Thursday, March 26, 2009

Closing thoughts

While the students’ suitcases were packed with many souvenirs, perhaps more lasting will be their memories of a land halfway around the world. Despite spending half a semester studying about South Korea's history, culture and economy, it was difficult for many to predict what they would encounter. After the 10-day trip -- including a week in country -- they had a lot to say.

To conclude this blog, we asked some of them to share their thoughts, which follow below.

Dani said her travels provided her with context on where the United States fits into the world scene.

"The most important thing that I learned about Korea is that the culture is so different from the US, yet they have found tremendous economic success even with these cultural differences," she said.

"Many foreigners consider America the economic powerhouse because of the techniques enacted within the nation. But, countries such as Japan and Korea, who have largely differentiated cultures and histories, have found the same success as the United States. It amazes me how whole countries find their strengths and weaknesses and play on those to create a successful economy."

Eric couldn’t pick just one highlight, so he provided a list:

1) Seeing Seoul stretch out for miles and miles from atop Seoul Tower on Mount Namsan at night.
2) The modernity, cleanliness, and size of Seoul, especially given that everything in the sprawling metropolis was built after the mid-1950s.
3) The prevalence of technology that seems to be superior to what we have in the United States.
4) Playing “football” with the SKKU students at Han River Park and having an amazing time with them at lunch. Their genuine kindness and generosity is unparalleled and we forever owe them a debt of gratitude.
5) Our adventures with the mannequin hand. Enough said.

To explain, three students purchased mannequin hands from vendors and had fun with them throughout the week in various contexts. One student now has a photo gallery on his Facebook page entitled, "A Handful of Seoul."

Indiana University and the Kelley School of Business in the last couple of years have placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on increasing student awareness and understanding of the world around them. In 2003, alumnus Ed Hutton contributed $9 million to IU to establish an endowment for the International Experiences Program. The students' trip was one of four spring break trips abroad.

Nikhil said he saw the impact of the efforts first-hand.

There were a whole lots of things that we learned in Korea, but the most important of them was the fact that I learned the importance and the true value of being a Kelley undergraduate student," he said. "I realized how well known and appreciated we are even outside of the United States. The hospitality that we received from the SKKU students was simply amazing."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Students really got around; Some get wet

In addition to activities arranged by the Kelley School, students had ample opportunities for free time in Seoul.

They explored the extensive subway system, which operates using a T-money card. The plastic card resembles most ATM cards, except that it is easier to load money onto it for use in the subway, on buses and in taxis and even to make phone cards.

T-money can could be bought for 3,000 won (or $2.18 U.S.) and then any amount can be loaded on the card. Fares are deducted from it when you pass through the turnstiles.

Most of us got around for the week for less than $15. The efficient system is being looked at as a model for other countries’ transit systems.

Speaking of money, the exchange rate between the two nations’ currencies heavily favored the American college students. Throughout the week, the exchange rate between the U.S. Dollar and the Korean Won was as high as $1 to 1,475 won.

A good dinner out cost as little as $4.35 (6000 won) to about $11 (15,000 won).

Tuesday night, most of the students headed to Seoul World Cup Stadium to see the FC Seoul soccer team lose to Kwanglu.

The mixer at Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), also on Tuesday, was only the beginning for students at the two business schools. Many of them remained in touch with each other throughout the week and on Friday got together for a day of basketball, soccer and lunch in the Han River Park.

According to students, the friendly competition was spirited, as evidenced by a few minor scrapes. No one knows what the final score was. Everyone went home with the gift of a gold bookmark from the SKKU students.

On Saturday afternoon, some of the guys did something that had deep meaning for themselves. With input from Professor Kang, they visited a public bath and sauna near the hotel.

They took the advice in the Lonely Planet guide to Seoul to heart, “Don’t leave Seoul with experiencing an 'oncheon' (public bath) and a sauna where you can simmer or steam yourself like a dumpling.”

It included communal baths (men and women bathe separately) of varying temperatures, a rubdown and more relaxation than they’d felt in their first two decades.

According to Deepak, the five-hour experience was “better than the day I was born.”

"Our aimless wondering around Seoul got us to the most amazing spa and massage resort. The five hours that we spent there are indescribable," Nikhil added. "The satisfaction of sitting in a hot tub, staring at the blue skies, in a foreign country cannot be put into words. No one should leave Seoul without experiencing the tradition Korean massage and spa."

"Hands down, the highlight of my trip was spending almost five and a half hours in the Dragon Hill Spa," Andrew said. "With seven floors of pure relaxation, there wasn't enough time to see everything. I didn't want to leave! The salt treatments, back massages, skin scrubs, energy baths and hygiene stations left me with the smooth skin of a 2 month old baby. What more could you want in life?"

Another perspective

As much as you've enjoyed reading this blog, we have other required reading.

In addition to the students’ posting to their personal Facebook pages, Nikhil also blogged along the way at a site presented by the Center for International Business Education and Research.

He wrote about the difficulty some students had in finding vegetarian offerings.

"Korean streets and restaurants are full of various kinds of meat. In the last three days, we have tried the weirdest food like silkworms and quail eggs," he wrote. "The only thing the four vegetarians in the group get to eat is kimchi and rice.

"However, that is when the life saviors McDonald's and Subway come in! There is nothing like having familiar food in a foreign land," he added. "Occasionally, the rest of us give in and get a bite of the Big Mac (actually called a “Big Bulgogi”).”

The rest of his comments can be found online at

The time difference

A traditional Korean meal usually includes a main dish, accompanied by several “free” side dishes, referred to as “banchan.” Similarly, the near daily reports in this blog about students traveling in South Korea usually were the main course.

Now that we’re back at IU, this “reporter” has opened his notebook to share a few more fun “small plates” in the next couple of postings.

We arrived home safe Sunday night (March 22), after a 22-hour odyssey that began at 8 a.m. local time in Seoul (7 p.m. Saturday in Bloomington) and included flights from Seoul to Tokyo, Tokyo to Chicago (about 12 hours) and Chicago to Indianapolis.

The time difference between Bloomington and Seoul had deep meaning for one student on the trip – Dani – who celebrated her birthday Friday night. A twin, Dani always has been the younger sister, having been born a couple minutes later than her sibling. However, for the first time in her life she was the older sister.

Dani celebrated her birthday at the Chinese restaurant Din Tai Fung and into the evening elsewhere, while her sister obviously was sleeping. Also celebrating a birthday early was Ron, Rosanna’s husband.

"The highlight of my trip was celebrating my birthday in Seoul," she said. "Although it was tough to be away from my family, I was comforted by my many new friends and acquaintances. They graciously accepted me and celebrated my 'golden' birthday with me.

"It was very nice to know that everyone was so welcoming and friendly," she added. "The hospitality that I recognized, whether from those who traveled with me or those who were Korean natives, was a huge factor in my fantastic experience."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Delicious hospitality

It has been suggested that it would be most appropriate to blog about the wondrous variety of food available here in Seoul. Just within walking distance from our hotel here in the business district, you can find just about anything.

If you go Korean, you might try bulgogi Рtender, thinly slice beef simmered with noodles in a broth Рor bimimbap Рyour choice of meat saut̩ed with vegetables and rice and often with an egg on top. Another common way to go is with a hot, spicy soup.

All Korean meals come with banchan, generous and free additional side dishes that could include kimchi, radish greens and even seafood.

On the coast, such in Incheon, you might pick out a couple of fish, part of which the chef will slice into sashimi and then cook the rest at your table in a soup.

Just like at home, people here want variety. Thus it’s easy to find Italian, Japanese and Chinese restaurants. Because of the influence of the nearby military base, the Itaewon area offers you with an opportunity to eat around the world without ever leaving Seoul.

One dining experience that will stand out, however. Students were invited to dinner at Din Tai Fung, an award-winning restaurant that specializing in small steamed buns – known to most Westerners as "dumplings."

Din Tai Fung was ranked as one of the world's top 10 restaurants in 1993 by The New York Times. Its original location is in Taiwan, but other select locations have opened Japan, the United States and here in Korea.

There is no media hype. The food is fabulous.

Mr. Joo, who has an MBA from the Kelley School, operates Seoul’s three locations, in addition to his other business ventures.

The restaurant sometimes also serves as the meeting place for the local IU Alumni Association chapter. More than a dozen IU alumni now succeeding in business, government and the media joined us at the dinner, along with about 35 students from the IU journalism school and the LAMP program.

Mr. Joo graciously served as our host for Friday night, treating us to a delicate seafood soup, broccoli and broth-filled dumplings, shrimp shu mai, greens and other tasty treats.

Many of these same alumni will welcome IU President Michael McRobbie and a university delegation here in May. We extend them many thanks for extending us the same warm hospitality.

All week, several have helped us to feel at home here, particularly Professor Heejoon Kang and his dear wife Younga. We also thank Dean Robert Klemkosky, who made most of the arrangements for our visits; the staff of our hotel and many people on the streets of Seoul who worked through the language barrier to help us find our way.

Sunday, we're heading home with many fond memories in large part to their efforts.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The world's most serious tourist spot - the DMZ

Whenever you travel to a new place, especially in another country, it is natural to look into local conditions and to be concerned about news events there, especially when they are much different from at home.

As most are aware, South Koreans thrive economically and socially within the international community, in stark contrast to their neighboring brethren in North Korea. The communist country again has gotten the world’s attention with its plans to launch a missile in early April.

North Korea also has been in the news here for briefly closing its border to the Gaesong Industrial Complex, a special economic zone where South Korean-owned factories employ about 39,000. Our guide told us that North Koreans there earn about $70 a month – which they consider a good salary – making clothes, watches and other small items.

Daily life here in Seoul seems largely unaffected by these things. Many people have told us that they feel safe, while acknowledging that conditions in North Korea are “not good.” We have felt safe here – in fact safer than in many U.S. cities. Many IU faculty have come to teach here, in addition to the sending students here, without need for concern.

However, the picture was less clear when our group visited the Demilitarized Zone, which marks the border between the two countries. It was established on the ceasefire line at the end of the Korean War in 1953, when only an armistice was signed.

As we made our way up the hour drive northwest, we gradually saw increased signs of security measures. Initially, we saw barbed wire lining the highway and occasional guard towers. Eventually, as we entered what has to be one of the most usual tourist destinations on the planet, South Korean soldiers stopped our bus and came on to check passports.

It was not a time for humor, although we felt at ease.

The first place we went to was Imjingak Park, where the so-called “Freedom Bridge” is located. To many, especially older Koreans, it is better known as the “Bridge of No Return.” It was a place where many Koreans had to decide at the end of the war on which side of the border they would reside.

Many Korean families were divided as a result and many South Koreans come here on the Lunar New Year and Korean Thanksgiving Day to pay their respects. It is the closest place they can be to relatives and ancestors (ancestor worship is common here).

Being here is sobering. One look through the fence placed part way across the structure and you’ll see that it is the real “Bridge to Nowhere.” A train passes by quietly, just across the border. Someday, many South Koreans hold for a unified country as indicated here by a pool in this park in the shape of the complete Korean peninsula.

About 2 million people come here each year.

We then boarded a local tour bus for the Third Tunnel of Aggression, which built into granite about 300 meters underground by the North Korean army. Discovered in 1978, the tunnel is 1,635 meters long and 2 meters both in height and width.

To get there, we put on hard hats and rode a tram into the ground. According to information we were provided, it was large enough to accommodate 32,000 fully dressed soldiers in an hour.

“This is the largest one among those that have been discovered up to now, and we can certainly guess how strong a North Korean plot to invade the South was at that time,” the brochure reads.

Based on our experience in the tunnel, they would have had to be short in size.
Next, we boarded the bus up, which usually provides an excellent view into North Korea. But Thursday’s heavy fog obscures the view. Many took an opportunity here to get souvenirs instead.

Our final stop on the tour was Dorosan Station, a thoroughly modern train facility about 700 meters from the southern boundary of the DMZ. Built about a decade ago, it is a symbol of the countries’ division. It completed the Gyeong (the Seoul-Sinuiju) railway line and it is connected to track that could talk you through North Korea, China, former Soviet republics, Russia and beyond.

Three trains run each day to north to Dorasan, but the train stops at that point. Interestingly, the theme on the DMZ brochure said, ironically,“Yes, We Can!”
Once back in Seoul, the bus dropped us off at a museum dedicated to the Korean War. While a few went inside, others chose to re-entered today’s more hopeful city.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Admittedly, when students opted for Korea at spring break instead of Florida, they also ruled out Disneyworld. What most people don’t know is that Everland, the world’s seventh largest theme resort, is located here.

And it has one heck of a roller coaster -- the T Express. Billed as the highest inclination wooden coaster in the world, it drops you by 77 degrees at one point and provides quite a rush over the entire three minutes.

The coaster ride and a ride through the park’s Safari World was part of a company visit. Everland is a subsidiary owned by Samsung that celebrated its 30th anniversary three years ago. It had 9.1 million visitors last year and has had 1.6 billion people come through its gates during its history.

Leisha and Lila are its mascots. Our host, Kayoung, acknowledged that a lot of people think they look like mice, but really they are "cute lions."

On Thursday, it will be completely different. We’re off to the DMZ.