A President's Reflections
People and Places

Kimchee Express

Posted on February 17, 2012

Yesterday I spent the day at Seokyeong University, our partner in Korea, and had the pleasure of receiving an honorary degree during their graduation ceremonies.  Seoul is a crowded, hilly place, so everyone builds up and the SKU campus is no exception.  The platform party made its way from President Choi’s office and marched up a steep hill to the main auditorium escorted by a color guard, members of the campus ROTC unit.

There were differences in the Korean graduation ceremony.  For example, the graduates do not each receive their diploma at the front of the platform.  Instead, a student representative from each program comes forth and accepts on behalf of his or her classmates.  Individual award winners do come to receive prizes.  I started the ceremony in SKU gowns and after receiving my honorary degree they had me step behind the curtain to inexplicably change into my own robes. When in Rome…or in Seoul in this case.

Yet for all the important things the ceremony was most familiar.  Proud parents beaming as they posed with their sons and daughters.  Nervous graduates, at least the ones called forward.  A few siblings and a grandfather or two sound asleep half way through.  Lots of happy groups of students posing together afterwards.  I made brief remarks – in fact, when they saw the original (running about eight minutes) they asked me to cut it down to about four minutes.  No long Commencement speeches at these events and the whole thing ran no more than an hour, costume change and all.  We had our first four graduates and they were delightful, two having passed the CPA exam even before graduating (is that usual?).

The floor in SKU’s new library devoted to SNHU’s sole use is really impressive.  It has a sort of space age look to its design, as is true for much of Korea’s new architecture and design. A little Jetsons in feel.  It is modern, comfortable, equipped with up-to-date classroom equipment, and has SNHU photos and flags decorating its halls.  Great space.

They said awfully nice things about me during the conferring of the honorary degree, the sorts of things usually reserved for someone like Eleanor Dunfey-Freiburger or Ray Prouty.  I think they may have asked my mother to write it.  In all events, I was touched and happy to accept the honor.  I also accepted a mother lode of flowers.  It was like hearing your eulogy and admiring all the funeral flowers at the same time.  Odd, but satisfying.

SKU hosted a lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, SamcheongGak.  It is housed in an elegant old complex nestled on a hillside adjacent to the Blue House (Korea’s White House or President’s building) compound, so it is surrounded by woods and is an escape from Seoul’s bustle and crowds (the city has 14 million people and closer to 20 million in the larger metropolitan area – half the country’s population).  With a very a modern take on traditional Korean food, the presentation is beautiful, almost nouvelle cuisine in style and portion size.  Though I have to say, I liked the sourer kimchee of the funky little chicken place.  Three days in Korea and I’m a kimchee connoisseur!

We then spent the afternoon touring some of the campus’ new facilities and in meetings exploring an expanded set of program offerings.  There are very few full American degree programs in Korea and our partnership is a matter of pride for SKU.  It should be for us as well – SKU is really investing in doing the program well and caring for our students.

Some tidbits picked up along the way:

Renting an apartment seems an unusual proposition.  If I understand this correctly, you must give the landlord the market value of the apartment.  Say $300,000.  He or she then invests that money and the earnings cover your rent.  When you leave you get money back, though everyone had horror stories of lost or stolen or scammed deposits.  If you pay less than market value, you pay some rent to supplement the diminished earnings.  It wasn’t clear to me if there are protections for the renter and it appears that foreigners may have access to lower deposit properties or their employers cover all or most of the deposit. 

Also, when you move out, you pay to have your furniture removed because Koreans apparently feel it is bad luck to use someone else’s furniture.  So not only can’t you give it away, you have to pay to have it hauled off.

Korea still seems very patriarchal.  Males head all organizations, though it seems women are often right behind the scenes doing most of the work.  I know, I know – maybe more true than we’d like to think in America as well.  I can see Patty, Yvonne, and others nodding somewhere thousands of miles away.

Korean manufacturing conglomerates are huge and still very much family businesses.  This model has often been criticized by westerners and the papers often have tales of family dysfunction impacting major companies that would seem well beyond that sort of thing in terms of scale, complexity, and governance.  Right now, the two Samsung brothers are suing each other and wrestling for control of the company.  Yet many Koreans see the role of westerners and more “modern” corporate management as a problem, pointing to the Olympus scandal and decline of Sony as examples of westerners coming in and messing things up.  The argument I heard made was that the owner has the power to make change quickly and is less slave to shareholder control.  So while family dysfunction is a problem, western style governance and management is worse.  Interesting.

Dog soup.  Koreans farm dogs and eat them and while I thought it might be an antiquated dish giving way to modern taste and western squeamishness, a number of the folks with whom I chatted mentioned it.  In fact, we visited a time capsule during our tour and one of the foods included in the capsule is dog soup.  I admit to struggling with this one, though if you saw the awful yappy little winner of the Westminster Dog Show, you might agree that he would hardly be missed if he ended up in a bowl somewhere. 

Only slightly related, Hyundai has a car here called the K9.  Imagine the field day American automotive reviewers would have with that one.

Koreans are the Italians of Asia.  They are decked and we jeans and sneaker wearing Americans look like slobs in comparison.  They are also a fitness and beauty conscious culture, so much so that Seoul is a major center for plastic surgery.  Teenage girls routinely have surgery get upturned noses and rounder eyes, to have long lashes attached and breasts enlarged.  In the land of the maddeningly thin, liposuction is not uncommon as well.  When I expressed a bit of skepticism about it, our driver, who had been quietly listening, offered that his teenage daughter had her eyes done at $3,000 per eye.  Beauty Science is a new major at many universities and students are flocking to it, a program we normally associate with very low end, mom and pop beauty schools, is actually offered at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level (!) in beauty mad Korea.  At a dinner with our hosts the men spent some time commenting on the new haircut one of them was sporting.  Funny place and if I moved here I’d have to A) sell all my clothes and start over again, B) get some “work” done, C) dye my hair, and D) work out a lot more. Funny, but intimidating place, Korea.

And still one of my favorite places in Asia.   Now in Chicago and almost home.

One thought on “Kimchee Express

  1. Charlie says:

    I love reading your comments from abroad. I loved in Seoul for several years after college and loved it! It’s a great place to visit and take in all of the metropolitian chaos.

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