Monday, September 15, 2008

TRAVEL | Small dots

There was a time in my life when I would look up in the sky whenever I would hear that familiar whizzing sound of an airplane in the air. I was seven or eight and I would never fail to imagine how it must feel to be inside that little moving dot in the sky. Then I would tell myself that a time will come when I wouldn’t have to imagine at all. I promised myself that I will ride one of those moving dots, go outside the Philippines and finally live my fantasy. At 22, I finally had the chance to be inside one of those dots, but this time, it wasn’t a dot anymore but a huge piece of metal in full scale staring at me straight in the eyes.

Start of a long journey

I was chosen by the College of Communication over at UP Diliman to be one of the exchange students in South Korea for ten months. At first I was reluctant to accept the opportunity because I was weighing so many things in mind. I have to spare two semesters for the exchange program meaning I would be delayed for my graduation. I also had to shell out a big amount of money to shoulder the expenses of the program especially the airfare which at that time, I had no idea where to get. I kept on asking myself whether my accepting the exchange program was right or not. I was both nervous and excited. My parents didn’t like the idea of me leaving but there was a part of me that says opportunity like this comes once in a blue moon so better not waste my chance. I understand my parents because they also don’t have the financial capacity to send me off to another country. 

Determined, I really made an effort to exhaust all possible resources and to this I owe Kalilayan my deepest gratitude because some of the alumni financially supported me with this endeavor and I can never thank them enough for letting live a dream. Up to now, I still can’t believe how I manage to raise enough funds to go to South Korea. It was truly unbelievable and extraordinary. Now I know that the saying is true, if there’s a will then there is definitely a way; a life’s lesson I am living at the moment.

This trip abroad was so new to me that when I was processing my documents, there was always that fear at the back of my mind that scares me, “what if my passport application suddenly gets lost in the pile of all other applications?”, “what if my visa application gets denied?”, “what if my ticket reservation has some problems?”, and so many other what if’s. I was so scared to death I swear. I mean I have made so much effort and already sacrificed my current semester and part-time job that to fail would really break my heart. Fortunately, there weren’t much glitch with my documents. I was able to obtain the necessary papers in time for my flight.

Anyway, I arrived at the Centennial Airport at ten in the evening as my flight was at twelve midnight. It was really my first time to see the airport. Sometimes when my aunt who is working is Kuwait would arrive, I would come with my parents to pick her up. When I finally bid my parents goodbye, I thought I would cry like what I see in movies when a member of the family leaves. But in m case, I just didn’t see the need for tears. I’ll just be gone for ten months and it is not very long. So I just bid my parents goodbye and went inside the terminal to check in. Inside was so amazing. It was my second time to see the inside of the terminal. The first time was when I went to Cebu to participate in the National Students’ Press Conference. But I was with my classmates and a teacher back then. This time, I was alone and I am not going anywhere in the country, but South Korea. My mother always reminds me that going to Korea is not like going around the Philippines because I won’t be able to contact them if ever I have problems. Well, I was scared but because I was so determined and eager to go to another country, I didn’t let fear conquer me. I conquered fear.

At the airport, I felt so helpless as I am so naïve with all the airport roundabouts. It was even scarier because some old woman approached me and asked me to carry some package for her saying that inside were mangoes. Common sense tells me that at situations like this, I should never trust strangers so I really made an excuse to refuse. At first she was so persistent saying that because I look like a student, the customs officials would not suspect me of bringing anything illegal. But the moment she told all this, I was even more scared. But I had to maintain my composure and look as if I wasn’t affected. Until I found a way to get out of the sticky situation. How relieved I was when I finally got rid of the old woman.

Since this is my first international flight, I wanted to see how the world looks like from up there. Before, I was just looking at these small dots from below, now I’ll be able to see things the other way. For this reason, I chose a seat near the window. But much to my horror, I didn’t realize that my flight was at night so I didn’t see anything except darkness. To make matters worse, when the plane was gaining altitude, my ears started aching like crazy. For a time I thought my ear drums were going to explode. It was so painful I had to keep on swallowing to release the air accumulating inside my ears. In order to forget the pain, I just slept, I tried hard. But the flight was four hours so whenever I wake up, my ears would be so stuffed with ear, I couldn’t hear well anymore. I couldn’t even hear the stewardess when she asks me what food I want.

Upon my arrival at Incheon, South Korea I was so impressed with the grandeur and beauty of its airport. I still couldn’t believe that I was there. It was really awesome with all its state of the art facilities and everywhere I look I see Koreans. I however had to wait for two hours for my contact person to arrive and finally take me to my host university. While waiting, I tried to look around and see what other things the airport has to offer. It was so clean there, and the area was so spacious. There were cafes inside and everyone kept on walking hither and thither. When my contact person arrived, that’s the time I finally believed that I was indeed in Korea. And that my dream was no longer a dream anymore.

The Philippines in retrospect

During my whole ten-month stay in South Korea, I have observed so many interesting things that amazed me. It’s really wonderful to live in another country because you get to realize all sorts of things you would never imagine when you just stay in your own country. Let me start a number of observations I have made with what else but Korean people. We have so many impressions of Koreans, some may even be negative. But coming from experience, you realize how unfair your bad impressions can be unless you become part of their culture. This is the reason why I am in the position to say that prejudice is disparaging. From the ten months that I stayed in South Korea, I’ve learned to love Koreans and embrace their culture. They are interesting people. Their view of the world is totally different from ours. Perhaps it will be helpful to note that fifty years ago, Korea as a country used to be one of the poorest countries in the world. But things have changed, the wheel has turned and they are now becoming one of the strongest countries following the leads of Japan and the United States. When you think about it, you won’t help but wonder how they managed to do so, to turn the tables. Korea is not rich in resources. It has a relatively small population. But the biggest question of all is how it is able to rise from poverty?

My Korean friends tell me that the Philippines has so much potential. But with all its richness in terms of natural resources and work force, it is disquieting to see how in the last five decades, instead of developing, our has become home to economic instability and tremendous poverty. And whenever my Korean friends ask me what happened to the Philippines, I just couldn’t exactly answer them. The reason being is that I don’t really know the answer. I keep on pretending that I am positive about my country. I keep telling them that time willl come when things will change for Filipinos. But deep inside, there is that undeniable truth that the Philippines is slowly becoming hopeless. It is a country slowly becoming divided. To my observation, as I have written in many of my journals, the problem of the Philippines is not the government. The government is just a system, and behind the system are people who run it. Thus, the problem is the people, the values. When you ask a Korean what he wants in the future, chances are, he would tell you a lucrative business, a good status in society and most of all a contribution to his country. I think, most Koreans have a deep sense of national pride. They are Koreans and they are proud of who they are. They are proud because they have a reason to be. They have advanced in major fields of technology such as car manufacturing and computers; the education system has been so imperative that many Korean scientists have become famous abroad; they have excelled in the field of arts and sports evident from their triumphs in world competitions like the Olympics. Now when you look at us, the Filipinos, it is very rare that a citizen of this country would be proud to say that he is a Filipino. More often than not, a native would be proud to be a member of de la Cruz’s family, or a member of Baranggay Mapayapa, etc. The point is, our sense of nationalism, if it exists, is not towards our country but rather towards the groups nearer to us. I have nothing against this, and as I have mentioned earlier, cultures are by nature unique and value-judgments are detrimental. What I am saying is that, we are missing the whole point of being Filipinos. The reason why are all Filipinos is that there is an assumption that we are one. This means that we should move together. What happens in this country is that every region moves on its own accord and there is that unconscious bitterness towards the other outside our territories. This makes me think, do we really hate each other?
Of course we are all different but we should be aware of our responsibility to our country. Now you know why our country is poor. And this is the very answer I don’t want to give to my Korean friends. It’s a shame that we know this, but we keep ignoring it.

Now why do we ignore the root and instead focus on the shoots? Well, my Korean friends also gave me the answer. The Philippines, home to thousands of islands, is also a home to an infuriating pyramid-like economic system. The very rich who have most of the country’s resources remain at the top and keep their riches to themselves. The middle class is bigger than the elites but very small compared to the very poor comprising almost the entire space of the pyramid. Normally, the elites should be supporting the poor and the population of the middle class should be bigger than the elites and the poor. But in our society, where people have grown apathetic either because of hopelessness or self-interest, the struggle to change the pyramid into a diamond has become futile because the elites do not want to share their resources. I am not an economist nor am I a public administrator but this problem doesn’t need an expert to see where we should work on. Unless the elites start changing their attitudes and become more concerned about the development of this country, then that’s the only time that we can slowly move on. But how can we expect them to change the system when they are benefitting so much with the preposterous system.

Another thing that fascinates me about Korea is their world view. It is so different from Filipinos’. I learned from my intercultural communication class that depending on where a country is situated in the continuum of the underdeveloped-developing-developed countries, world view would vary. That while we Filipinos think about what food we would eat for a month, Koreans would think what food would be needed in a year. That what Filipinos think would be a good job to apply for, Koreans would be planning what businesses to venture in. That what Filipinos think would be a good school for their children, Koreans would think what country their children should travel and study in. To me, this is simply remarkable because they are so future oriented while we still deal on the present. Our concept of future is somewhere between five to ten years. Sit in a job interview and the interviewer would ask you this question, “ten years from now, how do you see yourself?” Well, why should we think of just ten years when we can do so much more. We just don’t realize it but we are limiting our infinite capability. I believe that this country can be great again given the right opportunity and a conversion of selfish values.

There was a time in Korea when I was doing my regular exercise and someone came to me and asked, “are you a factory worker here in Korea?” I was astounded because how dare this person mistook me for a factory worker when I come from the best university in the Philippines. Then it dawned on me the present image of Filipinos in Korea. If we are not factory workers, then housewives to Korean farmers who cannot find Korean wives because they are poor. My ego at that time was truly offended. I feel after all, that I am different. But a Filipino would look the same to any foreigner and therefore the distinction is easier said than done. This incident really bothered me for days and that’s when I started asking questions on how Koreans look at Filipinos. And yes, they look down on us. To them, Filipinos, like any other people from Southeast Asia, are no-better than workers and wives. I am so challenged by this stereotyping that I promised myself that I will do my best to make a name in the world and change the stereotype of Filipinos, not just in Korea but also in other parts of the world. That’s why when I was staying in my host university, I really tried to excel in my class so that they might realize that Filipinos can rise above their stereotype. The ocean is big but a single drop can create ripples which I hope would not end up in vain. I wish there will also be others who would take up the challenge of uplifting the Filipino spirit in the world. So going back to the person who approached me, well I just smiled at her and told her, “no, I’m not a factory worker but a student.”

Further taste of South Korea

Other observations that I have made include Koreans’ hospitality, punctuality, hierarchy, patriarchy, discipline, and practicality. Koreans are very hospitable people. Well as far as my experience is concerned, they are. They are very accommodating that they make sure you feel comfortable and at ease. When I meet new friends, they are very warm and they make it a point to really get to know you. Sometimes, getting-to-know moments would extend to lunches and dinners which they pay. To them, it is of utmost importance to buy something for a new friend. This can be in the form of food or gift. When we hang out with some other people, they make sure that I don’t get left out. 

Although there is a language barrier which makes communication quite daunting and painstaking, they really give an effort just to make sure you understand them. And if I ever needed some help, they make sure I get it even if it takes their time. Well, sometimes I just don’t understand where they get so much patience because if it was here in the Philippines, the only help a visitor can get is if the host would feel like doing it. Otherwise, asking for help would be like crying for the moon. Anyway, whenever I ask for help, I don’t fail to get it no matter how difficult it was. I remember there was a time when I needed to take the bus to go somewhere and I just didn’t know how to get there. It was very early in the morning but my Korean friend really woke up and took me to the bus station, paid for the taxi, and waited until I was able to leave. 

These simple things make me admire Koreans very much. This brings me to my second point on how conscious Koreans are with the time. At school, whenever we have group meetings, my Korean classmates are always on time. But in UP, if you set an appointment, the members always arrive late which really pisses me off because it stalls progress on the work and waste everything. During events like symposiums or programs, it always starts on time. And buses and trains have fixed time. If a bus or train says that it will leave or arrive at this specific time then you can really count on it. That’s why everything moves fast in Korea. They don’t want to get late. Time to them is one important resource. 

In the case of hierarchy and courtesy, Koreans are very particular about this. Coming from a Confucian society, people’s ages are very much valued. This is the reason why Koreans who are of different age cannot be friends. Older people are always respected and younger ones are expected to follow the older ones. For this reason, society is maintained. Young people are compelled to give utmost respect by bowing and respect is also reflected in their language. They have special words for their superiors and a different set of words for friends and juniors. Disrespect is highly curbed either by physical means or gossiping. Koreans can be physical. Sometimes they hurt each other but no one gets angry. 

They can also be physical in terms of being intimate. Men hug each other, women hold hands. They also have the habit of gossiping about other people. They want to know what has happened to a certain person and what he is doing. Or they may ask what a person is doing for the past several days. And as my Korean friend told me, they like talking at someone’s back. In terms of their discipline, most of the people I have seen know how to follow rules. Drivers follow traffic rules and they are friendly to pedestrian. Students follow teachers’ rules diligently as if breaking rules would mean death. Well, I once saw a mother admonishing his son after breaking a rule. Especially in Korea, rules are strictly implemented. Breaking a law might cause a person to fine or spend some time in the jail. 

Koreans are also a practical lot. If they can find something cheaper of good quality then they are all for it much like the Filipinos. I think being a developed country doesn’t have to mean not favoring cheap things. In shopping, Koreans favor cheap products because things are really expensive there, twice the price here in the Philippines. Internet shopping is very popular and very reliable although most of the products are made in China and in Korea, they have a joke that if it’s made in China then it won’t last. Even in work, because Koreans spend most of the time in their offices, they don’t have enough time to relax so the only alternative is to drink. Koreans have this drinking culture. From sitting, to eating, to filling glasses, to raising cheers, to drinking, there are certain customs to follow and of course the age always matters. Usually, the oldest person in the group would pay for everything. Dutch pay is not popular in Korea because it is not a good sign of friendship. Koreans also like taking a bath in public bath houses where they can thoroughly clean themselves and enjoy the comfort of the hot water.

I am now back here in the Philippines and how I long I was still in Korea. I really had a great time there and I had so much memories with so many friends I’ve met, so much experiences I’ve gained, and so many lessons I’ve learned. I told myself that I don’t have to be sad because I am going back to Korea after five years. How I will do it, I don’t know. But if there’s a will, then there’s certainly a way.

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