Thursday, October 20, 2011

It's not all about Kimchi

I was a tourist when I first visited South Korea. Being a tourist is not the best way to see a country. Not only is the time too short with a fully-packed itinerary that one does not have time to use all the senses to their fullest capacity. What you get is a sensory overload of impressions without actually ingesting the essence of each aroma, taste, sight and touch. More so, one is trapped in a plastic bubble bouncing here and there and not really acquiring the pulse of the country and its people. Hence, my first time was all temples and shopping malls and whatever a tour guide does to drain you of valued cash with no actual contact with the locals. It is not too long before I suspected I was only seeing what they want me to see - a sugar-coated candy that will be sweet till the last bite. And to think I am diabetic!

This is the reason why I got so excited that Sunday morning when I got a text from no less than the Brother President asking me if I wanted to join him in Korea to arrange for a school cultural exchange deal. After making sure it was the South and not the North we were visiting, I readily said yes after excitedly telling my wife about it and getting her nod. I began making preparations for the trip. I saw to it that I had a suit, undershirts, matching ties, shoes, and most of all, calling cards – a very important commodity for Koreans and the Japanese.

I was part of a 3-man delegation headed by the Brother President, who we fondly call Broden, and Ms. Lani Maderazo, the Head of the Cultural Program of the school. We were escorted by Mr. Kevin Lee, a Korean whose line of work is about creating exchange programs between Korean schools and different schools abroad primarily for sports, but in effect, also covers the academics and the arts.

We arrived at Incheon Airport around 11:30 pm on October 16 aboard Cebu Pacific Flight 5J194. We had to traverse a long road going to our first destination at Cheungchungbok-do. As it was already way past dinner, I was extremely hungry. Kevin, God bless him, intended to feed us first before heading off to our first destination. Unfortunately, the restaurants at the airport were already closed so, we went out and had dinner at what I supposed is a usual stop for those arriving and leaving the airport. It goes without saying that I was excited to eat my bibimbop so much so that when Kevin saw me gobbling the food, he told me to slow down and savor the taste. That was my first faux pas.

On our arrival at Cheungchungbok-do after about an hour and a half drive at a 120 km car cruise, Kevin billeted us at the elegant Ramada Hotel. The place was chilly and very quiet as if we were the only creatures still alive at that time. It was 1:30 am. The following morning, after a hearty buffet breakfast at the hotel, clad in our finest suits, we went to our first destination, the Daesong Elementary School, a privately-owned school where Kevin's son studies. The school is very impressive. It employs Canadian teachers who teach English; as a result, the students there spoke in correct grammar and have good pronunciation skills.

he second school we visited was Saegwa High School - the real purpose of our visit to Korea as the two school presidents of both schools are to sign a Memorandum of Understanding as regards the exchange program our schools are to make. We were greeted with a banner welcoming our arrival and warmly met by no less than the president and his committee. Just like the first school, we were taken to the school’s head’s office, asked to sit down on huge stately sofas opposite one another that surround a huge coffee table. With an interpreter nearby, we were formally introduced to one another and after a brief exchange of pleasantries and calling cards, were offered tea to drink. With all the protocol we underwent in both schools, I was already feeling like an ambassador on a State visit. Then, we were led to an auditorium where students had been waiting for us. I began to suspect music like “Hail to the Chief” would begin to fill the air by then but I realized that would be wishing for “the whole nine yards.” Nevertheless, I felt I was a member of the Diplomatic Corps with all the fanfare afforded to us.

The two presidents took turns in speaking their prepared speeches with the Korean translator at the podium interpreting. After the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding and photo ops, we were taken to lunch at a traditional restaurant on a mountain called Songrisen, about an hour drive from the school. It was my first traditional restaurant experience where you had to eat with nothing to separate a diner and the floor except for a thin pillow. I sat with my feet in a lotus position while the side dishes (about 20 of them) and the main course were being served. After 10 minutes, my feet began to feel numb and before I felt pins and needles, I managed a short stretch or else I would have to be put on a stretcher because I could not even stand on my own. The food, for me, was delicious for unlike Filipino food that is always more on the salty kind. There were some that certainly had to be an acquired taste. However, it was not all too different for my taste buds for after all, I have a huge appetite for stranger things. After lunch, our hosts took us to the nearby Songrisan National Park where one finds a very ancient temple and a very big Buddha that dwarfs any human being beside it. Images of the Forbidden City flashed before my eyes as we walked marvelling at the temple and nearby edifices. The multi-colored trees on the background gave me a feeling of peace and tranquillity. I could have stayed there for a whole day reading a good book or painting with watercolor sufficient to make me a very contented man.

That night, we were invited to a lavish dinner by the school administrators and some members, probably officers, of the parents association. Just like lunch, we were to dine the Korean way; leave shoes at the front, wear the provided slippers and sit on the floor while eating. Added to my agony of having to sit on the floor, I still have yet to master using their iron chopsticks. My second faux pas came when I dropped food on that immaculately clean floor simply because it slipped from my chopsticks. The female interpreter could sense how hard it was for me and she could only empathize. But I had no complaints for they fed us well. We were presented gifts and after bidding everyone adieu, went back to the hotel satiated.

The next day, we started early as we had to leave for Seoul. Along the way, our first stop was a school for the arts, similar, in lack of a better comparison, to our Makiling High School for the Arts. It, too, was on top of a mountain. However, students there stay for a five-day retreat to gain experience in ceramic pottery, candle-making, dance, drama and what-have-you. We were met by the owner, a sculptor, and several guys whose names I do not recall in spite of the cards given me. We were served lunch and after a tour of the area, we were on our way to Seoul.

We visited more schools but to avoid redundancy, allow me to just talk about two more schools which I find very notable. The first one is the Ahyon Polytechnic School, a school where teen-agers learn the rudiments of the performing arts. At the ground floor, one finds the students learning how to do make-up and props for the theatre. The materials they use are just too impressive and the students’ works, impeccable. The second floor is composed of rooms that had standard varied musical instruments. Each room is complete with drum sets, amps for guitars and are ready for recording sessions. The piano room had several pianos with headsets attached to each one lest the room becomes a cacophony of piano renditions of varied tunes playing simultaneously. The teacher can just plug in to what piano he wanted to hear just like what we have in speech clinics. We were treated to a two-woman act of a song and dance routine as they rehearsed for a show the following day - a show we were invited to watch. One group played Quicy Jones’ Ai No Corrida, a disco sound from the early 80’s that amazed us at how they sounded just like the original.

The other is the Gwanak Camp, a facility where students learn to speak English. Not necessarily a school as we conceive it to be, this is a public facility where Grade 6 pupils in different schools come for five days to learn from teachers coming from the US, Canada and Great Britain. The facility is very impressive as it has top of the line gadgets and learning tools imaginable

As for the cultural aspect of our visit, we were given a taste of both the pop and the high-end cultural shows. We were taken to the Korean Broadcasting System more popularly known as KBS (we have it in cable here) where famous singers like the group of Sandara Park used to play (we were told that her group is no longer famous). We were able to catch the more popular group called Sistar, an all- girl group who is uber sexy and beautiful (well, they sound good, too) among others. We also watched a cultural show entitled Miso, a dance concert featuring a love story that was tragic but was resolved with a happy ending.

My impressions of South Korea never changed from what I have when I first set foot in it. The country, with its very efficient system, seems to be flawless. With practically all vehicles, even the motorcycles that mobilize the city to its fast paced rhythm are armed with a GPS. The city streets are clean and devoid of people who have nothing better to do than ogle and watch for unknowing victims, or those “istambays” drinking at the corner of the street that plagues Manila. There, everyone is busy trying to live a decent life, industrious and effectively doing their chores.

With my recent trip, I have learned how the elders educate their young - with a fully functional government funding most of the schools with a “no holds barred” policy of providing the learners with excellent, quality education. The schools, with their ubiquitous huge mirrors that welcome everyone, one suspects that these are not just for vanity’s sake but for something more sublime, their flare for traditions, rituals and protocols like bowing and leaving the slippers at the door, and the respect one gives to another no matter what stature one has in society that even superiors bow to his/her subordinates as a sign of respect. One can feel the love for country and what it stands for in each and everyone. I can just marvel at the level of confidence of every individual knowing that one is just as good as the person beside him/her. With the government spending for more instructors who are native speakers of English, I have the feeling that while we have seen the influx of Koreans here in the country, someday, the onrush will stop as they have already acquired what they want from us in their own land and we will, once more, be left behind as we impatiently hie into the roads of progress, rather carelessly, only to be marred by an undisciplined populace made lazy by an obfuscate political system and an unabashed corruption of greedy leaders who care for nothing except to enrich themselves by stealing from the public coffers.