Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Several weeks ago our institute had its annual overnight bonding roadtrip to the mountains. Apparently in the past they went to the Kumgangsan resort in North Korea, but for obvious reasons since 2008 they have gone instead to Soraksan, just south of the border from Kumgangsan. The official theme of this workshop, as we would learn, was "Everyone have fun together." The institute director was kind enough to invite me to come along, even though as a contract employee I was not technically supposed to go.

We traveled in two big tour buses which left from the institute bright and early Thursday morning. We were provided with coffee and donuts before getting on the bus, which made me nostalgic for the old bus trips I used to go on in college with the band for away games. There was no singing on this bus though. We stopped for lunch at a place that served bibimbap with mountain vegetables from Soraksan, as well as a bowls of dongdongju (a makkoli-like beverage) and spicy herbal tea. Our group took up the entire restaurant.

Where's Waldo?

After lunch we arrived at our hotel. We stayed at the Kensington Hotel, which advertises itself as an "English-style hotel" and was decorated with kitschy icons of British culture, such as bears dressed in beefeater garb and a double-decker London city bus. Everyone had a roommate; I was paired with a cute girl from my office whom I had worked with briefly but did not know very well.

British culture... and dried squid.
I like to think of someone driving this bus all the way over from London.
Sadly but not unexpectedly, when we arrived it was misty and raining lightly. This did not stop us from doing our best to enjoy a short hike to a waterfall and back. We were provided with ponchos in a range of colors, as well as bottled water and cucumbers to snack on.

It was the beginning of the busy autumn season, and the trail was crowded even on a Thursday. The ponchos should have made it easy to identify our group, but I found as we walked that there were many other groups which had bought the same ponchos. I discovered that several of our people appeared to be keeping a close eye on me to make sure I didn't get lost. Their caution was unnecessary; I had walked the exact same trail a month ago with my mom during her visit. When we got to the bridge spanning the canyon, the man who works as our institute's official photographer (as well as a driver) was standing by to take photographs.

After returning to the hotel and resting for a while, we all got back on the buses and took of for dinner and karaoke. This proved to be the most interesting part of the trip, the part where the liquor flowed freely and the personalities really started to come out. It started out innocently enough as one of the guys at the table taught us a method of mixing soju and beer known as a "bubble jet." Then Dr. Huh - one of my personal favorites among our research fellows - took the microphone and MCed as a series of people came up and gave toasts. Dr. Huh is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of my work on the online series. He spotted me sitting nearby and invited me up to make a toast. Unfortunately I had not imbibed enough yet to feel really comfortable speaking in front of everyone, and of course my hands were shaking. I got the toast over with quickly, sat down, and set about ingesting soju as fast as the guy next to me could pour.

Later, looking through the official photo record of the trip, I found that the photographer had perfectly captured this series of events:

At first, no amount of soju seemed to make any difference. I still felt tense and self-conscious. I kept thinking of better toasts I could have made. Then the director of our institute came over with a bottle of Ballantines' scotch whiskey. Whiskey is the only beverage in the world that I really cannot tolerate. I learned later that he had brought 3 bottles of the stuff. Everyone had to have a shot - even the young interns who normally refused to drink as much as a single glass of beer.

After that, things started to blur together. I started having difficulty putting sentences together. I remember at one point looking at the huge banner hanging against the wall, one of those professionally printed things that they make for all such occasions in Korea, and telling the table how such things always made me feel sad because I anthropomorphize the banner and think how depressing it would be to exist just for this one event, and then get thrown away or stored someplace. Everyone at the table agreed that it was a sad, heartless world, especially if you were a banner.

At some point we moved on to karaoke - or noraebang, in Korean. I wasn't planning to sing anything, but for the very first song Dr. Lim, another of my favorite research fellows, launched into "My Way," and I couldn't resist jumping up to join her. This obviously was Dr. Lim's regular selection, and she did a very soulful job. There was a professional noraebang guy there, whose job was to accompany people when they appeared to need help. I sang another duet with Dr. Lim later on, and did another song by myself - a Korean tune which I normally know quite well, but at that point my mouth just couldn't seem to move properly. Fortunately no one seemed to notice - or even remember, the next day, whether I had sung anything at all. At some point I remember noticing that my beer suddenly tasted like whiskey, but shrugging and continuing to drink it anyway. Talking with my friends the next day I noticed that others had had the same experience; I suspect the director had been going around pouring Ballantine's into everyone's glasses.

By the time we got back to the hotel, our group had been reduced to a single bus - apparently various people had bailed throughout the course of the night. I was proud of myself for staying to the end. The next morning at breakfast my roommate told me I had been speaking Japanese in my sleep - adding to suspicions of my being a Japanese spy. Most of our group appeared to be still sleeping it off in their rooms. The two of us actually felt quite good, and it was a gorgeous day, so we went out and took the cable car to the top of the mountain. At 9:30, when we bought our tickets, there was already a 1 hour wait for the cable car; but it was worth it for the view at the top, where the fall leaves were in full form.

I actually do feel that I achieved a stronger bond with my co-workers through this trip. I got the chance to converse at length with several interesting people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance before, and people who had previously avoided me for fear that I did not speak Korean are now much more willing to sit next to me on the bus to and from work. My reputation appears to be not too badly damaged by my wild night. Who said college doesn't teach any useful real-world skills?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The most awesome translation evah!

I'd just like to mention the most recent paper I translated for work. I am particularly proud of this one, because the author had written some seriously long, convoluted sentences which nearly succeeded in causing my brain to explode in the process of translating them. Check it out if you want!

It's funny to think that just a year ago I was writing childish little reports for Korean class about my hometown and my favorite food, and now I'm producing sentences like this one:

"Particularly in a familial/individual leadership structure which is based on informal support relationships, these sorts of conflicts can lead to factionalization within groups which share common interests, and dramatic changes in power dynamics and opportunistic conflicts between factions brought on by the realignment of power and interests are likely to contribute to an overall disruption of regime stability."

Of course, all due credit goes to the author, Kim Jin Ha, political scientist and North Korea expert extraordinaire!