Walking with Haechi – Part 2

26 02 2010

I know I’ve written about this in the previous entries, but every
morning during our stay, I would always gaze at my watch in
disbelief, unable (or uwilling) to believe that the time indicated was
indicative of what I was seeing outside our window.

“Nevermind the time difference – it is NOT seven in the
morning yet!”

Alas, it usually was.

Despite Seoul being reputed as the world’s most connected
city, we often found ourselves in those ever-so-rare places where
there is no WiFi coverage. In fact, the only place where we could
get a stable signal was in the hotel lobby. Every morning, en route
to breakfast, I would encounter my more tech-savvy companions
huddled together on the lobby’s singular bench, busily tapping
away on their laptops.

Breakfast at the hotel is the same everyday – a buffet
containing, in order: leafy vegetables and lychees for a salad,
assorted salad dressings, butter and jam, toasted bread, breakfast
rolls and croissants (yes!), French Toast, slices of ham,
sausages, scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, rice porridge (similar
to arrozcaldo, sans ginger), pickled plums, kimchi (what
were you expecting?), an assortment of traditional breakfast items
(Mandu, Kimchi pancakes, etc.), caviar (well…I don’t think it was
real caviar per se, but it was certainly the eggs of some
sea creature – complete with the requisite briny taste), smoked
salmon (very lightly smoked, it seemed), breakfast cereal (muesli
and choco puffs), grapes, pineapple and watermelon wedges, and
orange, pineapple, and tomato juice, and fresh milk.Over by the
bar was a dandy little machine that cranked out espressos and
capuccinos at the touch of a button.

Lets just say that I hold that breakfast buffet responible for the
7 pounds I gained during our stay.

We took the bus to the headquarters of the Korea Youth
Association, nestled in this quaint-looking park on the other side of
the Han River, where I had to act out the whole leader bit

It turns out that the KYA is to Korea what the Boy Scouts and
Girl Scouts are to the Western world. There were quite a few
questions on both sides, like where did the KYA get its budget (it
is a private organization with governent grants), how did it recruit
members (through schools), and so on. I distinctly remember one
of our delgation going so far as to ask why the KYA Secretary
General communicated through an interpreter when (as my
colleague pointed out) he could communicate quite well in English.
The Sec-Gen chuckled and said, “So that we can put our English
-speaking staff to good use.”

On a side note, the KYA recently enlisted the aid of KPOP
boyband SHINee (pronounced “Shiny”) to help them with
promotions. The Sec-Gen mentioned that there was an astounding
growth in membership shortly after the posters featuring the group
were posted in schools all over Korea. Hannah, the KPOP fangirl
in our group, couldn’t resist asking for posters.

We adjourned at noon, and I was once again taken aback by
the position of the sun – again, it felt like it was only 10 in the
morning even though my watch clearly indicated it was already a
few minutes past noon.

Lunch was a dish called samgyetang, which is
basically a whole chicken in broth, and something that looked
exactly like fried chicken, tasted exactly like fried chicken, but
wasn’t fried (it was, however, chicken). Hojin spoke of it being
cooked with lasers…I’m yet undecided on the veracity of that claim
(because for the life of me, I could have sworn I was eating fried
chicken!). Naturally, there was plenty of kimchi.

You’re wondering about the samgyetang, aren’t you? Imagine
chicken soup…because that’s exactly what it is. Well, with the
exception of the chicken being a whole chicken in a pot, and the
said chicken was stuffed with a sort of rice porridge. The chicken
itself tastes rather bland, by Filipino standards – I realize that when
we cook, we demand flavor, so we naturally go overboard
with salt and spices – something that the Koreans don’t really do.
But then, I’m not given to nitpicking: food is food – if it tastes bland,
there’s no way I’m going to make a big deal out of it. I ate it

Our scheduled tour of Yonsei University was still hours away,
so we whiled away the time in the shopping district next to Ehwa
(Iwa in hangeul) Womens University – one of, if not the best
universities in the coutry excusive for ladies.

Jeff and I limited ourselves mainly to the areas one can see
from the main entrance – the auditorium, the Graduate School, and
– actually, I’m not sure what to call it – this…building…built right
through and into a hill. Formally known as the Ehwa
Campus Complex, this unexpected structure houses lecture halls,
cafeterias, study areas…even a bank.

I must admit that while I am a proud alumnus of the
premeire university of my country (UP – anyone who insists
otherwise is sourgraping), I couldn’t help but feel…poor…peering
through the glass-and-steel walls of the Campus Complex that

Did I mention that it was cold? Really cold. I actually bought a
second scarf – a nice, long, red one that smelled like it had been in
a closet for too long – but I didn’t care. It was just so cold…

Yonsei University (“The First and the Best”, according to
them) isn’t really that far from EWU, but the campuses are so
staggeringly big, spanning several city blocks, that it takes about
10 minutes by bus to go from one to another. I had high hopes
visiting Yonsei – several of my Korean students would like to study
there for college, and by the time the tour was done, I wanted to
study there myself. Hehe.

A little note on how Korea’s higher-educational system works:
On their last year of high school, Korean students take a national
exam that, according to Hojin, tests them on everything they have
ever learned since elementary. How they score on this
exam is the determining factor with regards to what kind of
university they can apply for and be admitted into – the higher the
score, the better class of university. Only the top scorers can be
admitted into the top 3 universities (dubbed SKY – Seoul
National University, Korea University, and Yonsei
University). It goes without saying that competition is fierce and
the pressure to score high is unimaginable to us – mainly because
1.) it occurs on a national scale and 2.) believe it or not, Philippine
culture does not value education as much as we would like to
believe. But anyway, I digress…

Right upon stepping onto Yonsei’s campus, the immediate
parallel I drew was with our own Ateneo de Manila University – they
both have the hawk as their mascot, and they both have blue as
their school color. Both are obviously moneyed institutions of
learning, complete with all the modern facilities to prove it. The
difference is that the scale to which it is evident in Yonsei
is…well…off the scale.

We spent some time at the International Lounge, where
English is spoken exclusively, and spoke with a few of the
students we found there. I remember asking why they chose
Yonsei and not Seoul (which is to Korea what UP is to the
Philippines) and this one girl – Anna was her name, think – replied,
“Because Seoul Univeristy is in the middle of nowhere!”

Hmm…can’t argue with that.

One of Yonsei’s student ambassadors then took us on a
guided tour of some of the more accessible parts of campus (i.e.
the ones within walking distance). She introduced herself as Allie,
and she certainly looked the part of ambassador – shockingly-red
coat over a stylish dress (note: I can tell a dress from a skirt,
thank you very much) – and as tour guides should, she talked us
through the history, culture, and campus of Yonsei University. She
made special mention of the site where parts of the very popular
movie My Sassy Girl were filmed. This was, obviously, of
great interest to us.

We eventually got her real name out of her, although we had to
convince her that her real name is preferable to the common
practice of adopting an “English” name – its Nayeong, by the

Two buildings stand out in particular for me: The Amphitheatre,
and the new Samsung Library. I was very much impressed by both
the size of the amphitheatre and the unique acoustics included in
the design – there’s a spot near centerstage (marked with an inlaid
circle) that anything spoken above a whisper is clearly broadcast
acoustically to the very last rows in the back.

The Samsung Library is everything a modern university library
should be – big, full of students studying, and packed with all the
jaw-dropping technology available. Want to read the todays paper?
Walk up to one of the big touch screens in the lobby, choose your
newspaper, and read it right there in all its digitized glory. Fancy
an article? Touch it and it automatically zooms in for easier
reading. Want to see what’s on the next page? Flick the screen,
and the thing flips to the next page. Fantastic.

It makes me wonder what might have been if UP had been a
little more open to privatization back when I was a student. Oh
well. You can’t have world-class facilities and enjoy a college
education on a budget too.

Like I mentioned earlier, by the time the tour was winding
down (and the temperature starting to plummet), we were all
asking Nayeong what academic programs did Yonsei offer to
foreigners. I myself have taken quite an interest in the Korean
Language Institute there. Ah, someday, someday.

Dinner was this very spicy stew of pork, leafy vegetables, rice
cake (I so adore those chewy little things), and noodles all in this
thick, fiery pepper paste. I forgot the local name for it, but it was
an excellent meal (Junghyun wanted me to know that I didn’t
have to finish it), and a much needed break from the bitter
cold outside…

…which greeted us in full force once we stepped out and made
our way back to the bus. The streets were crowded with people
bustling in all directions. Conversation at this point was sparce
(although I recall a brief comparison among Hojin, Hannah, and I
regarding which member of SNSD we liked the most – “Yoona is a
goddess.” I remember Hojin saying), most of our energies directed
towards keeping ourselves warm. I know I keep saying this, but I
can’t seem to ephasize it enough – it was COLD, COLD, COLD!!!
So cold that a few of us went for broke and just sprinted on ahead
of us towards the bus.

We then made our way to a well-known folk theatre to watch
Miso(which means Smile in Korean), a sort of folk musical. We arrived at the place with several busloads of Japanese tourists, and
it was rather surprising how one could easily tell Koreans and
Japanese apart from one another – for one, the Japanese had
darker skin and they just looked…different. Since us Filipinos
didn’t resemble either party in any way, we decided to be
ourselves and prod, poke, and experiment with anything in the
lobby that wasn’t nailed down. We posed with the casiers, the
ushers…even the life-size standees of the actors and actresses (I
remember an old Japanese gentleman chuckling good-naturedly at
how one of us – Jeff, I think – pretended to make out with the
standee of the main actress). We marvelled at the free tea being
distributed at the front desk (real tea, not iced tea), and how the
water dispenser used small paper bags to hold water and
not cups.

The show itself was nice – I was very much impressed by how
the stage constantly transformed as musical progressed – these
large wooden panels would open and shut and rotate in a myriad of
formations, transforming the stage from a riverside scene to the
interior of a palace in an instant. I was also impressed by the live
music. Yes, all of it was live. And it was all done with traditional
instruments (except for the cymbals, which had “Zildjian” stamped
on them – definitely not traditional).

The story is basically a love story the spans the four seasons –
it starts with a Spring Courtship and ends the next Spring with
(predictably) a wedding. Its nothing new, really (Hojin slept through
the whole thing, saying he’s seen in countless times since he was
a kid), but two acts really stood out for me: the Drumming
Maidens of Summer (I think), and the Samulnori.

The Drumming Maidens scene was just pure awesome. The
girls were all dressed in beautifully-colored robes, their movements
so well-coordinated it was kind of freaky, and the beats were funk
-ay, baby! Here’s a Youtube video to give you an idea of what it
was like:

But most impressive of all was the Samulnori, a
traditional peasant’s dance that involves a lot of drums and
interesting headgear and some super-freaky whirling dance moves
that seem lifted right out of a kung-fu film. You can watch a video
of it on Youtube here:

Bored with it already? You probably didn’t watch the whole
thing. Go back and watch it. Pay attention to the part when the
tempo picks up.

I fell asleep in the bath tub that night. Hot water all the way.

Walking with Haechi (Part 1b)

4 12 2009

After lunch we checked out of the hostel and boarded the bus for Seoul

Remember I said that Korea seemed to be full of apartments? My impression was only reinforced during the two-hour bus ride – there were clusters of apartments so high and expansive, it looked as if they could easily hold the population of my city here in the Philippines.

For those of you who have been to Baguio city in northern Luzon, Seoul resembles it to some degree: the city is built upon several rolling hills, most of which are covered with buildings of one sort or another. Yet somehow, Seoul manages to retain a decidedly suburban atmosphere – even with highrises and skyscrapers all around me, I ever lost the feeling that nature and the countryside were only an arm’s-length away (contrast this with say, downtown Makati, where nature not only feels far away, it actually is far away).

We checked-in at the Hamilton Hotel on Itaewon Road. We were told that more foreigners were in this district than native Koreans, and the plethora of shops and restaurants cateringto foreign tastes stood as testament to this (there was even a mosque!).

With a few more hours left in the day, we were taken to Insadong – a well-known shopping district that, according to Hojin, specialized in traditional Korean…stuff. Jeff and Elsa, one of our NYC supervisors, attemptes to brave the cold in flipflops. I guess nobody informed them that the temperature drops at night.

Insadong street was, to put it simply, crowded. Sidewalks teemed with pedestrians and shopping stalls,competing for space. More than a few just set up shop in the middle of the street, leaving the few cars foolish enough to attempt to drive down the road to their own devices in negotiating their way through. It was here I saw my first ever homeless Korean – he looked (and smelled) very similar to our “taong grasa” – the difference being that he was bundled-up.

Korea is famous for its cheap and awesomely filling streetfood, and I think no variety of streetfood was absent from Insadong – there were stalls selling sausages on a stick (Soondae in Korean), rice cakes dipped in meat-and-chili sauce (ddeokbokki), fried dumplings, and my personal favorite, bbundegi – silkworm larva, which came boiled and served by the cupfull.

I just had to try bbundegi – what’s the point of going to a foreign country and not experiencing the native fare? Besides, we feed balut to foreigners with undisguised glee, so its a fair trade. Bbundegi’s texture in the mouth is like shrimp with the shell still on – firm on the outside, pretty juicy on the inside. As for flavor, I suspect it takes on the flavor of whatever it is cooked in – the critters in my cup had a decidedly nutty flavor. Not bad, really – but Jeff took one bite and to this day, cannot stand so much as the smell of bbundegi.

We made our way to Ssamzegil (spelled “ssamjigil” in Korean) market, which is a shopping arcade of sorts. With three floors built in a continuous upward spiral, all one has to do is walk along the main walkway and pretty soon you will find yourself on the roof, never having climbed any stairs.

It was at this point that my colleagues could no longer restrain themselves and thus introduced the Korean people to the “jump shot” – basically, a picture taken while the subjects are suspended, mid-jump, in the air. It is no doubt quite fun to do, but it is not the easiest shot to make, and repeated jump shots in public places quickly become obnoxious. I soon began noticing the annoyed glances thrown by passers-by at our little group (my companions couldn’t care less), and to keep my sanity, I chose to stick close to Junghyun and Hojin as they wandered off towards a tea house on the second floor.

True to form, I pestered them with questions regarding how some of the women (actually, a lot of them) could walk around in short (above the knee) skirts despite the cold (“They’re suffering for their fashion.” Hojin answered.), the popularity of bbundegi (“Excellent food if you’re into body building.”), and why everyone seemed to dress in somber-colored clothes (“I only noticed that now, once you mentioned it.”).

Dinner was at a restaurant in the basement of Ssamzegil – I didn’t get the name, but apparently, the place was one of the best restaurants in Seoul when it comes to bibimbap, a dish that consists of various vegetables (and an egg) arranged on a bowl of rice.

Now I’ve had bibimbap before (its one of my favorite Korean dishes, actually), but not on the scale that I had that evening. The bowl was immense…I think three cups of rice (the way they serve it at our local carenderia) could have easily fit in that brass bowl (now that I think about it, the bowl actually did contain that much rice), and while I’m known to finish whatever is set in front of me, I just couldn’t…there was just too much bibimbap. And did I forget to mention there were still about five or six sidedishes that were served alongside it?

Stuffed as we were, Jeff and I still stepped out of the hotel later that night (about 10 o’clock) and I…I treated myself to a nice big cup of Baskin Robbins ice cream from across the street – my first in over 20 years (I was maybe 4 or 5 years old the last time I had tasted their ice cream). I can’t quite express the satisfaction of buying something in a language other than one (or ones) you are comfortable with – just pointing to Raspberry Cheescake and saying “Igeo juseyo” (This please) and having the crew actually understand me was just bliss – almost as good as the ice cream itself. Almost.πŸ˜‰

…although I must admit a little bit of awkwardness when specifiying the size of cup I wanted, since I had to pronounce it with a Korean accent – “King Cup” became “King Cuppa”…not to mention I couldn’t understand the cashier when she told me the price – “Samcheon won juseyo.” (3000 won please).

We then decided to walk the length of Itaewon, all the way to the highway, where we watched the cars (Kia and Hyundai, mostly) go by and shivered as the temperatures plumetted to the single digits. There were times, especially when the wind blew into our faces, that we could swear it was already below zero. Whoever said that there’s no wind in Seoul has never actually been to Seoul, as far as I’m concerned.

I spent a long time under the hot shower after that, needless to say.

Walking with Haechi (Part 1a)

25 11 2009

I was up at 6AM the next day, mildly disoriented with regards to where I was on the planet (I think I was dreaming about someplace in the Philippines, so you can imagine the initial schock when I awoke and realized I was in Korea). It took me almost an hour to get my bearings while I took a nice, hot shower.While my roommates slept, I decided to go for a walk.

I don’t know how it is in the Spring and Summer months, but 7AM in November has about as much light in the sky as 530AM here. It felt very strange.

Even stranger to me was the fact that the streets (covered in yellow ginko – or 은행- leaves) were almost devoid of traffic – pedestrian or otherwise. I kept checking my watch in disbelief. “When is everyone going to get up for work???” I wondered.

I first stopped by the little children’s playground nextdoor to the hostel. The ground around the playground was covered in a mat of rubbery yet styrofoamy material, and there was exercise equipment right there for anyone to use, free of charge (mostly step masters, a low-resistance pec deck, and this curious contraption shaped like the wheel of a ship) – I couldn’t help thinking that if such a place existed in the Philippines, somebody will have chopped the equipment up and sold it as scrap metal, 50 pesos to a kilo, long before anyone actually got to use it. Sigh.

It was nippy that morning (and every morning for that matter), so any sighing produced those delightful puffs of steam that bring such delight to first-time visitors of Baguio City (a very high-altitude city in the Northern part of the Philippines).

I wandered onto the property of a community middle school, noting with amusement how the playground had this big sign on it saying, “Teenager Land”. In the Philippines, a place like that would have been swarming with children by that time in the morning. But there, like I pointed out awhile ago, all was still and quiet.

I proceeded to walk around the block, behind the building with the massage parlor (we had passed by its front the night before), noting the convenience stores we had passed over in favor of the familiar 7-Eleven. Middle-aged men and women were busy sweeping the leaves from their storefronts while a few were clearly walking around the block for exercise (their tracksuits were a dead giveaway). I spotted a few students, mostly girls, headed for the subway – I shook my head in wonder at how they could still wear knee-length skirts despite the cold.

Sparrows are not a common sight in Korea. Instead, they have this bird, about the size of a crow or raven, which is black on top and white on the bottom. I took a few photos of one, but I never did find out what it was called.

Breakfast was “Western”, according to Junghyun – toast, jam, eggs and ham, and orange juice that was too “intense”, according to Shella, another co-delegate (actually, it was just real orange juice; in the Philippines, orange juice is usually from concentrate, and given our sweet tooth, comes loaded with sugar). There was a bit of a laugh when we tried to get some coffee – the staff had this look on their faces as we spoke to them in English (you know, the “look”); I tried to communicate in what Korean I knew (“Kopi juseyo” – a bit inadequate, I must admit), but this apparently came as such a shock to the staff, they couldn’t understand what I was saying.

We had a bit of free time between breakfast and our 11am program orientation with none other than the NCYOK president himself, so everyone either wandered outside to take photos or went in search of wifi hotspots, laptops in hand. I do recall a few of us, trying not to appear cowardly in the face of the cold, ventured outside in t-shirts and flipflops. That didn’t last long, obviously.

A few minutes before the meeting, we were introduced to Hojin, our interpreter for the duration of our stay. Dressed in his sharp-looking business suit, we thought he was an employee of the NCYOK. Turns out he was a 22 year-old college student who had been hired specifically for the program.

A major surprise awaited me at the orientation: I was to sit at the head of the table beside the NCYOK president himself…and give a speech!

Before actually setting out for Korea, I had been appointed as delegation head by the NYC (for reasons I still do not know, to this day) – but nobody informed me I would actually have to give a speech – much less smile and have my photo taken repeatedly with the NCYOK president! I tried to differ to the two NYC representatives who were with us, but everyone seemed more inclined to tell me what to say instead of saying it themselves (a typically Filipino trait, by the way).

I must admit it is a bit odd delievering a speech via interpreter – one must pause after a sentence or two to allow the interpreter to do his job. This of course becomes a bit of a problem when you are going for a long sentence, or one with multiple points, as one tends to forget what one is trying to say while the interpreter…er…interprets. Nevertheless, things went without a hitch, and I did my best to be as diplomatic and ambassador-like as possible. We exchanged tokens (while smiling for the photographer) – a golden model of a jeepney for him, an inlaid jewelry box (oh so that’s what that was!) and a spoon-and-chopsticks set for me – and then piled onto the bus to a local restaurant for a traditional shabu-shabu lunch.

It was during this part of the trip that I noticed how odd Korean time felt to us – it was past noon, and yet the sun was only at the 10AM position (for us in the Philippines) in the sky (just so we’re clear, Korea is an hour ahead of us). Needless to say, it felt awfully early for lunch.

For lunch, we were all seated at this low table with legless chairs – me opposite the president and beside the interpreter for good measure. The serving ladies (you can’t really call them waitresses) began fussing over us, firing up the burners on the table, changing out spent fuel containers, and setting plate upon plate of leafy vegetables, paper-thin slices of beef, various sauces, and of course, the omnipresent kimchi – in two varieties for good measure.

We committed our first somewhat embarassing faux pas here: Jeff, our youngest delegate, spotted a container of rice near his plate. Naturally, he thought he should eat it (I had a similar container next to me, and the only thing that stopped me from dumping it onto my plate was the fact that I was too busy asking Hojin my first of countless questions – a habit that I would later be remembered for) and emptied the dish onto his plate.

There was a small fuss as one of the serving ladies hurried over, grabbed his plate, and dumped the rice back into the container, all the while saying something none of us Filipinos could understand (duh).

It turns out that the rice was meant to be mixed with the leftovers of the shabu-shabu to be turned into a sort of porridge with which to round-off the whole meal. Well, Jeff and the rest of us responded the way Filipinos do when faced with embarassment: we laughed. For the rest of our stay, we would regard a lone bowl of rice at the table with caution, first asking our hosts if it was meant for immediate eating.

I posed a question to Hojin regarding how to call someone’s attention in Korean. You see, Korean culture is big on politeness and respect – so big that it is reflected in the language: there is a particular way to speak to elders and people in authority (formal speech), a way to speak to people in general (polite), and a way of speaking reserved only for those one is intimate with. Getting it mixed up is a sure way to receive raised eyebrows. Our only real exposure to the language being from the ubiquitous Korean TV dramas and movies in the Philippines, I wanted to know how it was really done.

Hojin quickly told me to get rid of the word “ajumma” (middle-aged or old lady), since only the truly elderly would suffer a stranger calling them that. Instead, he told me to use the word “jogeyo” (it sounds like “chogeyo”), which is similar to the English expression “excuse me”. “But wait,” I followed up, “what about `Sillye hamnida’?”

“Well, yes, that can be translated as `excuse me’, but it connotes an apology of sorts, and so is best used when you are interrupting someone, for example.”

I was ecstatic, having received this new knowledge, and tried to put it to the test. I was in need of another saucer, so I took a deep breath and went for it.

“Jogeyo~” I called out (Koreans tend to prolong the ending vowel when calling out, so I’ve added the “~” at the end to illustrate this), right as one of the serving ladies was walking by. To my surprise, she stopped, looked at me, and I heard her say in this soft, almost musical voice, “Ne~?”

Remember that word: Ne. It means “yes” in Korean, and you will hear it a lot everywhere you go.

I was so shocked I had actually caught her attention, I almost forgot how to ask for a dish.

“Jeopshi juseyo.” I managed to mumble (“May I please have a saucer?”).

“Ne~.” She acknowledged and made a move towards the main counter. Very quickly she came back, holding up a finger. “Hana? Hana?” She asked.

“Ne, ne.” I replied, and the lady scuttled off. Hojin grinned. “That was perfect.”

I could get used to this.


Walking with Haechi (Part Zero)

24 11 2009

The plane we were on had a passenger manifest that was basically 90% Korean. You could say that simply boarding the plane was already an act of entering a foreign land.

Frankly, I was too excited to get any sleep during the four hour flight. I passed time mainly by reading, filling-up the quarantine and customs forms the flight attendants passed out to everyone. I remmember a brief glimpse of the setting sun. When darkness finally fell, my seatmate Boots – an instructor at the famed Ateneo de Manila – decided to try and decipher the Korean alphabet. I helped out what little I could. Before long, the lights of Seoul could be seen outside our windows.

I remember seeing the Incheon Bridge as we came in to land , and how unfamiliar the lights of Incheon City looked.

Our initial landing was a bit rough – one wheel, the left one, landed first with such a jarring impact it popped one of the overhead storage bins open. I remember taking note of how long it took for the plane to get from the runway to the actual passenger terminal – around 20 minutes. And I remember a curious feeling overtaking me when I saw that the ground crew were Koreans bundled-up for the cold and not my brown-skinned countrymen.

First, lets get this straight: Koreans are tall people. Sure, there are people on the short side, but throughout my stay, I noticed that they were usually the middle-aged and the elderly. Koreans in their 20’s and 30’s, on the otherhand, average 5′ 7″ and up – including the women – which means most Koreans are actually taller than us. For the record, I am 5′ 7″, and in the Philippines, that places me on the short side of tall. This means I don’t meet many women who are taller than me. In Korea, however, I never had to look far to find a lady who could look me in the eye while keeping her head completely level. Add to that the fact that a majority of the female population I saw wore heels, and well…you get the idea…

Incheon International is huuuuge – I later learned it was the largest in the world – so huge that we had to take a monorail of sorts to go from the disembarkation area to baggage claim. In between, we had to stop at immigration to get our passports checked – I remember the fidgety feeling standing in a long line of foreigners (95% of whom towered over me), waiting for the Korean gentleman at the counter to go over my passport and allow me entry into his country.

Having gotten through immigration and customs without a hitch, we got some of our money changed into Korean won before exiting the terminal to meet our handler.

Turns out our handler was this cheerful young lady by the name of Junghyun (the official romanization of (μ •ν˜„) would be “Jeonghyeon”, but Junghyun is what is on her business card). Her English, though halting, was clear and understandable, and she had a big, easy smile. She was dressed for business – mostly grays and blacks. Remember those heels I mentioned? She wore those. She was also wearing what I do believe to be gray, pinstriped “business shorts” over black stockngs – a definite first for me. she strutted through the terminal, leading us to the bus that would take us to our accomodations for the night.

Up to this point, we had felt little of the famed Korean cold that we had fully expected to greet us full blast upon getting-off the plane. Well, when we exited the airport building itself, it was there to greet us with open arms.

Now its true I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where winter often brings brutal, debilitating cold – but having lived in the tropical heat and humidity of the Philippines for 20 years, whatever antifreeze I had in my blood while in America had already thinned to the point of non-existence. It was cold – really cold. The oldest delegate, Jamel, tried to brave the cold in just a t-shirt and a muffler; that attempt didn’t make it beyond the bus.

Our bus driver (whom we referred to as “Manong Driver” for the remainder of our stay) was this cheerful gentleman in shirtsleeves, a vest, and a tie who did his best to keep pace with the somewhat over-energetic Filipinos who had taken over his bus. We all greeted him loudly (“Anyong haseyo!”) as we got on, and he greeted us back…although I didn’t understand what he said.

The first thing that struck me was that Korea’s highways are wiiiiide…we’re talking eight lanes or more; not even our famed North and South Expressways are quite as wide. They’re also almost devoid of traffic – although the fact that it was 10 at night could have contributed to that.

We drove through the Incheon countryside, and all I could see were the dark shapes of rolling hills, broken only by the somewhat eerie illumination of large expanses of apartment complexes. My dad told me of those complexes back when he was in Korea, but I never really imagined it would be the way I saw it that night. The closer we got to the Gimpo area, the denser the clusters of apartments became.

The main district of Gimpo was a mixture of commercial buildings and apartments, brightly lit with lights and signs advertising…well…stuff – while I can read Korean, I cannot necessarily understand it. We all laughed when we saw a hair salon called The Orange Salon – Jamel quipped it was probably because of all the oranges being sold on the sidewalk infront of it (we later learned why – and it made me feel like an ignorant idiot).

Our lodgings for the night was the Dreamtel Youth Hostel, which was conveniently located in the same building as the NCYOK headquarters. Junghyun apologized for housing us there, but we had arrived in Korea 15 hours ahead of schedule, and so there had been no time to rearrange our reservations at the hotel (more on the hotel in the next entry). You see, there are only two local airlines in the Philippines that make regular trips to Korea, and the airline who’s fares we could afford (Cebu Pacific!!! Wooot!) made only one trip everyday, leaving the Philippines at 4pm. The first item on the NCYOK’s itinerary for us had us having a banquet lunch with the NCYOK president at noon on the 11th, so the only way we could make it on time was to be in Korea on the night of the 10th.

Sorry if that didn’t make sense – suffice it to say that we had quite a bit of time on our hands.

Filipinos as we are, as soon as we had checked into the hostel, we “checked out” and set off into the heart of the Banghwa neighborhood, looking for adventure (and dinner).

Well, we found it – at the nearby 7-Eleven (yay!). The cashier – a bespectacled lady in her late teens – must have been shocked as 13 foreigners (“Waegugin” in Korean) converged on her little store and started wandering around the aisles, loudly broadcasting their shock at the prices (“8000 won for a sandwich???!!!”) in their harsh-sounding language (“Walong libo para sa sandwich?! Ano to?! Ginto?!!”) – we were still converting all the prices to our local currency: a futile effort since no matter how much 8000 won is worth in the Philippines (about 1760 pesos – whoa!!!), we were in Korea (more on prices later). She promptly came out from behind the counter and started pointing out to us the individual items.

A little bit on Filipino culture, for any of my international readers (all one of you! Haha!): even when we are guests in someone else’s house (or country), something inside of us makes us feel awkward when we are served – more often than not, we would prefer to do the serving. I’m not sure why, but its the truth. This was illustrated to hilarious effect during our stay in Korea, but more on that later. In a nutshell, I felt pretty embarrassed that our presence in the store was causing the poor salesgirl to go so far out of her way (about 8 feet from behind the cash register) to serve us – some of us took so long figuring out what to purchase, a small line of some grumpy-looking locals had already formed at the counter, the looks on their faces a cross between curiousity and irritation.I bought a sandwich, nuked it, then hurried out.

There were little tables and chairs set up on the sidewalk, so we had our dinners their, huddled against the biting cold. Guia and Jacky got an instant introduction to just how spicy Spicy Ramyun can be (its just a little short of actually setting your mouth on fire) and got instant runny noses. I took on an extra-spicy curry somebody couldn’t finish (you will know we are friends when I ask permission to finish your leftovers), while Boots got herself a sandwhich with some sort of peanut jelly for filling. Over dinner, this screen in the window of 7-Eleven kept showing this ad for Soju (Korea’s alcoholic beverage of choice), sans audio (turn off the audio for the full, bewildering effect). It thus took me awhile to figure out what it was for. A few moments later, her shift over for the day, the salesgirl exited the store and skipped down the street, apparently happy the whole ordeal with the foreigners was over.

It was so cold outside, everyone seemed in a bit of a hurry to get back to the hostel. Along the way, we noticed these little leaflets advertising the services of a nearby massage parlor with images of scantily-clad ladies strewn about the sidewalk. The ladies themselves stood in these shady alcoves nearby, dressed in black mini-skirts that
exposed their legs to the cold. They had this look on their faces – a look of bored irritation – as we passed them. I was taken aback by the sight of them – I admit that I hadn’t expected to see their sort in Korea, despite me knowing that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and there is no culture on this Silent Planet that is without them – it is merely a question of visibility.

In case any Koreans stumble upon this blog, please understand – this experience did not, in any way, lower my opinion of Korean society. I was just surprised.

The actual street the hostel was on was off the main road, and we had apartments, a church, and a middle school as neighbors – all but dark and deserted on that cold, late night. I stayed outside a few minutes longer than the rest to take photos of the creepy-looking apartment complex across the road (it was so quiet, I could hear a dry leaf scraping along the road in the wind – from around the bend!)…and to pray. Despite my knowledge to the contrary, there was this thought, deep inside: is God here too? Can His hand reach me here, in this far-away land?

I was nervous – our Korean adventure had officialy begun, and despite all the reading and preparations I had made, I knew next to nothing of what to expect. I turned my back on the cold, dimly lit streets of Banghwa and went to sleep.

Walking with Haechi (Prelude)

23 11 2009

It was my brother who first alerted me to the existence of the NYC’s Youth Exchange Program to South Korea. He just walked up to me one night and pointed the NYC’s website out to me (here it is, in case you’re curious).

Prior to this, traveling overseas – let alone Korea – was something I never really believed I would ever do: I’m a teacher, not some big-shot company representative – what business would a teacher have travelling abroad? And truth be told, I was rather resigned to that mindset.

Well, the announcement on the NYC website changed all of that overnight. Suddenly I was scrambling to get my 20 year-old passport renewed.

Throughout the preparation process, the thought kept bouncing back and forth in my head: Is this for real? Is this not but a dream? This shouldn’t be happening to me!

Like I said earlier: I was resigned to an unremarkable fate.

It was a real struggle, I must admit: balancing the natural excitement of the prospect of international travel with the sober reality that until I had a Korean visa in my hands, it was just a prospect. My parents summed it up neatly: “Prepare as if your travel is guaranteed.”

I spoke with a friend or two about the whole affair – my anxiety over the visa application, of meeting, interacting, and trying to make my peace with an altogether foreign culture and way of thinking, over who my fellow delegates might be. Over the course of such discussions, one of them helped me coin the term, “Social Ninja” – a person who easily blends with whatever culture he or she happens to find themselves in.

I read books, articles, and forum entries about Korea, marveling at the miasma of love affairs and horror stories centered around it. There was no doubt in my mind about whether or not I wanted to go – I did – but I also wondered if any of the horror stories would happen to me when I did. In case you’re wondering what sort of stories those may be, I shall direct you here and here (the real action is in the comments section). I warn you, some of the comments Β can be rather impressionable and while I cannot verify their veracity, I daresay they have the potential of preventing the reader from retaining an objective point of view when dealing with Koreans in the future.

Having actually been to Korea now, I shall comment a little more on this in another post.

Long story short, I found myself a month or so later on a plane for Incheon International Airport, a Korean visa in my passport, and 10 other delegates (plus 2 NYC supervisors) for company…on a plane 90% full of Koreans.

The adventure begins.

An Update!!! Woohoo!

23 11 2009

I remember reading a something a long time ago – “Art is bleeding on a page.”

Well, I guess I haven’t been bleeding Β much as of late.

In the news:

  1. I’ve completed the first half of the Education Program at school, which means I am now only 5 subjects away from qualifying for the licensure exam. I finished last semester with a GPA of 1.1…which is the highest I’ve ever receivedever – so I’m very thankful for that. I know it doesn’t mean much, since this isn’t a degree course, but I’ve decided to make it a point to celebrate even little victories.
  2. I went to Seoul about a week ago, as a delegate for the National Youth Commission’s Philippines – Korea Youth Leaders Exchange program.

Since what’s left of my avid readers can testify to my quest to learn Korean, I shall concentrate on the second news item in my future posts – besides, there’s nothing left to say about the first item anyway.

An Anatomy of an Arrangement

3 08 2009

Hohoho…been neglecting the web journal a bit have we, ey?

Well, its only because there’s not a whole lot to write about – mom came down with a pretty severe case of bronchitis, and so I’ve been doing a lot of domestic chores (you know: laundry, dishes, cooking the occaisional meal) – the most exciting of which is feeding our big, ornery Doberman, Weiner. Use your imagination.

Hmm…I have been trying to write a story – but details on that are privy only to me and a select panel of editors/reviewers. Sorry, ladies and gentlemen.

When I’m not working on that (which is often, since mom calls me every few minutes to do a chore or help her with a chore – I’m not complaining, mind you), I try working on one of my arrangements; the current one being λ‹€μ‹œ λ§Œλ‚œ 세계.

Unbeknown to most people, I do not go rooting around the World Wide Web (does anyone still call it that nowadays?) looking for orchestral scores. This is because the music we The Orchestra plays is very often either not scored for orchestra, or the score is not readily available (i.e. for free, since we can’t afford them). Thus, unless I can find a midi file of a melody or (preferrably) a piano arrangement, I usually have to transcribe the whole thing by ear. Such was the case of Fureai and Viva la Vida.

But what if we want to play something that was never meant to be played by an orchestra? We’re not talking taking a poprock song and sticking string arrangements onto it (ala Iris) – we’re talking translating a whole song in the language of rock or pop into the language spoken by an orchestra.

I realize this closely parallels my (mis)adventures in trying to learn the Korean language by total immersion – in KPOP tunes; but more on that some other time. Jinjja.

λ‹€μ‹œ λ§Œλ‚œ 세계 is, to put it bluntly, a KPOP tune. It’s run mainly on synthesized sounds and beat, with 9 female voices singing in simple, two-part harmony (sometimes) – but mostly solo or in unison. The melodies are somewhat angular and are at times heavily syncopated, primarily because it helps make the song “danceable”.

Well, the language the orchestra speaks is quite different – the intricacies of angular melodies and heavily syncopated rhythms get lost among the sheer number of sonorities being produce, and two-part harmony suddenly seems eminently laughable when trying to produce it on an instrument that can, without much effort, produce ten-part harmony if it so wished – and sound like the voice of God in the process. It’s a bit like trying to get somebody who speaks Italian (with all those lovely rolling lines and intonations) sing in, say, Swahili…or that language spoken by the natives of Jumanji (comprised entirely of snorts, clicks, and whistles).

The solution? A little of give and take from both sides. I have to modify the syncopations of the melody to make them easier to produce by say, the brass section, and so that when the whole orchestra is going full blast, you can actually hear the melody being played. It mean really getting into the two-part harmony and figuring out (mostly by trial-and-error) what chord is really being implied at that moment before exploding it into, say, 4-part harmony.

It sometimes means having to change the tempo – for my arrangement of λ‹€μ‹œ λ§Œλ‚œ 세계, I’ve chosen to take the original 120bpm tempo and bring it down to 90bpm, since I’m going for a more majestic approach to the overall tune. This will allow me to use other rhythmic figures, played by other instruments (like the horns) to drive both the rhythm and outline the harmony.

Lastly, it involves composing a few measures of original material, which will serve as transitions between sections. Sometimes these are just chord progressions that go from, say, a minor 6th, and go down stepwise to the tonic, with an ever-diminishing dynamic level, which will then allow me to introduce the melody for the stanzas within a more subdued atmosphere. Sometimes it involves coming up with little flourishes for the winds or the high brass or the strings.

All in all, its taking longer than I first imagined, but I am pleased somehow with my current progress – that for once, my creative powers are being put to the test.

I’ll let you know how this turns out. GTI, hwaiting ipnida!

…at least I hope that’s how its supposed to go.