Oberlin Blogs

Seoul, Sushi, and Shanghai

September 19, 2008

Friday, September 19, 11:50 pm (reposted May 26, 2009)
Pudong Airport, Shanghai, China

Sorry I haven't written in awhile; it has been a hectic three days. I arrived early in Seoul, about 20 minutes before my scheduled arrival time of 5:05 am. For the first time in my life, I was the first person to get off the plane. We were the first plane of the morning and I cleared customs and got my luggage and it still wasn't 5:05. Unfortunately, I had asked to be picked up at the airport at 6:00 as I expected to spend about an hour clearing customs, etc.

The Oberlin family is quite amazing. In August one of our new students arrived on campus from Seoul with his father. I had the pleasure of meeting them and, while chatting, I mentioned that I was trying to find a driver for my visits to the outlying schools that I mentioned in my last report. Prof. Shin (the dad) kindly offered to arrange everything for me. He showed up personally at the airport, drove me into town, and delivered me to a driver who did a great job of getting me to all of my visits in plenty of time. The driver even took me to lunch at a wonderful little Korean restaurant where we had at least 15 different dishes put in front of us. I had forgotten just how much more challenging Korean chopsticks were than Chinese or Japanese ones. But I managed ok. Out of the 4 or 5 different kinds of kimchee that we were served, one of them was the tastiest I've ever encountered. To be honest, I still can't figure out what vegetable it was made out of - something dark green, flat, pretty crispy, and cut into ½ inch squares. It was the perfect combination of salt and spice.

My visits went quite well and I even received some nice gifts - a watch from Hankuk and a sweatshirt from KMLA. We'll have to see over the next few months whether or not the visits result in a good number of applications, but I've already heard by e-mail from students at Hankuk. After only about 2 hours of sleep on the plane and literally 600 km of driving around Korea, I was incredibly tired. But after a great night of sleep in my hotel, I started again on Thursday. First stop was Daewon Foreign Language School. After meeting a couple of wonderful students, Eric Cho, the counselor at Daewon, took me for another great Korean meal. It was to have been Korean barbecue, but as I was pressed for time, we opted to forgo cooking and settled for the Korean version of steak tartare - in other words we ate raw beef strips mixed with matchstick sized pieces of pear. Very tasty.

I met a new counselor at Seoul Foreign Language School, met some interesting kids there, and headed off to the airport for a flight to Tokyo followed by a train in from the airport and a cab to my hotel. Four school visits in Tokyo today and finally a quick bite of sushi with an Oberlin alumna who is our alumni rep in Tokyo. Back on the train and off to Rome via Shanghai and Milan.

When I was living in Bulgaria (1993-2001) we used to always be able to identify the visitors and new faculty who were going to have trouble adjusting to the local conditions. Within hours of arrival, they would start trying to improve things. "Why don't they have plugs for the hotel sinks?" Why don't they do it this way?" "Wouldn't it be better if....?" I think after my experience changing planes in Shanghai, I'm ready to say that I would have some difficulty adapting to life here in China. My previous actual visits to China have been a real pleasure, but I can't say that I enjoyed changing planes there. First off, I couldn't check my bags from Tokyo all the way through to Rome; I had to pick them up in Shanghai. Secondly, there is no process for international transfers to avoid passport control, luggage pick-up, or customs. But still you don't need a visa as a transfer passenger. So what happens? The passport person has to take your passport to another desk. Then she comes back and asks you to go to this other desk where you document that you have an ongoing flight. Then you have to collect your bags and have them all screened by an X-ray machine. Then you have to leave the departure area and proceed to the arrival floor. But there are no signs indicating where the departure floor is, nor how one gets there. Then one stands in line to check in for Rome and re-check bags. This process also involves much hand wringing, two separate trips away from the check-in desk by the agent, her yelling over two counters to another person, and then finally, after more than 15 minutes at the counter, I'm finally ready to clear security with my carry-on bag. In Shanghai, they actually weighed the bags. Luckily for me, my shoulder bag looked a lot lighter than it actually was so they didn't weigh mine and I didn't have to find out what happens if a bag is overweight. So, after this long diatribe, I find myself thinking something that I used to laugh at people for in Bulgaria. WHY CAN'T THEY HANDLE TRANSIT PASSENGERS LIKE EVERYONE ELSE???

Oh well, it is the differences in cultures that makes the world an interesting place. If it weren't for these differences, why would we bother traveling the world to bring peoples of all cultures to Oberlin?

Well, it is just about time to go board another airplane. Thanks for reading and for your interest in Oberlin. It is now tomorrow and, hopefully, soon I'll be sleeping and will wake up in Italy. Assuming that I have a chance to catch up on my sleep and have access to the Internet, I'll try to post this tomorrow. I'm also thinking that my flight tonight will be over the famous Silk Road, matching the travels of Marco Polo as he returned from his adventure in the land of Kublai Khan.

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