[TRADING PLACES] For the British, Korea is just their cup of tea

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[TRADING PLACES] For the British, Korea is just their cup of tea


From left, Alexander Davies, a British neuroscience researcher in his eighth year of living in Korea, Huh Tae-wook, an alumni of the British government’s Chevening Scholarship and British Ambassador to Korea Charles Hay enjoy afternoon tea together at the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on July 24. [PARK SANG-MOON]

As his eight years in Korea come to an end, Alexander Davies says homemade doenjang (fermented soybean paste) from the countryside is at the top of his packing list.


Alexander Davies, center, with his friends on Mt. Dobong in northern Seoul in the summer of 2009. [ALEXANDER DAVIES]

Alexander Davies: With just a month to go before I leave Korea for now, I’m already preparing a massive box of doenjang to take back, which I ordered from the countryside, and gochugaru [red pepper powder]. I’m aware some of the markets are getting better in the U.K. but if you get a particularly, really nice shigol [countryside] gochugaru, it makes the whole thing, right?

The transformation is notable, given that Davies didn’t know where Seoul was located a few years before he came here.

Davies: My first exposure of Korea was a Korean friend I made in the U.K., when I was studying in Manchester. We met through a Korean professor who happened to come to our lab. Up until that point, rather embarrassingly, I had always wondered where the Seoul Olympics 1988 really were. That was my level of knowledge about Korea. Very quickly we became very good friends and he taught me all sorts of fascinating things about the country, including slightly less typical activities like Korean beer drinking games. Koreans really know how to have fun!

This was also the same friend who introduced him to the opportunity to research neuroscience in Korea. And once he got here, Davies, an avid hiker, said he was introduced to a plethora of Korean delicacies through friends he met on the trails, including hongeo [fermented skate fish], which even some locals don’t touch for its pungent smell.

Davies: All the time I’ve been here I’ve only ever known Koreans to be a generous people. Whether I’ve been hiking in the mountains, or sat outside a pojangmacha [street food cart], I’ve been offered to join complete strangers for something to eat and drink simply because we struck up conversation. As a consequence, I don’t think there are many dishes in Korea that I haven’t tried or eaten at least once: beondegi [silkworm pupae], doganitang [ox knee soup] and bogeotang [puffer fish stew]. However, my favorite after all these years is still a good homemade doenjangguk [soybean paste soup] with kimchi, bap [rice], gim [seaweed], and fried eggs; this meal is perhaps as important to me now as my daily cup of tea!

He added that there are some more intangible factors of life in Seoul which he will miss as much.

Davies: I was also thinking about my job, where bbali-bbali [quickly in Korean] is very useful. For example, if I want to trial some new equipment in the lab here, I can ask the company, can you bring it next week for me to have a trial, and they’ll say, “I’ll bring it to you this afternoon,” or something like that. I imagine in the U.K. if I did that - “Hi, can I have a look at the machine,” they’ll say, “Yes sure, maybe next month there’s space and we can slot you in.” That will hit me once I’m home.

But he has no intention to let go of his link to Korea back home.

Davies: Fortunately science is a global enterprise and I’m actually attending a conference in London which is a special Korea-U.K. neuroscience meeting. It’s held every year. One of the areas which we are collaborating on is neurodegeneration. Although I’ll be based in the U.K. I’m really hoping that I can pull the connections the other way. So you see, it’s a small world when it comes to sciences.

The Medical Research Council of the U.K. and Korea Health Industry Development Institute Partnership Awards that started in 2015 is a 1 million pound ($1.3 million) program that will support up to 50 projects to connect U.K. and Korean health care researchers for the development of new health care approaches and technologies, according to the British Embassy in Seoul.

Charles Hay: The U.K.-Korea Focal Point Program is the longest collaborative program between the two countries and is supported by the U.K. Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Korea’s Ministry of Science and ICT. It develops collaborations in basic science and currently is focusing on clean energy and ICT topics, including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Reverse culture shock

Korea has had quite an influence on the family of Ambassador Charles Hay, and it’s especially noticeable when they’re abroad.

Hay: I’ve got two daughters, 11 and 8, and they love gim. And last year we were on a holiday south of France and we saw an oriental supermarket and they said, “Oh, should we go and see if they’ve got any gim?” So we did, and there it was! So there we were in France, having some gim (laughs).

Davies: It wasn’t until I got to Korea that I realized that kimchi and British-style roast potatoes are absolutely perfect partners. I realized, a lot of things I saw as different in the beginning [here] were just out of habit, and I found I can develop new habits in new places.

Another occasion when the ambassador realized the effect to which Korea has Koreanized him was when he was visiting the U.K. six months into his posting in Seoul.

Hay: There were some things that really struck hard about my own country. One that was most interesting and one that I hadn’t expected was how shocked I was to see people eating in public. Because, of course, here in Korea nobody ever eats in public. And yet you get on a bus or train in the U.K., and people are having their lunch. And I was completely outraged (laughs). And that was after six months.

Davies: I’m terrified of this thing called reverse culture shock. I’ve heard about it from my Korean friends in the U.K. who came back to Korea, and they told me there were a few things they got used to in Britain which affected them when they were back in Korea. One example they said was manners on the bus. I said to them, “It’s funny, I’ve been getting less sensitive when people are bumping into me on the street.” Because in the U.K. we are very conscious of our personal space.

Hay: My theory is that for people who push past you on the bus, it’s not so much to do with the bbali-bbali, but it’s more because you’re not really there - if they don’t know you, you kind of don’t really exist and that’s why they don’t pay attention to you. I’m just speculating, though.

Davies: I think it’s a bit of a metaphor for some aspects of work as well as daily life. Because Korea is very goal-directed, so if I want to go somewhere, the quickest way is a straight line. So some older ladies, if there is a seat on the bus...

Hay: Then that’s where they’re going for.

Davies: So I’ve learned, when I see the same lady on the bus, because I take the same bus every day, I quickly get out of her way.

Reading body languages of the locals is actually an important skill for diplomats who are entrusted with tasks from country to country.

Hay: I think it’s quite hard, because of the cultural background, for the more junior staff to give me some honest advice, on whether they think that I am doing something wrong or I could be doing something better. But it’s interesting because certainly some Korean staff will do that, not very directly, but they will, and sometimes you have to read the body language quite carefully and see that somebody is not entirely comfortable but they don’t want to say anything. And then you have to ask questions to get around and try to get to what it is there. Because I’m not Korean, so it’s not easy for me to understand culturally what I should and shouldn’t be doing. So I need advice from people who do fully understand the culture and the staff know that intellectually, but sometimes culturally they find it a bit difficult to actually do that.

Davies: I agree, you have to try to read nonverbal cues and be scientific about it. I’ve heard it referred to as high-context and low-context thing - really fascinating actually, just how it drives people’s behaviors. I still haven’t got the hang of it but it’s fun trying.


Huh Tae-wook, third row on the far left, with his colleagues at Bristol University in 2009. [HUH TAE-WOOK]

My cup of tea

Sent to the U.K. with a sponsorship from the British government’s Chevening Scholarship in 2007, Huh Tae-wook said he enjoyed his time in the vibrant city of London, but often ventured out to the north of the country, into Scotland and its romantic city of hills and skylines, Edinburgh.

Huh Tae-wook: I visited Edinburgh five or six times. The skyline of the city was always so stunning. My aunt came to visit me and I took her to Edinburgh. She loved it, but you know, traveling with older Koreans often requires sticking to their palettes, which in the case of my aunt was very, very Korean. So we ended up looking for Korean restaurants in the area (laughs).

Hay: I was in Edinburgh three weeks ago and I was walking around one of the main streets, and I was very surprised to see there was a noraebang [karaoke bar] written in hangul. So I said, now Koreans have really arrived in Edinburgh.

There are 11,885 Koreans studying in the U.K. as of April 2016, according to Korea’s Ministry of Education. There were more when Huh was studying at Bristol University in 2011 - 17,310 Koreans were studying in the country then.

Huh: At Bristol University we had coffee break at 11 a.m. at a bar on campus. So I would just pop in once a month initially and later at least once a week, and we would discuss our thesis ideas together. I miss these breaks - and the tea. When I came back to Korea, I brought back two bags entirely filled with tea only.

Hay: Actually another thing that we have in common, I think, is the love of tea. For example, when I went back to the U.K. a few weeks ago, my sister said to me, “Can you please bring some barley tea,” you know, boricha, so there we go (laughs).

If some British are serious about their tea time, quite a number of Koreans are serious about their lunch breaks here.

Hay: One of the things I will miss when I go is the strong lunchtime culture here, where everybody packs up and they leave their desks at 12 and they go out and have lunch and they come back at 1. And I think that’s fantastic, and it’s something that we lost in the U.K. largely.

Hay: In the U.K., normally people have a sandwich at their desk, you know, they don’t go out for lunch and I think it’s a wonderful thing that you have a proper lunchtime break here and everybody goes out and they socialize over lunch. It is one thing I wish I could take back and re-introduce it to the U.K.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

British Ambassador Charles Hay

Charles Hay was appointed as the U.K. Ambassador to Korea in February 2015. Prior to this the top envoy was the director of Consular Services in London and also worked in embassies in the Czech Republic and Spain and at the U.K. Representation to the EU in Brussels. Before he joined the British Foreign Service in 1993, Hay was a captain of the British Army. He is married to Pascale Sutherland, who teaches interpretation in French, English and Italian here, and enjoys meeting young Koreans in her classes. The couple has two daughters.

Alexander Davies

Alexander Davies was born in England, where he grew up in a small town called Eastbourne on the south coast. He studied for his Ph.D. in Manchester, where he said he made many Korean friends and first learned about Korean culture. In 2009 he moved to Korea and was a senior postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at a university in Seoul until last month. Alex has traveled all over Korea and especially enjoys hiking in the mountains and countryside. He is also very proud to have run both the Chuncheon and JoongAng marathons.

Huh Tae-wook

Huh Tae-wook first studied in the U.K. on the British government’s Chevening Scholarship in 2007, at the University of Bristol, where in 2011 he received a Ph.D. degree on policy studies. Upon his return to Korea, Huh became a research fellow at the Seoul Institute and a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology. He is now a research assistant professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories - good, bad and amusing - and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives.-Ed.
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