I came back in the Philippines last June after spending a year in South Korea as an exchange student.
It was also in June last year that I left. I was excited to leave for Seoul because it was the first time I was going there and I have been fascinated by Asian cultures since I was a kid.
As soon as I arrived, I tried to familiarize myself with Korean culture, immerse myself into their way of life, and enjoy the new and different environment. I thought that the best lesson I could learn from being an exchange student was to enjoy and appreciate the foreign country I was living in.
While studying and living in South Korea, I had to do what the Koreans did. They say that Filipinos are good at adapting, and I tried to act like a Korean. I studied their language, learned and followed their norms, and did my best to be just like them.
Because I had to learn all the practical things practically all by myself, I made a lot of observations and comparisons. I couldn’t help but think about how different life was in South Korea from life in the Philippines. Like what some of my friends would remark when I tell them stories about my life in there, “It is a First World country, while the Philippines is Third World. What do you expect?”
I had great expectations of South Korea. I thought that the country, being a member of the G-20 economies, would be close to perfect, if not perfect. The mental pictures of South Korea, particularly Seoul, which I had before going there were drawn from the numerous Koreanovelas and films I had watched here in the Philippines.
I think that most Filipinos picture South Korea the way I did. Many of us perceive it as a really beautiful country to explore and live in. The truth is, yes, South Korea is a really good place to be. Its cities are clean and almost free of pollution. The transportation system, including their complex subway system, is efficient and reliable. They have lightning-fast Internet connection (the fastest in the world), which someone like me or any average young adult can only wish for. Computer technology is ubiquitous. Most public places are safe even in the wee hours of the morning. Laws are strictly enforced, and the people are obedient to authorities and well disciplined.
All this made me wonder how a war-stricken and very poor nation from the early 1950s has developed so much and so fast. And I have asked myself, why can’t this happen in the Philippines?
I can only think of one thing which hinders the Philippines from growing like South Korea and our other developed Asian neighbors: We Filipinos lack self-discipline. Many of us cannot follow even simple rules and instructions. For example, how many of us who ride the MRT and LRT never leaned on the train doors? Do most of us follow the biodegradable and nonbiodegradeable labels in trash bins? How many people have died crossing the highway with a sign that warns, “Walang Tawiran. Nakamamatay”? I don’t think many of us even bother to read street signs and warnings. And it is not because we are too illiterate to understand these simple reminders.
They say Filipinos are among the smartest and most intelligent people, but our lack of discipline makes us all look dumb. If we cannot even follow simple regulations, how can we be expected to follow the more important ones? No wonder “pasaway” has gained wider currency in the last few years. The word almost defines majority of us.
Isn’t it easier to follow the rules than to break them?
I left for Manila from Incheon International Airport last June 3 and said goodbye to my Korean friends. I also said farewell to the comforts of life that South Korea made me experience for 12 months. I told myself that it would probably take some time before many of such comforts and conveniences become available in the Philippines, but remain optimistic about it. I believe that we are capable of developing ourselves and our country into something other races will look up to.
When I arrived in Manila, I was immediately assaulted by all the things I expected to experience: heavy traffic, polluted air and other environmental issues, the slums, accidents, endless political bickering, both sensical and nonsensical, etc. But when I reflect upon these things, I realize that we cannot compare the things we have here with the things they have abroad. There may be a lot of negative aspects to living here in the Philippines but we cannot blot out the fact that this is our home, a place we have learned and must continue to love.
I have come to realize that the best lesson I could learn from being an exchange student was not to enjoy and appreciate the host country but to draw inspiration from the good things it has, bring back those ideas to my home country, and try to apply them here. True I am just one person, but if many among us would realize that we can be agents of social change, we can make a difference. People who are willing to act and make a difference are what our country needs right now.
Gregson Rocafort, 20, is a junior BS Development Communication student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.
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