Monday, February 27, 2012

Workshop in Cheolweon

Recently our institute organized another overnight "workshop," this time at the Hantan River Spa Resort in Cheolweon. This is an area north of the 38th parallel which was formerly North Korean territory before the war, and which was a site of intense fighting during the war, as it changed hands between the North and South 24 times before the fighting ended.

In the past, I had learned from experience that the term "workshop" in Korea essentially means "overnight drinking party with co-workers." Thus far there has been very little actual work done at our workshops, which were mostly about cameraderie, stress-relief, and compromising one's hard-earned dignity in front of one's co-workers after numerous shots of soju.

However, since our institute got shaken up last year with the advent of a new president, it seems the workshop concept has undergone a philosophical overhaul. This time we actually had a schedule that involved team-building exercises, a discussion session, and a motivational speaker.
Decorating colorful posters 

The obligatory fist-pumping group photo
The purpose of this workshop was to gather all the supporting staff members of our institute (i.e., every permanent employee who is not a research fellow) to discuss issues, complaints and suggestions we all might have.

After a team exercise and extended discussion session, we finally headed off to a nearby kalbi restaurant. We had our own private room, equipped of course with a karaoke machine. The kalbi was quite good, with unlimited refills, and we quickly set to it with little conversation until we were well stuffed.
A strange thing happened when the meal finished and they turned on the karaoke machine. Suddenly about half of the people in the room mysteriously disappeared. I realized later that they had all excused themselves to go to the restroom, and were hiding out in clusters near the front doors waiting for it to be time to leave.

Fortunately, there were enough die-hard partiers to keep the songs coming for about an hour.

The next morning we were again on a tight schedule starting with breakfast at 8 am, so those of us who wanted to try the resort's famous "spa" had to wake up early. Despite my years in Japan, this was my first experience of being in a naked-type situation with my female co-workers, but I quickly adjusted. My co-workers were suitably impressed by my temerity, remarking that some foreign interns had come along on these field trips in the past but none of them had ever dared join in the group bathing, "not even the kyopos." Tally up another point for the white girl.

A fresh blanket of snow had fallen the night before, so we enjoyed a round of picture-taking and a brief snowball fight before breakfast.

 After breakfast we listened for two hours to a motivational speaker who had us do a series of group exercises: try to draw an accurate copy of a picture based on other team member's descriptions, practice smiling with three different degrees of enthusiasm, etc.

Ours was by far the most accurate picture

Smiling practice: medium enthusiasm

Smiling practice: maximum enthusiasm!

The trip concluded with a gut-busting lunch at a place that served the local specialty, mak-guksu (cold soba noodles in a big metal bowl with shredded vegetables). We ate until we were stuffed and rolled back into Seoul around mid-afternoon.

The results of our team brainstorming exercises will be shared with the powers that be at the next big committee meeting. I don't know if much will change as a result of our suggestions, but anyway it was a fun chance to see a different part of the country, and all-in-all the team-building exercises were not overly painful. It helps to be with a great group of people.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Daeboreum Feast and Yut Game (정월대보름과 윷놀이)

Last Monday was Jeongwol Daeboreum, the first full moon after the New Year in Korea. We celebrated one day early with a party on Sunday evening at our friend Jongshil's house. The main purpose of this party was to assemble everyone who will be joining us for our big trip to Angkor Wat next week, so we can make plans and get to know each other better. Most of the food was prepared by Jongshil, and consisted of the sort of traditional unspiced vegetarian fare that is associated with the New Year. Unni and I provided a salad.

Several people brought their kids along, who ranged in age from a little 4-year-old girl to a high school sophomore. As the adults laid in to the beer and boxed wine, the kids started up a spirited game of Yunnori (aka Yut). This is a traditional game that involves throwing sticks and moving pieces around a board.

They sell Yut gameboards and pieces, but apparently Jongshil is a purist and believes in constructing the game out of common household items. She drew a little gameboard with pen and paper, used coins and little figurines as game pieces, and had us throw sticks onto a folded blanket. Only the sticks were regulation Yut throwing sticks.

I had never played this game before, but got pressured into playing a game without knowing the rules. I just threw sticks around and Jongshil moved my pieces for me.

Eventually I figured out how it worked. The four sticks are like dice. Depending on how many of them land face up, you get to move a certain number of spaces around the board. I would have figured this out sooner, except that each throw has an archaic term associated with it instead of just the number, and people kept calling out these words that were completely meaningless to me.

Src: Wikipedia
The game is similar to Aggravation/Trouble, except the gameboard is smaller and offers three opportunities to cut through the center. Also, whenever someone makes an embarrassingly good throw, she has to stand up and do a dance.

To spice things up, we played for small amounts of money; the loser pays 2000 won to the victor of each game. I lost the first game, but then Unni and I teamed up and started raking in the cash. Unni has amazing luck throwing Yut sticks. I took a little video and managed to capture the moment when she won the first game for us with one amazing throw.

The little kids got money from their parents and gave it to us after they lost. After winning several games in a row Unni felt bad and wanted to give the kids their money back, but their parents refused. I agreed, saying it would be good for them to learn now about how bitterly disappointing life is.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Revenge of the Nerds

This giant poster recently appeared at the front gate of the elementary school I pass every day on my way to work. These are current 6th graders who have been accepted to prestigious international schools in Seoul. To get in, they must already have excellent English skills and pass a very challenging test (yes, an admissions test for junior high school). For that achievement, they are honored in these larger-than-life images which stare down at their less accomplished classmates, presumably inspiring the junior students to work hard so they can get on next year's poster. It is noteworthy that all four admitted students are female.

I tried to explain to Unni just how badly I would have gotten my ass kicked if they had done stuff like this back at my elementary school in the US. Apparently, although bullying is a serious problem in South Korea, the star students are not victimized as much.