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.





2 responses

25 11 2009

wow! that was amazing! i never really succeeded in practising my japanese with actual japanese except when i had to introduce myself once. ^_^

27 11 2009

Can’t wait to read the rest of your adventures. Write em up quickly please!

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