Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Of Frozen Forehands and 'Mabuhay' Boarding Passes

Who would have the time to play tennis, under -7’C temperature (negative seven! brrrr...!), 30 minutes before checking in at Incheon International Airport?
I guess somebody with a plane ticket and tennis racket would. Hahaha!

On the day I was to fly out of Korea on the third weekend of December, the temperature was -7'C. Hardly a day to enjoy the outdoors. But since my Korean tennis friend, Seung-Ho, was kind enough to give me a ride to Incheon International Airport (an hour’s drive from Hannam-dong if no traffic), doing any activity outdoors (outside the car, that is) was not in my plans. My main target was get to the airport, check in and get out of the icy cold Korean peninsula. But even though I was taking the 8PM Philippine Airlines flight to Manila, he picked me up at 1PM so we can bid our time driving to the airport, in case we encounter the usual weekend traffic. The airport is in Incheon City, a growing city (both in size and fame) west of Seoul.
Seung-Ho was giving me lift as a very nice Christmas gesture for a friend who's on his way home ....or perhaps, he just wanted to make sure I get on that plane and leave his country. Hahaha!

As we took a route different from the one the airport bus takes, the drive wasn’t boring: we drove around the burgeoning Songdo City (the soon to be completed Posco Tower was impressive!) and the paranoramic view from the Incheon Bridge (23 kilometers long!) was a delight! I highly recommend that all airport buses drive through that bridge every time! That structure is a sight to behold in daylight!

But upon arriving at the airport area before the winter dusk, we took a detour, parked the car and pulled out two tennis rackets and a bag of tennis balls! And off to the hard court where you could see planes hovering above!

Brrrrr! Running in freezing weather, with the chilly breezes not helping, I could hear wheezing alongside the whacking of the tennis balls!

A forehand shot to Seung-ho’s forehand….running to the left for a backhand….looping to his forehand….he crosscourts a forehand….I run to my right, position and drive down the line to his backhand…he tries to slice it back and misses! We both stopped to catch our breath. I picked up another ball while listening to my wheezing….

I then realized….I was enjoying this! Forehands were starting to unfreeze, fingers not numb anymore, and legs getting springy.

So we played for a few more minutes when I remembered something….it’s check in time! I was here to catch a flight! Not to win a match! Hahaha!

So I signaled that we stop and get on with the final destination. And we both packed up and head to the airport’s parking lot. We dragged the luggage from there.

At the check in counter, I met up with friend Alfa who was also taking the same flight home to Manila. I told her that I’d be asking the check in girl nicely to upgrade us to business class. And she did! Just like that! I guess the check in girl saw how tired I was from playing tennis and rewarded me with an upgrade! Hahaha!
And a couple of hours after running around the tennis court in freezing weather, I was warmly seated in the business class resting my tired legs, enjoying a salmon salad and an almost royal treatment! Hahaha!
Thanks to my good friend Seung-Ho for the ride and tennis, and to the Philippine Airlines check-in counter girl Soo-Jin for the upgrade! They both made my journey home even more fun, enjoyable and ...worthy of a blog!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

An Almost Pinoy Christmas Party In Korea!

Christmas is definitely the biggest holidays in the Philippines, where one would hear Christmas carols playing on the radio or in the malls as early as September! Yes, the Christmas atmosphere for Pinoys comes around when the name of the month ends in ‘ber’ – like Septem’ber’, Octo’ber’…and of course, Decem’BER’!

But for Filipinos not being able to come home for Christmas, they always make sure they are able to celebrate it wherever they may be.
And that’s what we, those who are in Korea, did a few days ago. My Pinoy friends Fay and Pong graciously offered their home in Itaewon to be our party venue. So, we gathered a few Pinoy families (including non-Pinoy spouses) all trying to dress in a festive mood, brought in some Pinoy delicacies, had parlor games for kids and their parents, sang some Christmas carols, danced and exchanged Christmas gifts!
Well, we did not have the traditional lechon (roasted pig) and puto-bumbong (sweetened colored rice cake topped with grated coconut and sprinkled with sugar and glazed with butter), but at least we had ensaimadas,kutsinta, suman, pitsi-pitsi, turon (all delicious native delicacies), pancit malabon and some non-Pinoy dishes.
Even though we were away from home, we made sure we still had a great time enjoying our Pinoy Christmas party in Korea.
With lots of leftover delicacies, I was able to enjoy them long after the party was over.


Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Pinoy Migrant Workers and The Pinoy Corner in Korea

Every Sunday, at Hyehwa-dong in Seoul, enterprising Filipinos haul in Philippine products from their small blue trucks and transform that intersection at the Hye-hwa Rotary at the end of Daehang-ro (university street) that leads to a Catholic church into a Pinoy corner. This is the area where Filipinos working in Seoul and nearby cities gather to shop, to meet up with Pinoy friends, or to enjoy some kare-kare, dinuguan or some sinigang before hearing the Holy Mass in Pilipino at a Catholic church nearby. These Pinoy tindahan (store) and carinderia (eatery) or sari-sari (variety) stores sell newly-cooked Pinoy cuisine and a range of Philippine products from 555 sardines to Mang Tomas, to Ludy’s peanut butter, to Eskinol, to Green Cross rubbing alcohol! Their Filipino menu also includes, aside from those I mentioned, adobo, pancit bihon, lumpia, longganiza, chicharon, and would you believe, balut! And if you think that’s all, they also sell fresh produce like sitaw, ampalaya, mongo beans and tilapia! Aside from the edibles, there are also some ‘audibles’ – cds and vcds from the Philippines. But my favorites are the Filipino desserts! Puto kutsinta, maja blanca, kakanin, turon, suman and of course, leche flan! So, whenever I feel like going for some Pinoy food, I hop on a bus from my home in Hannam-dong (in Yongsan-gu, Seoul) and enjoy the 30-minute journey by daydreaming of the food I would pick when I get off. But I usually start to go hungry even before my bus comes out from the Namsan Tunnel.

According to the Korean immigration bureau, as of August 31, 2009, there were 45,946 Filipinos in South Korea, consisting mostly of non-professionals and industrial workers. A small number represents short-term visitors, trainees, scholars, spouses of Korean nationals, dependents and a few professionals. On top of that number, there were 12,166 on illegal status as of the same date.

The number of these industrial workers has gradually increased over the years since the South Korean government, through a memorandum of understanding signed with the Philippine government on April 23, 2004 , has made available 18,000 Korean jobs to Filipinos annually. Requirements for these jobs include a minimum proficiency of Hangul, the Korean language, and an age limit of 40 years. While the jobs are mainly for construction and factory work, some are not usually with big Korean companies. Some factories are actually small-scale and may not even provide a safe working environment for their workers. Over the years, there have been reports of migrant workers from the Philippines and other Asian countries being hospitalized due to industrial accidents and chemical poisoning.

In South Korea, there are certain jobs which young and able-bodied Koreans stay away from. These jobs are labeled as ‘DDD’ - difficult, dirty and dangerous. The locals’ disdain for ’DDD’ jobs, and of course, the progressive industrialization of the Korean economy cause manpower shortage, forcing the Korean government to open its job market to migrant workers from neighboring Asian countries. These jobs, albeit difficult, dirty or dangerous, follow a minimum pay scale of KRW 904,000 (about US$780) a month. But even with this pay scale, the Filipino migrant workers in Korea still manage to send money home and contribute to the total remittances of the Filipino overseas workers all over the world which are expected to reach a little more than US$ 15 billion for the year 2009 alone. These remittances are accommodated in Seoul at Hyehwa-dong and at Namdaemun in central Seoul, by a Korean bank and a branch of a Philippine bank in Korea, which are open even on Sundays when most migrant workers are off from work.

And while these migrant workers are happy to be in Korea with guaranteed jobs, some of them end up being exploited. Complaints about delayed and unpaid salaries, physical abuse by employers, disregard for the workers’ working environment and wrong job assignments upon jobsite arrival are common. And while the labor department at the Philippine embassy in Korea is helpful in sorting out these labor complaints, there are also centers maintained by the Philippine embassy and Catholic priests which provide support and temporary shelter for those in need, and who seek new employment or who simply want to go home.

It is not easy to work and live away from home, away from family, away from the people you love. These Filipino migrant workers in Korea, just like all other migrant workers in from other countries, only want to earn a living to provide for their families back home.

And as they provide the manpower and skills to keep the economies in which they work running, these migrant workers welcome all the respect and support they can get from their employers and host country. But it is sad that even in this globalized environment, and to think that we are already in the 21st century, the respect for the worker and his rights is still lacking. I guess even with all this advanced technology, man still has a long way to go, or should I say, evolve, with regard to respecting each other and each other’s rights. I leave it at that as I have said my piece.

But going back to Hyehwa-dong and the desserts. Perhaps, at this Pinoy corner in Seoul on any given Sunday, my kababayans create a picture of home, where faces, dialects and food are all familiar, and which helps erase their longing to be in their own hometown (and be with loved ones) back in the Philippines, if only for a day.

Some Pinoys in Korea will come and go; others may stay. But I hope in the years to come, they will still look after each other as most Pinoys everywhere do, and that Hyehwa-dong remain the same Pinoy corner in Seoul, where kababayans feel a little bit of the Philippines every Sunday.

(This piece is an updated version of the article, The Filipino Migrant Workers in Korea, which I wrote in 2005 for AIM’s The Asian Manager magazine.)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Snow Jam: Snowboarding in the City

And there it was....34 meters of it! Or 111 feet high above the Gwanghwamun Plaza in Central Seoul.

Snow Jam's special snowboarding ramp was built last week on the Gwanghwamun Plaza, which is sandwiched by the Sejong Arts Center and the Japanese and American embassies, to hold a series of snowboarding demonstration and competition.

I was there last Sunday, December 12, and the temperatures were forgivable, not too cold. For me, at least. But seeing the hordes of Seoulites milling around the Plaza, queuing for tickets and for free coffee, I just amused myself with taking photos and finding out how on earth would the snowboarders be slalom-ing down the ramp, do a 360 and not fly out into the Sejong Arts Center! The ramp looked too short (from where I could see) with all the momentum and velocity that the jumper, er, snowboarder, gathers while careening down the ramp at God knows what speed!

I didn't stay long though. The exhibition and competition was to start at 6PM, which meant it would have been very dark, very cold....and I, very hungry. I just hope those snowboarders from Switzerland, Italy, Korea, Finland, Japan, Norway, Austria, US and Germany had a great time flying off the ramp and doing their jumps, spins, rotations, slaloms and Big Air to impress the local audience.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

A Walk In Seoul's Autumn

My alarm clock goes off!

As punctual as Seoul’s subway trains, it never misses to wake me up at 8 every morning. But on this occasion, on this chilly morning, the wake-up call did not serve its purpose. No need to get up for work; it is the weekend!

Hurray! I don’t have to separate myself from my blanket and from my bed yet. Who doesn’t want to sleep some more?

After a hot summer, whose scorching heat in the city I survived, the new season is a welcome blessing. And today, in one of the last weekends of October, where autumn in Seoul is on schedule, busy changing the colors of the surroundings, alongside my attitude towards waking up in the morning, is considered a treasured gift. The cooler temperatures, the late sun rises and the longer nights have all endeared the season to everyone, including myself. What a season!

Now, half-awake but with eyes still closed, I feel sunlight starting to peep through my window, gradually filling the chilly room with its brightness as if to announce that I am no longer the only occupant in my home. The sun has finally joined the autumn weekend.

I gather some courage to kick away the sleepiness and the blanket. And as I open my heavy eyes, I rise from my bed and listen. No noise, but silence. Hush…I think the neighborhood is still asleep.

I make my way to the window, dragging both feet and a drowsy head. And with little energy, I open the window to look out and breathe my first autumn air for the weekend. Still, my neighborhood, in the hilly Hannam-dong in the Yongsan district, sits quietly, as if all of them have also decided to stay in bed to enjoy the chilly morning in their warm beds.

I suddenly feel a cool breeze on my face like an aerial invitation encouraging me to leave my concrete shelter and enjoy the autumn day outdoors.

I look up to the brightening skies and decide to accept the invitation.

* * * * *

After the usual morning ceremony of preparing myself every morning, all in slow motion, of course, I finally decide to leave my apartment and see what the weekend has in store for me. I prepare my camera, check its batteries, and tidy up my home before stepping out into the chilly outdoors. I surely need to have my camera with me! As autumn is all about the changing leaves of the foliage around the city, the best way to capture the sceneries is to…take photos! Lots of it!

Making my way through the neighborhood, I see children with their parents already enjoying the cool weather, girls walking their dogs, and a few mothers carrying grocery bags. My! Everyone seems to have also decided to be out!

I pass through the Gingko trees lining the Hannam-dong's main street, their golden-yellow, coin-shaped leaves fall down and adorn the grey concrete road and the sidewalks with yellow confetti as if an autumn parade has just passed.

I arrive at the main intersection and direct my eyes to my right, where I see Namsan, that mountain hosting the N Seoul Tower. From where I stand, the whole south-eastern side of the mountain, that side facing my neighborhood, is painted with an array of fall colors, from orange, to red, to brown, and a few yellow dots, much like an impressionist painting of a French maestro. I cannot just stand there admiring the colorful view; I have to go there! So I decide to see it up close.

* * * * *

After walking for a kilometer from the main Hannam-dong intersection, strolling through the main road and letting the traffic guide me, I finally reach the site of the National Theater of Korea, where paths that meander around the mountain start. I then remember the two routes: one that leads up to the top of the mountain where the Tower holds court, while the other traces around the lower gird, to the northern side which ends up at the side facing Myeong-dong, a shoppers’ paradise. I take the latter, although I know that either path can always give me a comfortable journey around and up the mountain.

As I continue my stroll, the cool breezes, carrying with them the scent of the foliage of the mountain invigorate me with much-needed energy as I have traveled on foot for almost an hour, momentarily forgetting that just a couple of hours ago, I was still in slumber, on my comfortable bed, thinking that the chilly autumn weekend, would have just come and gone without me even seeing the outdoors.

And the sun, now taking its position upon the blue skies as if assuming the role of the guardian, watching over Seoul and its residents, and creating an atmosphere of a fun weekend, provides clear blue skies and brightness all over, helping the season display its colors for everybody to enjoy.

Making my way through the chosen path, I am among the many, who, today, are the visitors of the mountain: a group of Korean elders exercising, several women exchanging laughs along the route, a few bikers pedaling through, parents educating their kids about nature and the environment, a couple of photographers, just like myself, studying the colors and the lightning by which to frame their pictures, toddlers playing with the fallen leaves and throwing handfuls at each other along with their giggles and endearing laughter, people walking their dogs, and of course, couples holding hands and seemingly lost within themselves and as if declaring their devotion to each other as they walk through this mountain path painted here and there with the color of their love.

Yes, a lot of reds, the universal color of love, and even fiery reds. There were also oranges, burgundies, browns, yellows, pinks, yellow-greens, and purples from these maple trees, acacia, acorn, pines and other trees and plants whose names I don’t know. This feast of colors provided by nature comes only once a year, and only lasts a week or two, but how lucky I am, I realize, to be here and be able to enjoy the cool autumn breeze and the season’s gift of colors.

I have forgotten how far I have been walking, oblivious to the distance but not to the surroundings. Through this concrete path zigzagging its way around the mountain with the view of the Tower from a different side and angle, I come to appreciate the way the city has preserved nature within itself. Respecting the environment and finding ways to preserve it, Seoul has created another way by which Seoulites, like me, are able to enjoy life in the city. And today, seeing those other hikers, bikers, parents, kids, couples – Seoulites all, having fun under the autumn skies in Nam-san, I admire the city's efforts, with the help of its citizens, to make sure all-year round, be it spring, summer, winter, or fall, everyone can enjoy the outdoors.

I now reach the end of the stroller’s path, at the intersection which leads to Myeong-dong. I opt to turn left and walk up the flight of stairs leading to the Nam-san Park. On reaching the top, while catching my breath, I see N Seoul Tower, sitting at the peak of the mountain which is blanketed by the same collage of the colors I just saw along the way. And I was not surprised to see a lot of people in the park, all of whom are also discovering the best way to enjoy the season.

I try to find a place to rest my tired legs. I sit on one of the benches around the park’s fountain. I then declare that this was a fitting place for me to end my autumn walk. As I sit there, sharing the cold bench with an elderly couple having snacks, I face the mountain as if to pay homage and give thanks for the colorful welcome and the enjoyable stroll it allowed me to endeavor.

What a fun autumn day, I remind myself. Experiencing the sights and colors, savoring the scent of the autumn foliage and letting the autumn sun sprinkle its rays unto my face make it all a soulful experience. I may never pass this way again, so to speak. But having done so, I will always look forward to autumn as a season to enjoy and experience.

* * * * *

I am now back at home and very happy with my photographs. Each time I look at them – from photos I took when I started, to the ones I took while traversing the mountain path, up to the ones I took of the N Seoul Tower, they all remind me of what it was like out there, outdoors, out in the autumn season. I wish I could be able to share this experience with everyone else. But through my story of this memorable autumn day in Seoul, I wish everyone was also out there, capturing the sceneries and scents with cameras and memory, and enjoying this walk in autumn.