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COMMENTARY

The Koreans among us

05:07 AM May 07, 2018

Only when I moved to Cebu after many years abroad did I realize that a large number of Koreans live in the Philippines. Indeed, surveys show that in 2017 a million Koreans arrived in the country; at least 100,000 are now permanent residents. Manila has the largest concentration of Koreans, with Cebu a close second.

I recently met a young Korean woman at a veterinary clinic in Cebu where I took my cat for a shot. She also had a cat in her pet carrier, and told me she had adopted half a dozen strays from the grounds of the condo complex where she lived.

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We Filipinos pride ourselves in being a welcoming people when dealing with newcomers to our country. There is none of the clannishness found among other nationalities who harbor streaks of xenophobia. This is why our tourism officials tout Filipino hospitality to entice more visitors to the country.

The Koreans come, drawn by the low cost of living and because their children can learn English here more economically than it would cost if they studied in Western countries. Koreans also put up businesses such as restaurants, shops and massage parlors, which attest to the popularity of the new culture. They have also set up international schools, as well as Christian (Protestant) churches.

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In all this, there are only a small number of intermarriages between Filipinos and Koreans, with their offspring called “Kopinos” or “Korinoys.” Even as Filipinos welcome the foreigners’ money and engage with them in joint ventures, cultural and social exchanges between the two countries are few.

In recent decades we have learned to enjoy Korean teleseryes with all their pageantry and drama. And Korean pop stars have many fans among our youngsters. Unfortunately few Pinoys take the trouble to learn basic Korean, expecting the foreigners to speak English. Few of us say the basic “Annyeonghasaeyo” or “Gamsahapnida” to say “hello” or “thank you” to Koreans.

There were rumors after World War II that the worse savagery during the battle for Manila was committed by Korean troops. But historians have established that the perpetrators were Japanese marines.

One would think that a horrid incident involving a Korean businessman in 2016 would deter more Koreans from coming, but it hasn’t. That was when members of the Philippine National Police abducted Jee Ick-joo in Angeles, Pampanga. The motive was clearly extortion, but things ended up with Jee killed in the PNP headquarters in Manila, hastily cremated, and his ashes flushed down a toilet. His widow, who paid ransom, has since learned that justice’s wheels grind exceedingly slow in this country; the criminals remain unpunished to this day.

In Korea, erring politicians and ordinary citizens are quickly arrested and indicted. Prime ministers and minor officials have been jailed. In 2014 Korean Airlines, a private corporation, punished a female member of the family that owns the airline who flew into a rage on board over being served nuts incorrectly (in her view). Berating the offending staff, she ordered the pilot of the taxiing plane to turn back to throw out the “offenders.” For her burst of bad temper, she was given a prison sentence of 12 months (she served only three). Such an action would have been tolerated and glossed over in our country where the feudal system still thrives.

The recent summit between the leaders of South and North Korea have eased tensions that had festered since 1950 when the Korean War began. Only when the two met last April 27 at a summit meeting has there been agreement for a peace treaty to be finally signed. As a sidelight, Kim Jong-un made the conciliatory gesture of setting Pyongyang’s time zone in sync with Seoul’s.

Geography and history made our two cultures vastly different, but the Philippines and South Korea can certainly learn much from each other.

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Isabel T. Escoda has written books on Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong and has contributed to the Inquirer since the 1980s.

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