I HAVE always wondered how Koreans have taken the Philippines by storm. After the wave of Korean dramas ruling television primetime ratings, the country has also seen the escalating immigration rates of Korean nationals. Assuming that it was always a difficult feat to immerse oneself in a different cultural system, I pondered as to how they manage to integrate so well with us Filipinos.

To shed light on my queries about Koreans, I signed up for the Cultural and Educational Exposure Trip to South Korea last July 3-13, 2006. Financed by the Korean government and the National Institute for International Education Development (NIIED), the program was devised not only to encourage tourists to visit Korea but for the participants to make lasting connections with another Asian culture.

Annyonghaseyo!

During our arrival with the Vietnamese and Thai delegates, we were received by NIIED officials Mr. Kim, Wook Dong, Ms. Sharon Choi and Mr. Andrey Vasilyev. We headed for Seoul and met up with other delegates from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan.

After the welcoming ceremony with President Na, Jong-Hwa of the NIIED, we were given a brief presentation about the Korean system of education and lectures on the Korean history, economy, and architecture. A crash course on how the nation rose to its current economic success followed. According to the presentations, Korea’s leaders were very consistent in using its strengths in the most advantageous manner possible, hinting how driven the country is in fulfilling their long term goal of becoming a global leader.

Harnessing their relatively well-educated and well-trained labor force, they started with light manufactured goods and shifted towards highly technical products that dramatically catapulted their over-all economic growth. This success was brought about by the aggressive development of the Chaebols (large companies owned and managed by family members or relatives) like Hyundai, Samsung, LG and Daewoo. Surprisingly, these companies who popularly manufacture electronics and automobiles are involved with truly unrelated businesses that offer a wide spectrum of products and services from sugar, household cleaning materials, resorts, theme parks, and even advertising agencies. A common trait of all these companies is the passion for global excellence and they have full capacity to deliver with flying colors as impressed by the fast-growing sales of these companies.

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Korean food treats and banchans

Korean cuisine is largely noodle and rice based. According to Ms. Sharon, the seasonal changes usually determine the type of food prepared. When the weather is cold, Koreans prepare food with a cooling effect to balance the heat, such as lightly seasoned soup with leeks. Meals are served hot and usually spicy. Vegetables like leeks and bean sprouts counter-act the spiciness of the other food.

Arirang, a restaurant near our hotel, is usually where we have our meals. We sat on the cushions on the floor and ate on low tables. One must get used to metal chopsticks, spoons, bowls and cups are used in most restaurants and canteens. Korean delicacies like the bulgogi, Bibimbap in a stone bowl and Ginseng chicken are only a few of the scrumptious meals that we ate. In all sorts of its forms, shapes and sizes, kimchi is the staple banchan (side dish) in almost all of Korean meals.

Apart from eating in traditional restaurants, we also got to experience dinners on our own. We also sampled the local fast-food that Korea has to offer. The bulgogi-burger of fast-food store Lotteria is one of the best-sellers amongst the Filipino delegates. We cannot leave Korea without trying their street food like the spicy rice cake, chicken balls, and sausages. These sumptuous meals go a lot better with soju, a sweet rice-based alcoholic beverage that is similar to vodka.

Kamsahamnida

The most rewarding experience from the program was the overnight stay with a Korean family, where I met Yun-Jung and her family. We were taught to call the mom of the family as Ajimoni, but I later found out that this was now considered as old-fashioned because it made moms feel old, so I opted to use the term Omma (mother). Yun-Jung, who is a high school graduate is one year my junior. She is currently out of school since the family has not decided yet as to how they would finance her college education. I learned a lot from this young Korean girl as she shared the struggles of an average Korean family in Seoul.

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Meanwhile, a tour of the Kyung-Hee University and Postech University gave us a glimpse of Korea’s student life and a chance to interact with students our age. They encouraged us to take part their foreign student program and learn intensive Korean. Their warm welcome and calm demeanor makes it easy for foreigners to integrate into the Korean populace. This must be the reason why Koreans easily adapted to the Philippines culture.

I am very thankful for being part of the program. It did not only enable me to see Korea in a different perspective, but it allowed me to make real connections with people from other Asian countries. We were able to transcend language barriers and make genuine connections. No matter how vast Asia is, the program was able to make the continent warmer, closer and less distant.

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