Sunday, June 22, 2008

A land of Parks and Kims and Silver Chopsticks

View from the restaurant at Biwon Hotel

One of the perks I enjoy working for Zobel is the chance to go to places I could not have gone to had it not been offered to our employees. It started around the late 1990's when the teachers embarked on journeys to different places in the country, from up north to Pagudpud to way down south in Mindanao. I have visited and enjoyed places like Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu, Iligan, Camiguin, Davao, Mindoro and others. Later on, these trips would include international destinations like Thailand, China. and lately, South Korea. Thanks to the travel plan spearheaded by the credit cooperative, I have occasion to visit these Asian countries and saw for myself what these countries have to offer. I have experienced their culture, breathed their air, smelled the aroma and tasted their unique cuisines, made acquaintances with nationals and partook of their hospitality.

While some people dread the coming of June for it means the end of a long hibernation from work, I see this month as a time to reflect on what I have experienced during the past summer. Like always, I have learned a lot of things on my sojourns to far away lands and I remember every sight, sounds and taste I have experienced distinctly and cannot help compare these with our own.

This summer, the teachers went on a three-day exploration of South Korea. It was very cold when we arrived. It was spring and the temperature can go as low as 11 degrees when we were there. We were taken to a restaurant for dinner. We had a bulgogi that consisted of beef, clear noodles cooked in soup and other flavors, rice, side dishes and kimchi. I thought to myself, "Wow! Authentic kimchi at last!" not knowing that we will be fed with this delicacy with every meal

One thing I noticed is that Korea is not as tourist-friendly. Unlike Hong Kong where all signs are accompanied by English translations, Korean business establishments, especially restaurants only bore Korean characters. A foreigner would easily get lost for he/she could not read the signs. Why is this? Korea does not need tourists to survive. They will do so on their own.

My biggest impression is that Korea is as efficient as any well-developed country there is. Their systems work well. Why not? It is considered to be one of three greatest nations in Asia and ranked thirteenth in the world. What is fascinating is that while it has incorporated into its system the wonders of technology, it has not forgotten its rich cultural heritage. If there is one difference with our culture, it would be that the Koreans love their country and proud of their ethnic traditions with a passion that is truly remarkable. We saw several cultural shows and I saw how the Koreans really loved watching them.

Korea, like the Philippines, had been colonized by Japan, albeit for a longer period of time. They had been oppressed a thousand fold by the Japanese, having been a colony for thirty or so years. It underwent the agony of a civil war thereafter dividing their nation into two. And yet, they are more progressive than us in many ways. Seoul for instance, dubbed as the "miracle on the Han" to refer to the rapid growth it underwent from the 1960's to the 1990's, boasts of all the amenities of a modern-day city sans the heavy traffic, crime and pollution. As a country, Korea is a powerhouse that forced the west to strengthen the world's perception of political instability with its strained relations with the north knowing that it would be a super power should they combine forces.

I know my observations may be a little way-off from what Korea truly is for I have been there for a very short time. However, in the three days that I spent there, I never saw lazy men just hanging around a corner store making nonsense talk like how they had been bummed out the previous night, women who have better things to do than gossip, or a mix of middle-aged men and teen-agers engaged in an alcoholic drink early in the morning like we often do here. I have not seen land that was not transformed into a garden of vegetables or flowers. As a matter of fact, what I saw were numerous greenhouses and more road constructions that crossed mountains. I have been to theme parks that teemed with a lot of people and yet, did not find garbage like you do in people's park in Tagaytay. Their toilets are well maintained, replete with soap and tissues around and I am not even talking about tourist spots but ordinary public toilets. They practice garbage segregation, street food is clean and the people are well-disciplined. They are very industrious which they inculcate to their young at a very early age. I know this for a fact because I had occasion to take several Koreans for a special Saturday painting class for several months and I saw how they spend their weekends - either studying a musical instrument, taking art lessons or martial arts.

In fairness to the Philippines, our culture had been damaged severely by foreign oppressors. As Nick Joaquin puts it, "three centuries in the convent, fifty years of Hollywood" are a lot of years and these took its toll. We have lost our identities literally and figuratively. We have been forced to accept a religion that was used to oppress us by the Spaniards, made consumers instead of producers by the Americans making us think that anything produced within our shores are substandard. Our aesthetic ideal is something that we are not. We believe that true beauty consists of white skin, thin lips, blonde hair and a sharp nose. Even the growth of our language had been stunted due to our colonial mentality. While we boast of being the only Asian country that speak English well, what edge does that serve but only to make slaves of our people on distant shores - teachers becoming underpaid yayas and lately, doctors studying hard to become nurses where none of its nationals would want to do menial tasks. While some have been fortunate, a lot more had failed. How many Fillipinas had been raped? How many contract workers had come home inside a box?

Given more time to stay in that country, I know my impressions of Korea may change. Who knows? In the meantime, my idea of what Korea represents will remain - that if there is something we can learn from them, it will be to love our own country, take pride of who we are, work hard and aspire for a better nation. The systems in play in Korea are effective and very efficient because the people willed it to be so. They all participate in making their systems work and these did.


this article appeared in a DLSZ newsletter

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