1001 and 1002. And, as with any language course I take right after a break, I understood about 70% of what the professor said. Interpret that as you may, good or bad. I definitely think I'll have to put quite a bit of effort into this, but it will be more than worth it, considering this class has the most immediate effect on my life, what with the living in South Korea and stuff.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

a taste of night life

I should preface this by saying that I don't really drink. During the school year, I didn't go out a whole lot, as I was working weekend nights at a bowling alley on Georgia Tech campus, and had much more important concerns (i.e. maintaining my GPA) than partying. But, boy, do I love to dance.

the area near Galleria Time World, that looks absolutely stunning at night
And dance I did. Along with a bunch of international students, I went to a "western bar"/club in downtown Daejeon called Sponge. For those curious, the drinking age in South Korea is twenty, but not in the Western sense of age conventions. To calculate your Korean age, add a year to the age you are or will be turning during the year. For instance, I am eighteen years old outside of Korea, but will be turning nineteen in November (yes, I'm young... moving on). That means I am twenty in Korea, and can legally buy or consume alcohol, should I wish to do so.

Anyway, Sponge. We arrived by ushering slightly less than fifty international students onto two Daejeon city buses, exiting at the stop near Galleria Time World, a massive department store akin to Macy's in New York City. When we entered to the sounds of Caravan Palace just before 9:00pm, there weren't too many other people inside, allowing our lot to occupy the billiards tables, and snag a few booths. But as the night went on, the bar populated, seeming much less like a bar, and more like a club. Now, I don't have much experience with clubs elsewhere in the world, but from what I heard from the other internationals, South Korea blows them out of the water. With the progression of the hours, the music shifted from quirky electroswing to a smattering of American tunes from the early 2000s, rap, and Korean Pop. And believe me, you do not understand the wonder that is Gangnam Style until you have danced it with a room of drunk Koreans. Not that I was keeping count, but I'm pretty sure I danced with someone from every continent, and about fifty percent of the countries in the EU.

And while the music at times felt like it belonged at a junior high dance in 2005, many aspects of Sponge were nonetheless iawesome. Around 2:00am, the bartenders staged a "cocktail performance", beginning with acrobatics with bottles, and progressing to fire breathing. It was, needless to say, impressive. Although, there are very few moments when South Korea is not absolutely awe-inspiring.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

cultural differences

This week, I've been running around with the international students before classes start. At KAIST, there are a large number of international students from France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. Ergo, many of my conversations over the past couple of days have consisted of comparing America to various European countries--and honestly, it's been really enlightening as to many unnoticed American habits. For instance, a common trend in many cultural discrepancies is the American resistance to change--the most illustrative and noticeable example being the metric system usage (or lack thereof). A fundamental value of America is the idea of "freedom", and often, we perceive change as infringing on our freedoms--and thus, we are left with many outdated and misaligned conventions.

Many of the Europeans have expressed confusion or dissatisfaction with the fact that America is a single country. And we do walk a precarious balance between states rights and federal rights--a balance that would be very difficult to implement anywhere else in the world. And so is the case with many cultural idiosyncrasies--what policies are effective for America will be different from what policies will be effective for Norway, or China, or Germany, or France.

As a student of nuclear engineering, I am a proponent of nuclear energy and its benefits. I understand that each decision has a cost, but I am of the opinion that the opportunity cost is in favor of nuclear energy. However, defending my field of study to students who were raised in a society that is not supportive of nuclear energy has been trying. At times, I become frustrated, wondering why people can't understand something that seems so obvious to me. Empathy is a topic I have yet to completely master.

I try to stay informed on global news, as well as the news of my own country, but conversations with students from other countries revealed just how differently news is relayed to Americans than to other countries. Only two days ago, I heard for the first time about the 2011 Norway attacks--a lone wolf terrorist ploy agains the Norwegian government. It was expressed to me that my not knowing about the massacre in Norway is akin to someone from France or Germany not hearing about 9/11. Because we are such a large country, composed of many states with varying cultures, it is an unfortunate consequence that the news that is broadcasted is largely unconcerned with foreign issues.

For many people, drinking alcohol is an integral part of forming bonds and connecting socially. However, because of a number of reasons, namely my upbringing, this is not the case for me. I have found this to be difficult--as I can occaisionally feel alienated when I don't understand references to drinking culture, or opt not to drink beer. This is especially apparent among international students primarily from Germany, France, Italy, and Scandinavian countries, particularly in a country such as South Korea in which alcohol is so relatively cheap, and drinking is so ingrained in the local culture.

On the other side of alienation, one of the best parts about a massive integration of cultures is the consequential sense of uniqueness. As one of the only Americans, surrounded by Europeans, and East Asians, and Middle Easterners, I feel much less ordinary. When interacting with people who have fewer similarities, one gains a more defined sense of identity--and that's a great feeling.

It's always funny to find references to our respective countries in South Korea.

*jumping photo intended to symbolize cultural immersion or something*

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

first day

Last snapshot of life before Korea


Flying Asiana Airlines was a really awesome experience, as far as being cramped in a metal box with a bunch of strangers goes. The flight attendants were abnormally pretty, the services were very accomadating, and the technology was entertaining. And, it's about what I imagined the Polar Express to be like, except with more kimchi, and few moral lessons. By the way, I can confirm that Japan is an actual place, as opposed to a fictitious land manifested by Gwen Stefani and animation studios. No news on if Godzilla is real or not.

After arriving at the Incheon airport, I had to go through customs, and then a sorceress turned my dollars into assorted values of Korean won. Alchemy, I know. I claimed my Tommy Hilfiger baggage(which, as I intended, screams "AMERICA!"), and purchased a bus ticket for the three and a half hour ride to Daejeon. Based on my very limited experience, South Korea has some killer public transportation, what with the big comfy chairs. They have comfy chairs!


I'm not sure what I expected South Korea to look like, but I know my previous notion of it doesn't align with how it actually is. The best way I can describe the South Korean landscape is by comparing it to a teenager who just experienced a massive growth spurt, so all of his clothes are too tight and too short, and he has stretch marks in the areas that experienced the most growth. The mountains of South Korea are stunning, but they're dotted with high-rise apartment complexes, standing alone with little nearby. It's as if skyscrapers massive infrastructue just sprouted upwards, leaving no time for suburban communities to form aroud them, as they do in the United States. Nearly every spot not occupied by building, road, or mountain, is claimed by construction. Needless to say, they don't show this aspect of Korea in K-Dramas.


The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology is stunning. No pictures on the internet do it justice. There is a minimal amount of trash, a decent amount of recycling bins, and a plethora of ducks. All buildings are labeled according to geographic location, which makes things pretty intuitive. The cafeteria serves decently healthy food, and for a pretty cheap price--a bowl of (freaking amazing) ramen costs less than $2. Also, the cats are really cute.

A sample of the cafeteria food


One thing I've noticed about Korea is that the socioeconomic aspects tend to be extreme versions of those in the States. You can get a soda from the vending machine for 500 won (less than 50 cents), but a cup of coffee equivalent to a tall costs around $6. Koreans walk the line between tacky and classy very well. Yet-to-be-identified street food is sold in front of a cutting edge technology store. At the entrance of Galleria, a Macy's-like department store in Daejeon, we find very high-end boutique cosmetics, right next to a vendor selling knock-off sunglasses and visors. Immediately outside, yet-to-be-identified street food is sold in front of a cutting edge technology store. South Korean department stores place a much larger emphasis on the "department" aspect than those in America. I visited Homeplus (similar in merchandise to a Wal-mart) to pick up some things for my dorm room, and found a several-story building, selling freshly made waffles and candies on one floor, groceries and plants on the next, and houseware accompanied by a nail salon on the floor above it. Each floor was separated by an incredibly steep moving walkway, and the carts were built so that the wheels locked immediately upon entry of the walkway. At the check-out, they don't actually give out grocery bags, instead expecting the customer to bring their own. For a nominal fee, you can buy a few paper bags, but the whole plastic bag thing? Unheard of. Imagine me, a confused American trying to figure out how to get a crapload of bedding from a department store downtown to my dormitory, without bags. Luckily, I stumbled on my first American since leaving the airport, who was a tremendous help to me. She, as a 4-year resident of South Korea, was a little more familiar with the trends and customs. As she assisted me, she reminded me that life here is difficult at first--it will take some time to get acclimated.

Monday, August 20, 2012

FAQ, as of today

One consequence of being a student is that you cross paths with a lot of people for very brief increments of time. So each person has some faint idea of who you are and what you're doing with your life, but few really know. For this reason, I've created a list of frequently asked questions. May edit as information changes.

Q: Where are you from, originally?
A: A cute little suburb outside of Houston, Texas. For certain values of "cute". The locals can be pretty homogenous.

Q: Where do you go to school?
A: I am a rising second year undergraduate student at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, Georgia. However, for the next academic year (2012-2013), I'll be studying abroad with an exchange program at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Daejeon, South Korea. Here's a picture:

Q: What do you study?
A: I'm pursuing a B.S. in Nuclear and Radiological Engineering, with a minor in Korean.

Q: Phew. How did you decide on that combination?
A: I find quantum theory to be rather beautiful--how the world is composed of things we can never fully observe and know. Likewise, there's a lot of poetry in the power and potential that man can unleash within the bonds of an atom, and I want to see mankind do the great (non-destructive) things with that power. As far as studying Korean goes, I really wanted a global aspect to my education, and South Korea is planning to almost double its nuclear power generation by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Association, so it seemed like a good location to study in my field. In addition, there are many nuclear-relevant issues surrounding North Korea, and perhaps it's my Western bias, but I feel very strongly about the human rights situation in the DPRK.

Q: And what do you plan on doing with that?
A: I'll take what I can get, I guess. I tend to flip-flop between nuclear energy and nuclear forensics. Working for the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) would probably be my dream gig.

Q: So, South Korea. A whole year, huh? What made you decide to go there?
A: A global education is something I really desired out of college. With my major, I don't have too many options as far as studying abroad goes, and South Korea seemed like the best one. Also, being a legal resident of Texas, I'm an out-of-state student at Georgia Tech. And Georgia Tech has a policy that out-of-state students who study abroad pay in-state tuition, so it's a lot cheaper for me to study abroad. Thus, I'm trying to maximize the time I spend not paying full tuition. Also, cultural immersion, and all that jazz.

Q: Where will you be living while you're over there?
A: In dorm-style housing with a (presumably) Korean roommate.

Q: Do you actually speak Korean?
A: 저는 조금 한국 말해요. I speak it better than I understand it, and read it better than anything. I can get by in an airport, market, or a school. And I can hit on people. You know, basic survival skills.

Q: Political views?
A: Depends on the issue. Big fan of universal education, women's rights, and marriage equality. Still sorting out my feelings fiscally, and regarding healthcare and foreign policy. I change my mind a lot, and understand that what works for one country may or may not work for another.

Q: Religious views?
A: As far as my view on religion, I think a lot of good comes out of it. It's a lot easier for people to ascribe to a pre-defined moral code, than to analyze everything for themselves. It often brings hope, community, and instills a sense of purpose. However, a lot of bad comes from it, as well--war, alienation of outsiders. That said, it is arguably the best societal manipulator, whether for good or for bad. Regarding my personal theological understanding, I'm a theological nocognitivist. I don't feel like explaining, so I'll just link to a wikipedia article--for lack of a more succint description, I'm agnostic. However, I try not to broadcast this too much, as my family is very strongly Protestant Christian, and I try to be respectful as possible of the beliefs of others, particularly those of my parents (I personally find the broadcasting of my own beliefs to be detrimental to the beliefs of others, as I do not feel that the knowledge that led to my belief system has benefitted me socially or psychologically, and I do not wish to spread that information to those who are less confident in the derivation of their belief system). The only time I would take issue with a belief system is if it resulted in the subjugation of other human beings, as that is in misalignment with my personal moral code. Jeez, I wrote more on that subject than I intended.

Q: What kind of music do you like to listen to?
A: Oh, gosh, I can't even put a finger on specific genres, so I'll just list a few artists. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Belle and Sebastian, Moneybrother, Sex Pistols, Marty Robbins, First Aid Kit, Frank Turner, Josh Ritter, Sinead O'Connor, Roisin Murphy, Dengue Fever, Grandaddy, Fats Domino, Simon and Garfunkel, Eliza Dolittle, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paolo Nutini, Joanna Newsom.

Q: Favorite book?
A: My favorite grown-up book would probably be The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But as a kid, I loved Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz series. Also, Anne of Green Gables, because redheads.

Q: Favorite movie?
A: I'd have to go with Forrest Gump. Also a big fan of The Princess Bride, Memoirs of a Geisha, and anything Mel Brooks. Generally do not like sequels or series. Especially Star Wars. Don't really like Star Wars. *cringes from inevitable criticism of taste*

Q: And as far as television shows go?
A: Lately, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Also a big fan of Doctor Who from Eccleston forth, Star Trek (original series, plz), and Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Q: Any wicked talents?
A: I wish. I'm a fairly decent pianist, and crazy skilled at MS Paint. Also, apparently I'm pretty speedy at counting change. You know, speedy change-counting would be a horrible super power.

Q: Seeing anyone?
A: Heh. No, and I'm not really looking to. Just got out of a pretty awesome, if brief, relationship. Long distance puts a damper on things, and I'm more of the lone ranger type.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


Industrialized nations are so fixated on a structure of living that includes a "home"--and not of the gushy home-is-where-your-heart-is sort, but of the physical, immobile, permanant residency. Agricultural luck and fluid trade patterns have permitted our societies to become stationary, and develop academia, traditions, and  a vast array of technology. Societies at rest tend to stay at rest, and momentum is conserved.

It is in our flourishing societies that the nomad is alienated. The homeless are outcasts, regardless of how they  resulted in their situation. A traveler's lifestyle is considered unsustainable, even reckless. It is too common for people to not only be fluent in a single language, but also understand and empathize with a single mindset.

In a society such as the above, I have found myself without a "home".

Sure, I have places I'm "staying". For the past year, in student housing at Georgia Tech. For the next week or so, at my parent's home in Texas. After that, South Korea for awhile. I'll probably hit up Thailand, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, Japan, and/or Vietnam. And then, who knows where I'll be. I'm at that stage in my life in which I'm constantly barely sure about what I'll be doing in a month.

Frequently, I've found myself feeling empty, as I have no concept of where or what "home" is. And honestly, I think I'm lusting for something that even nomadic cultures had--a group identity. I am alone, yet surrounded by people. Out of a fear of being caged, I have lost any sense of belonging. Disagreement has rendered me into solitude, or independence, contingent on your perspective.

So I'll wander, and I'll search for my own identity, and I'll learn. Perhaps I'll return to or stumble apon a someone or a group of people with whom I find home. Or maybe I won't. Independence isn't so bad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Anecdotes from the Owner of a Closeted Identity

Kids freak me out a little bit. I enjoy admiring them from a distance, especially if they have chubby cheeks (the correlation between the amount of intensity with which I stare at a child and the chubbiness of their cheeks is exponential), yet I'm afraid to be around them, out of fear that I may adversely affect their system of values and identity. The thing about children is that they are initially pure bursts of self-defined identity, practically unadulterated by culture, upbringing, dogma, media, or any of that fun stuff that makes us who we are. As children, we are highly malleable and easily manipulated, but we are the rawest versions of ourselves. As we grow older, we become more ingrained in the many variables that shape our being, until we are shoved out into the "real world" to expose ourselves to the things from which we desire exposure and reshape our identity, often resulting in a return to something resembling our natural being.

However, those old influences--the ones that surrounded us as we gradually shifted from innocently smashing over Lego towers to cramming for our SATs--they don't change like we do. After we go through that stereotypical collegiate identity crisis (or perhaps a rebellion from cultural values in our earlier youth), we return to our old stomping grounds and find that nothing has changed. Before, we conformed to social norms and the values by which we were raised, or at least we feigned the appearance of it alarmingly well. Perhaps we conformed to preserve some silly social reputation, or perhaps we conformed out of fear for our own safety. When we face our upbringing as changed men, women, or whatever combination we call ourselves, we may face it in opposition. And that's pretty brutal. 

I suppose at this point, I'll stop speak in vague pronouns and discuss myself in particular. I change an awful lot. The person I am today is not the same person I was a year ago, and the person I was a year ago is not the same person I was the year prior to that. And that is perfectly okay. 

My high school English teacher referred me to a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson which defines much of my philosophy--or at least, the meta-aspect of how my philosophy is influenced: 

"With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood." (Self-Reliance)

The day I read Self-Reliance was the day I realized that it is not a bad thing to live a "flighty" lifestyle and to let myself be influenced by my shifting surroundings. Who I am today is just as awesome as who I was four years ago, albeit completely different women. 

However, the cultural upbringing from which I fled? It doesn't agree. To the influences of my childhood, I am a "lost sheep", a "prodigal son". I am "going through a phase". To the influences of my childhood, I am forced to hide every realization I've had over the last year--about religion, about sexuality, about morality, and about how I feel about myself. I do not want to be a part of a society that shames individuals for their identity, particularly when there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way individuals identify themselves. Here's the thing about identity: it belongs to the individual. It aligns with the moral code of the individual. And by the inherent nature of moral codes, there is nothing wrong with having a different moral code than the norm or any other individual. Because, guess what? Moral codes are defined by the individual. Sure, the individual can choose to adopt a common moral code, but that does not decrease the ownership by the individual of the system of values that person has chosen to adopt. As long as moral codes rest on differing premises (as practically all of them do), any discrepancy between them cannot be necessarily faulted--only in corrupt logic is it possible for a system of values to be corrupt. But it is up to the owner of that system of values to identify the flawed logic in the system and amend (or not amend) the moral code accordingly. Additionally, there is a difference between an opposing moral code and a lack of a moral code--the latter of which is virtually impossible to any sentient being. 

In about three weeks, I'm heading back to my home town. Consequently, I'm ironing my habitual cussing out of my vocabulary (although cuss words are largely arbitrarily founded and their omission discredits human sexuality). I will be forced by fear to remain silent about my opinions on who I'm attracted to, if I care about who other people are attracted to, what women are or aren't allowed to do with their bodies, what constitutes marriage,   how I understand the world to operate, how I understand myself to operate, and how much I love the way I am. By the way, the fact that I am imposing this on myself is absolutely ridiculous and stupid--there is nothing fundamentally wrong about any aspect of my identity (nor is there anything fundamentally wrong about any aspect of anyone's identity). The fact that I have to feign shamefulness of who I have grown to become, or rather, who I am, is shameful in and of itself. 

Here's what I want to see happen in the world: I want people not to be criticized for their identity, but rather how they treat the identity of others. I want moral codes not to be evaluated not on their premises or conclusions, but rather, on their logic. And I want to go home, and tell everyone I love and hate exactly who I am and be just as safe and respected before and after.