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
again.

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
all.

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
afternoon.

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
way.

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.

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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  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  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.





Evening Falls

21 01 2009

I’m sitting here in the piano room, using a borrowed laptop, waiting for the clock to strike six in the evening. The airconditioning has been turned off for the day, so the I’ve left the door open – to avoid CO2 poisoning, naturally 😉

It being Exam Season (and therefore Checking Season, for the teachers), most of the students have gone home to study; I am left to watch the skies grow dark over the soccer field. I can’t tell if it’s simply because of the quickening dusk, or  if it spells rain.

I can’t help but notice how my “darker” postcards seem to draw the most attention – the one entitled The Sound, The Fury, The Incendiary Despair currently tops the charts with over 50 views (only my Biography gets higher ratings – perhaps because I’m one of the few people on WordPress who actually put something there). I’ve written about this before – how each postcard is really more of a snapshot of me at a given moment, and not a detailed account of my life in its entirety – and yet something tells me a few people reading this might be doing so simply because the title made them think this was going to be one of those posts again.

Well, no. The title is there because I am literally watching evening fall outside. Please do not feel cheated. Are you not glad I am not up to my eyelashes in despair tonight?

To be sure, the struggle remains – a moment of laxity and I can still find myself teetering on the brink of the abyss – but I would like to think that things seem a little clearer now; more so than they ever did before, and I wonder if writing about those darker moments would be of any help to me (or anyone else)- they seem glib and self-centered and self-preoccupied now – as if I had nothing better to do.

So no; no dark postcards from me now. For once, I would like to be preoccupied, in my heart of hearts, with things other than myself.

It is dark outside now. No rain has fallen.





An Issue of Trust

7 01 2009

First post of 2009 – better make it a good one.

Recent events have caused me to re-evaluate the level of detail I choose to divulge in this journal; would it not be nice if one could read my posts and be able to get a real picture of who I am as a person? But for that to happen, I will have to work with a whole new level of vulnerability – every thought, word, and deed committed to my postcards will now be open to public scrutiny.

I don’t know how some people do it – you read their blogs and you feel like you know the person on a rather intimate level. It might even appeal to some of you – until you get into serious trouble for it. It’s happened to me – a case of the wrong people having access to the wrong kind of postcard – and opening myself to such an attack again does not really appeal to my sensibilities.

And yet…I do wish to allow people to get to know me.

————————————————

I’m going through the Psalms and Proverbs right now, and it occurred to me that pretty much every single Psalm contains some expression of trust in God – overtly or otherwise. Take a look yourself – you would be hard-pressed to find one where the author does not say something along the lines of, “Happy is he who trusts in the Lord” or “The Lord is  my Rock…in whom I will trust.” Even the familiar “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” is already an expression of trust.

Which leads me to believe that the linchpin of the whole of the Psalms is really that: Trust. Every song of praise, thanksgiving, supplication, and lament is built on an underlying trust in the Lord – that no matter what we might have to say, the Lord can take it – and what’s more, will make something beautiful out of it.

Which leads me to ponder the nature of trust – most timely, because nowadays it seems its either I learn to trust or, as the song Loser Like Me puts it, “I’ll fade into the night”.

I realize I don’t fully understand it; I’ve known about it for years, but never really took the time to consider the point: what does it mean to really place one’s absolute trust in God?

If it is a feeling, I don’t think I’ve ever had it. Instead, I’ve always gotten this nagging feeling that I’ve overlooked some detail that prevents God from doing His thing in and with my life. Is it a state of mind and body, where my adrenal glands are still, my heartrate is a steady 65bpm, and my mind is free of worries? Never been there. When I don’t get excited (or disappointed) by something, it’s usually because I don’t care about it…not exactly the picture of trust that the psalmists had in mind.

So what does it really mean to trust God?

I don’t think I can offer a final answer to that question, but I have been learning things along the way: 1.) Trust is revealed in our actions/decision-making. I would like to think that this is ultimately independent from how we might feel about the situation. You know when you’re so anxious about something, you can’t eat, sleep, or function like a normal human being? You might feel that way, but if you really are placing your trust in God, you won’t let that feeling dictate your actions. 2.) Trust is expressed through prayer/communication with God. Time and time again, when I’m tearing around the place trying to find a concrete way to trust God, I come up against this one-word rebuke: pray. It so simple, it seems silly. To be perfectly honest about it, I still feel like it’s too simple to be real; it can’t be that easy, right? Well, from where I stand right now, I’ll try it anyway: there’s little else that can be done.

And it turns out, praying when you feel like you should be doing something else is not easy – with thoughts and imaginings ping-ponging back and forth between the hemispheres of my brain, it takes considerable effort to put in a cohesive sentence.

I don’t know: maybe I was taught that God helps those who help themselves – a saying, when taken to the extreme, completely excludes God from the picture. Thus, when presented with a potentially unfavorable situation, my first reaction is to try and fix it – to do something. I think back during one of my college days, when I was chairperson of the Dormitories Christian Fellowship (an appointment I still don’t know how I got) – a friend of mine told me, during a difficult conversation (I’m starting to grow fond of difficult conversations with friends – the parties involved cannot be pretentious for very long before it all comes crashing down, and you can finally get to know people as they really are. Too bad most people avoid such conversations.), that my leadership style seemed to be centered around my own strength.

I was young and considerably more-foolish than I suppose myself to be now – I sort of sniffed at her comment and mentally brushed it aside (“What do you know about leadership? I don’t see you leading anyone!”) – but maybe she was right. Everything seemed to be going fine from my perspective, and maybe, just maybe, the force of my personality (or whatever it was) was enough to keep things with the ministry afloat…but not anymore. Not now.

Simply because there’s nothing I can do about the situation. 8 years ago, there was always somebody to talk to or a phonecall to make in order to remedy a situation – but not now. Now, there is only to trust.

So I am learning (crawling seems to be amore apt illustration); learning to see beyond mere emotions and look (or attempt to look), with spiritual eyes, at the bigger picture. There are days when the bigger picture doesn’t feel like it’s worth the trouble – and so I am learning to cling stubbornly to the truth that it is (it makes for hard clinging…the skin of my teeth and my fingernails feel worn out). Oh, and did I mention sometimes I cannot see the bigger picture at all? So I learn to pray…and by praying, perhaps, I learn to trust.

As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness;
I shall be satisfied when I awaken in Your likeness.

PSALM 17:15