District 3600 - Korea
PP Jess Cabel
President, RY 1997-1998
When the invitation to visit our sister club at Icheon, South Korea was announced in one of the weekly Rotary Club meetings, I was not a bit interested firstly because I’ve been there in 1996 and I thought I’ve seen it all and secondly the travel expense would further deplete my quickly diminishing bank account. Many of the members, however, were enthusiastic because, except for Rotarians Dante, Cyril, and Maeng, all have not yet been to Korea and some have never traveled abroad. I was prevailed upon to join the group by the incoming club president, Ray Nagrampa, who was then a very supportive Zone Administrator of Cavite Economic Zone (CEZ) when I was a Rotary club president in 1997.
On the second thought, Korea was well worth another visit considering that the Koreans are now the biggest investors at CEZ. There is a sizeable Korean community in Cavite and many have become my friends. Korean names like Samsung, Hyundai and Kia have been indelibly etched in the Filipino vocabulary. Showbiz has not been spared as Korean tele-novelas saturate the airwaves during primetime. Sandara Park replaced Marimar in the hearts of the soap-loving Filipinos. At a time when most countries are dissuading their citizen to travel to our country, Koreans are coming in record numbers. You meet them at the mall, golf courses, and everywhere, signifying that Korea has evolved as the premier economic power in Asia. That brings the question relevant to us all right now, what makes the Koreans click as a people? What is in them that we Filipinos lack? What can we do to duplicate their economic affluence? I was hoping that somehow answers can be found during the visit.
And so, at noon on June 23, ten of us Rotarians converged at the departure area of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Even outside the airport terminal, the area is a picture of confusion. There was a lot of cursing and swearing as thousands of passengers were in a hurry to check-in. There was obviously a lack of personnel and equipment to process the travel documents of thousands of passengers. We took the delay in stride since we are aware of the prevailing terrorist threat. We were wondering, however, why the government should content itself with the visibly outdated terminal when several hundred meters away is the completed state-of-the-art PIATCO airport building that could surely make traveling more comfortable.
After a delay of 45 minutes, a record, since PAL has been notoriously labeled as Plane Always Late, we were airborne. The AirBus A340 was packed like a can of sardines indicative of the burgeoning relationship between Korea and our country. I was seated at the last row together with CP Pol Bautista and Bobby Castro. As always, PAL’s cabin service is, however, excellent and more than compensated the hassle we suffered earlier. We got generous servings of food washed down with red wine. Thru our charm, we cajoled the voluptuous stewardess in giving us several shots of brandy and so by the time the plane landed in Korea, we were a little bit tipsy.
Stepping into the new Korean airport terminal located at Incheon City is like stepping into another world. NAIA dwarfs in comparison as it can service 50 jet planes simultaneously. The place is immaculately clean and is passenger friendly complete with conveyors that make moving from the debarkation area to the luggage retrieval section fairly easy even with physically challenged passengers like President Nepo. The place is so organized so much unlike the chaotic situation you experience at NAIA.
Except for a miscommunication at the immigration area, we were out of the terminal building in no time at all. There to welcome us is the delegation of the Rotary Club of West Icheon composed of their spiritual leader Mr. Sang Bok Lee, their incoming President, Mr. Kim Won Sung, a long time friend Mr. Choi Byun Ho and several others. From the airport, we rode in an air-conditioned bus rented by our hosts. Our destination is 2 hours away from the airport. Sang Bok Lee told us that Incheon airport is the new hub in Korean aviation. It is an island located 80 kms. From Seoul and is connected to the mainland by a six lane viaduct highway and a mass transport railroad system.
It was about 9:30 pm Korean time when we arrived at the restaurant owned by Mr. Lee. Waiting for us to arrive is the whole contingent of the Rotary Club of W. Icheon together with their wives. A feast of Korean foods was waiting for us. Even at that point the warmth of their welcome can be felt as they were all over us helping to make us comfortable. Despite the language barrier, we had a good time eating kimchi and calbi tang, drinking soju and interacting with our hosts. Much as we wanted to prolong the party, we had to call ‘time out’ because it was getting late and we were a bit tired from the journey.
We were on a ‘homestay’ so we will be sleeping at the house of our hosts during our stay. I was billeted together with Bobby at the house of Sang Bok Lee. President Ray and his better half together with PP Nepo stayed at President Kim’s house while the girls, Marni, Liza and Mareng Yolly stayed together at Mr. Park’s while our seniors, CP Pol and PP Gabe were at Mr. Choi’s residence. Although officially it was a Rotary exchange visit, in reality it was a cultural stay as we will be experiencing at first hand the Korean way of life.
We woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. After our daily ritual, we had our first Korean breakfast composed of boiled rice, a beef stew, eggs and of course kimchi which I think is a part and parcel of a Korean meal. We were served food on a low table and instead of seating on a chair you have to sit on a tatami. I noticed that Mrs. Sang Bok Lee was all over serving us after preparing our food. Although we were requesting her to eat with us, she declined. She seems contented in serving us and duly obeys what her husband wants. She only ate her breakfast after we were finished eating. This simple gesture put the much vaunted Filipino hospitality in pale comparison.
Our itinerary for the day is to visit ‘Everland’, a theme park not unlike Disneyland in California and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. It was a one and half hour trip from the place we were staying. I was seated at the bus with President Ray and we can’t help but compare the countryside in our country and Korea. We noticed that factories and manufacturing plants dotted the landscape. What is more impressive, however, was that in between the factories and all available space, no matter how small it is, were planted with flowers, rice or vegetables. According to our hosts, Korea is 60% mountain and has to fully utilize their agricultural land to make themselves sufficient in food. The hills and mountains were thick with trees. It’s a sight to behold because we were immersed in a sea of verdant green. Philippine countryside in comparison looks pathetic. Everywhere, you see vast idle lots thick with cogon grass lying unproductive while the mountains are bald except for a few sprinkling of bushes. The existing highways are multi lanes and yet new roads are still being constructed. We passed through a 15 km. tunnel which was virtually passing thru the base of a mountain and yet it is better lit than the puny tunnel you pass in Makati.
Everland is a favorite recreation spot. It’s a theme park carved at the top of a mountain. If I were 25 years younger, I could have enjoyed the place better since all the rides you could find at ‘Enchanted Kingdom’ in Laguna is there and much more. Youngsters were shrieking, shouting and swearing as they twist and twirl in spine-tingling fall in the roller coaster and other rides that I would surely suffer a ‘heart attack’ if I have to ride in them. We voyeurs, however, enjoyed traditional attractions like the ‘Tropical Tour’, ‘European Experience’ and a parade of scantily clad European ladies performing the metamorphosis of modern dance. After the Everland experience we were treated to a ‘Barbecue Party’ at the house of President Kim and capped by a videoke social at one of the bars at Icheon.
Day two is the Induction day of our host club. We were in our formal best as we were resplendent in our ‘Barong’ attire. Just like any induction ceremony of the Rotary Club, it was a formal affair with the Korean men wearing their dark suits while their ladies don their native Korean gown. We were awed by the statuesque beauty of the president’s daughter who at 5’9” looks like a goddess. She was assisting her father in entertaining his guests. The first part of the ceremony is the singing of the national anthem and our hosts sang theirs with fervor. When the Philippine National Anthem was played, we stood tall and I can’t explain why at that particular time I was so affected by the song as never before as I had ‘goose bumps’ all over. Maybe it was the singing of our National Anthem in a foreign soil that struck the chord of patriotism in my heart. The highlight of the ceremony was the signing of the sister club agreement between our two clubs. The program was finished in exactly two hours, a far cry from the dragging induction ceremony we do locally.
In the afternoon, we visited the Mok-A Museum and King Sejong's burial park, a famous Korean monarch. One thing about our host is that they are proud of their history and heritage. Their landmarks with historical significance are kept in tip-top shape and they took pains in explaining to us the relevance of the sites we were visiting. The day was capped with singing and dancing at the Miranda Hotel at Incheon City. Where the resident entertainer is an all-Filipino band.
Day three, a Sunday, is our departure day. We were booked on a night time flight to Manila so we were scheduled to do our shopping right in the heart of Seoul before proceeding to the airport. As when we arrived, we converged at Sang Bok Lee’s place for the last minute picture taking and saying goodbyes to our hosts. Teary eyed, we said our heartfelt thanks to Mrs. Lee whom I think is the epitome of a perfect wife, charming, dutiful, uncomplaining and conducts herself with quiet dignity even when doing menial chores like ironing and cooking. Never in our stay did we see any trace of irritation or heard any complaint to her even though I’m sure we were an added burden to her. This was also true to the hosts of other Rotarians as related to me later. With a heavy heart, we left West Icheon.
The travel to Seoul, accompanied by some of our host Rotarians was a whiz because it was expressway all the way. Reaching the suburbs, we were impressed by hundreds of high-rise condominium buildings where most of Korea’s wage earners and middle executives live. No ‘barong-barong’ or slum community is in sight. A pale comparison to these buildings are the condominiums built at the coastal road during the time of President Aquino. Unfortunately, these are now inhabited not by workers but by politicians and their mistresses.
Notable also is the cleanliness of the Seoul River that dissects the city like the Pasig River in Manila. According to Dr. Jo, who has visited our country several times with her elegant and mannequin-like Japanese wife, the Seoul River was at one time more polluted than the Pasig River. It was where most of Korea’s industrial waste was once dumped, but with perseverance, they were able to revive and transform it in such a way that you could now even drink the water flowing in it. I also observed that Koreans see to it that all their trashes are sorted then dumped at the garbage bins. Unlike in our country where garbage is thrown right and left as if this whole archipelago is one huge garbage dumping site! Our difference as a people can be summed on the manner on how we dispose of our wastes and garbage. Maybe their living in a First World country is not so much as a matter of their wealth but its more so as a matter of their attitude.
Seoul’s premier shopping district was teeming with people, tourists and Koreans alike. Every product can be had from branded to imitation and what have you, as long as you have the dollar to splurge. After hopping from one department store to another all day long, my limited budget only enabled me to buy a pair of shoes and some T-shirts as ‘pasalubong.’ Not so with my fellow Rotarians whose bags are all bursting to the seams. My feet were aching by the time we called it quits.
It was time to say Good Bye and individually our hosts were giving us mementos as souvenirs to our visit. They were with us even carrying our bags up to the airport departure area. After hugs, tears, promises and last minute group picture, we were finally free of our hosts. I’m sure they were as relieved as we are after finally letting us go. And so, it was boarding time and it feels good when we were greeted once again with the effusive smile of a Filipina stewardess.
Airborne, each of us retreated to our own thoughts, maybe savoring their Korean experience. For me, I was back on my original question, what is it in the Koreans that propelled them to the road of progress while we Filipinos are still in morass and have sunk deeper into the mire of poverty? I could only surmise but one thing the Koreans differ from us is in the way they move, and do things, they act with urgency and with purpose. They have a national goal and it seems all of them are contributing to it. They are as boisterous to the point of being brash and also fight among themselves but when it comes to crunch time, just like during the financial crisis in 1997, they forget about individual differences and rally to their flag. That cannot be said to us, we seem to be perpetually shooting our foot every time we are poised to take off economically. We can not get our act together, as if we are masochist, relishing the agony of being poor. And that will be the day when we Filipinos could also unite as a people!