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is the idea of "freedom", and often, we perceive change as infringing on our freedoms--and thus, we are left with many outdated and misaligned conventions.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.