Saturday, August 23, 2008

Keeping a close watch on the race for gold

Spending time at the office on a Saturday night seems like a real drag . . . until you throw baseball and beer into the equation. The KBS World Radio team has been logging very long hours during this Olympic period, so it's no wonder yours truly came to work in a baseball cap today, hiding bad hair and no energy to make it better. Although everyone seems pretty tired (I instituted a "No Yawning" rule in the English news department earlier today), there's still plenty of enthusiasm brewing for Korea's final Olympic competitions. Tonight we're watching Korea's sluggers in a close game against Cuba, the reigning Olympic champions.

"Geonbae!" (Cheers!) to Team Korea!

Heated competition calls for a cool Hite!

And 12-14 hour work days call for baseball caps!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rainy day field trip

A sense of adventure and a hankering for some exercise took resident discoverer Matt Kelley and me on a three-hour bike jaunt along Seoul's Han River last Saturday. The spotty rain didn't make for ideal biking conditions (note my muddy butt below!), but the overcast skies were certainly a welcome break from the sweltering heat Seoul has weathered in the last few weeks. We rented bikes from Yeouido Park (directly across from our KBS office) and headed west along the Han. Matt was keen to show me the islet of Seonyudo, a pleasant fusion of industry and green space, which he calls one of his favorite spots in the capital city. Seonyudo is home to a former water treatment facility which was reborn as a post-modern ecological park in the early part of the decade.

Thanks, Seoul Metropolitan Government, for this aerial shot of Seonyudo.

Infrastructure from the facility was incorporated into the design, as well as a museum where Korean speakers can learn all kinds of fun facts about the ecology of the Hangang (I just enjoyed the pictures and flashing lights!). The park's combination of steely hardware, water, and lush landscaping makes for a surprisingly appealing aesthetic experience.

The "Rainbow Bridge" links Seonyudo to the south bank of the Han River. Lights along the bridge's arc create a lovely scene at night.

The pink ponchos brighted an otherwise dreary day.

Matt was lucky to be wearing two shirts. I, on the other hand, shocked fellow public transport users on my way home (see below). I'm used to drawing all kinds of inquisitive staring, but a friendly smile (my typical modus operandi) didn't seem to pacify the befuddlement last Saturday.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Happy birthday, KBS World Radio!

I'm a couple days late, but that's because I'm still recuperating from the celebrations! KBS World Radio celebrated its 55th birthday last Friday. The first KBSWR broadcast aired on August 15, 1943 with a 15-minute transmission in English. The family grew to include ten more language services, but English service still celebrates its birth every August 15th. It was a big day in wider Korea, too, with the nation honoring the anniversaries of its independence from Japanese colonial rule (August 15, 1945) and the establishment of the Republic of Korea (August 15, 1948). Seems like a fortuitous date . . . I should plan something big for next August 15. Below, some photos from an English team outing in celebration of . . . us (and, of course, all of those who have made "us" possible over the years).

A celebratory samgyeopsal (pork) bbq
From left: Sue Park, Sara Kim Chris Dykas, Abby Rhodes, Sarah Jun, Dr. Chae Hong-pyo, Seung-joo Sophia Hong

What's a Korean party without noraebang (singing room)?!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Rooting for the other red, white, and blue (and black)

As Olympic fever sweeps the world, I'm finding myself more caught up in the nail-biting excitement than ever. Never much of a sports fan, and rarely inclined to follow summer Olympics when I could be out playing in the garden hose, I'm discovering the thrill of the event and developing a creepy crush on South Korean swimming phenom Park Tae-hwan (a.k.a. "Marine Boy"). Park made history over the weekend, snagging SoKo's first Olympic medal (and a shiny gold at that!) in a swimming event. The 400-meter men's freestyle event has been dominated by beefy Westerners for decades, so it was a milestone for Asian swimmers, as well as a personal triumph for the 18 year-old (19, Korean age) cutie pie who was disqualified for a false-start in the 2004 Athens Games. It's been 72 years since an Asian won gold in a men's freestyle event.

"Abby has a crush on me?! YES!" --Park Tae-hwan after winning the 400-meter men's freestyle

For Korea's athletes, Sunday was a day for history-making and record-breaking. The country's women archers strike fear in competitors worldwide, dominating the sport since 1984 and winning gold in the team event every year since its 1988 inauguration. This year marks the sixth straight gold for the women's team. I'd say that kind of accomplishment is well worth the possibly permanent mark of the bow string on leader Park Sung-hyun's chin. Below, the ladies pose for a team shot at Seoul's Olympic training center about a month ago. Those chestguards are SO Korean!

If Park Tae-hwan is my man crush, 22 year-old weightlifter Yoon Jin-hee takes the gold in the category of girl crush. This li'l powerhouse walked away with a silver medal in the women's 53-kilogram weightlifting event Sunday. She hoisted a impressive total of 213 kilograms. So what if her moppy 'do makes her look a little ajumma (older, married woman). I like her! This event proved there's nothing like the Olympics to test my pronunciation skills, and I'm pretty sure I scored a fat "F" during Sunday's final broadcast. Thailand's Jaroenrattanatarakoon Prapawadee took the gold in this event and there's no reporting on a silver without mentioning the gold. Sorry, Jaroenrattanatarakoon! Below, you see my girl crush, Yoon Jin-hee, showin' her stuff.

South Korea's first gold this year came from 28 year-old judoka Choi Min-ho who flipped his opponents around like flapjacks Saturday evening. This appears to be another fairy tale ending. But why did I crack up reading the following report from the Chosun Daily:

"Suffering from the physical side effects of lowering his weight by 6 kg at the Athens Olympics, Choi won only a bronze medal due to muscle cramp in his leg. He turned to the bottle after returning to Korea, to help him cope with his feeling of loneliness and isolation.And he was so stressed out that he had to eat 40 to 50 ice cream bars a day in order to go to sleep at night."

Okay, I know why. It's that line about the ice cream bars! 40-50?!?! Surely there's been a mistake in the Korean-to-English translation . . . or maybe they were low-fat ice cream bars. Everyone knows low-fat just means you can eat more! All joking aside, congrats to Choi and SoKo, alike! Below, it appears the fit and trim Choi has overcome his nightly ice cream bar cravings.

Like elections, the Olympics mean long hours at the office for us broadcasters, but the outpouring of national pride, roller coaster of emotions, and free cup ramen provided by KBS are worth the missed sleep and leisure time. Oh, and I should probably include, "Go U.S.A.!"

Friday, August 8, 2008

When the clock strikes 6 . . .

We wouldn't be professionals in Korea if we didn't break free from the confines of KBS to nurture camaraderie through yummy street food, soju, and maekju (beer) once in awhile. Many 9-to-5/6ers can be seen imbibing into the wee hours (even on a "school night"!), but we radio and Internet team folks enjoyed a mostly tame Thursday evening outing in sultry Seoul.

Seoung-soo, Min-jeong, Hye-ju, and Luke get things started at a pojangmacha (literally, "covered wagon") street eatery

English news editor/anchor Luke and me showing off our American appetites

Mmm . . . street food is cheap and tasty

Now that's what I call a napkin dispenser!

Matt Kelley and DJ Sarah Jun once the hot 'n sticky weather moved us all inside

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


It's been a week since my return to Seoul and that seems sufficient time to reflect on the impact of my first trip home since my move abroad. Before heading back to the American Midwest, I wondered how my exposure to home would affect my attitude toward my home away from home, Seoul. Would I become homesick for my country, my family and friends, and a simpler day-to-day life? Would I appreciate Seoul even more upon my return? How would my rural Illinois homeland look after ten months of separation?

Not that different, actually! Grampa John and me at a big Rhodes family party. Look at the beautiful Illinois corn!

The last question is probably the easiest to answer. After a grueling flight itinerary that sent me to Atlanta from Seoul, then back to a regional airport in west central Illinois, my attitude was less than rosy and my patience was paper thin when I finally deplaned. My stint in Atlanta was particularly disappointing, as the most unwelcoming of airport staff barked at my fellow travelers and me as we snaked our way through the lines in customs. "Move it, people, move it. Pay attention. Let's go." No smiles. No eye contact. Certainly no bows of courtesy or gentle, guiding hand gestures that Korean airport personnel have perfected. It looked, and felt, bad. I'll blame my travel-weary disposition for that evening's fixation on the undesirable aspects of American culture: mind-boggling obesity; loud, obnoxious cell phone usage; utter lack of customer service. On the other hand, I relished in the retrieval of personal space. People said, "Excuse me," before and after bumping into me, and even if they hadn't bumped into me at all! That's when I realized I had probably been throwing elbows and stepping on toes with reckless abandon (which is a-okay in Seoul), and I should probably adjust my behavior Stateside. And though it seemed nearly every American around me was overweight, I can't deny heading straight for a big burrito as soon as I touched ground in Atlanta. Night had fallen by the time I arrived in Moline, Illinois where my friend Chris joined me for the last 1.5 hour leg of my journey home. This is when I experienced the starkest visual difference between home and home. The highway was so . . . wide. The buildings so low. The countryside so incredibly dark. The vista so expansive, even under the blanket of night. "Has it always been this dark?" I asked Chris. He confirmed that nothing had changed; surpise, surprise. And as I reacquainted myself with central Illinois in the next week, it seemed exactly the same as I had left it. Unlike my neighborhood in Korea where pharmacies are transformed into eateries in a weekend's time, my American hometown seems like a place where time stands still. A case in point: A new coffee shop opened in town just before I left last September and boasted, "Now open!" on its signboard, along with a short list of menu items. Just two weeks ago, ten months later, the sign hadn't changed, although a few letters were missing. I guess it's still open, and still selling paninis. Walking into another coffee shop to meet friends Jim and Dick looked and felt exactly the way it did a year ago when I would stop in every morning for a cup of joe before work. The same guy working behind the counter, friend Eric, and the same patrons lazily flipping through newspapers, diligently working on laptops, and engaging in casual conversation.

Coffee date with friends Dick and Jim

Thankfully, there was also a lack of change among my friends and family. Almost a year away from home hasn't affected my closest relationships, and it was so heartwarming to pick up right where I left off with my loved ones. Living on opposite sides of the world has actually meant increased contact with some of my friends and fam. Through blogging, e-mails, and phone calls (thanks Clarissa, for the Internet phone!), I've been able to keep in touch on a regular basis and in some cases, more frequently than when I was living in Illinois. It makes me wonder how different expat life must have been before technology allowed such constant, immediate communication.

With grad school friend and international travel buddy, Clarissa

A big family party, a day trip to my alma mater, and a childhood friend's wedding allowed me to reunite with people from all periods of my life. Sharing my Korean experiences made me again realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to work and live in a foreign country.

University of Illinois journalism faculty Nancy Benson, Mitch Kazel, and John Paul

Several people asked about the difficult parts of living abroad. It's not the food, I told them. Not the language barrier. Certainly not my job at KBS. Although computers and phones and mail delivery systems make it easy to stay "in touch", it's the actual touch with loved ones, the eye contact during a conversation with a friend, and the close proximity of my strong support system that I miss the most.

Bride Liz and bridesmaid Abby

Weekday lunch with Dad and Grandpa, power walks with mom, and hugs from long-time friends are simple things Seoul's city lights and delicious food can't match. Still, as each month in Korea goes by, I feel more and more at home and I realize that, overall, I'm much more fulfilled here than I was back in rural Illinois. My local support system is getting stronger, and I now think of Macomb, IL as a warm, comforting place to visit.

My mom holds her new Korean vase

It'll always feel like home because of the people who live there and the memories it holds, but will probably never really be home again. It's a thrilling concept in one respect, considering all the possibilities of where my next home could be, but also a melancholy realization that my exposure to the place holding such personal history could be limited to one week a year. Letting go of the steadfast security of my hometown, where signboards don't change in a year's time and I'm likely to run into childhood friends at the grocery store is as scary as it is exciting.