My trip to Korea was about two years in the making. Min, a former student of mine, had wanted to come back to Bacolod for a vacation but ever since she started a job at the Anti-Doping Agency in Seoul she had never found the time to visit. So, the only alternative to this was for me to fly over there. This trip would both change and confirm my perception of a people who had invaded Philippine shores with cool hairstyles and mesmerizing soap operas, and had turned our nation’s youngsters into screaming fans. At my age, K-pop and Koreanovelas weren’t enough to make me leave home for a week but Min’s sincere and excited invitation did the trick.
We landed an hour late at the Incheon International Airport thanks to delays caused by the typhoon that battered Luzon in August. Min’s smiling and (I imagined) relieved countenance greets us at the arrival area of one of the largest airports in the world. Min and I hug. It’s been 5 years and our only links throughout that period were e-mail and Facebook. She’s still the same jolly and tomboyish person I knew back then. She was my star student; her English skills were way above average maybe that is why we were able to maintain the friendship through letter-writing. I remembered her as always laughing, so easy to please, and as someone who appreciated the new things she discovered with childlike delight. She still remembered that I baked her and her friends a chocolate cake for dinner at my place, and that I flambéed bananas for bananas foster. Even though it was dark, I led them to my neighbor’s carabao who was peacefully chewing cud in its makeshift pen. Animal-lover Min was naturally ecstatic and filled with wonder. Everything I did was highly appreciated. In Korea, this year, it was Min’s turn to show me the delights of her country.
Many tales have reached our ears regarding the misdemeanor committed by our Korean visitors. Some stories are not even fit to print, in fact. Yet, to give allowance to human frailty, I choose not to dwell on this for now. But what I can write about is of my precious Min, and her family’s unsurpassed hospitality, generosity and care.
Min took two days off just to be with me. So did her friend Jee, also a former student of mine. Both took turns in driving us around on our first day and showing off Minseok Cheon, a Korean folk village at the Suwon District. August is a hot month in Korea with a record 36 degrees on that Thursday morning. Yet both Min and Jee, two months on the way, patiently walked along with us and acted as willing interpreters.
Min lives alone in her apartment somewhere in the Iujeongbu District. This is about 30 minutes by Metro to Seoul. Her neighborhood is peaceful and quiet and crowded with multi-storey apartments. She said that she likes it better here than in Seoul where she grew up and where her parents still reside.
Min’s mother whom I call Omma (Korean for “mother”) spent the whole Saturday with us and took the role of driver for the group. Though she couldn’t converse in English we knew that she was a warm person who wanted us to feel at home. Omma is a very elegant quiet woman. She is tall and slim and is quite the fashion plate as most Korean women of her social status are. On that torrid Saturday, Omma treated us to lunch at Sandeulae Restaurant. This famous organic restaurant has an “English cottage” look complete with quilted walls, furniture in light wood, pretty scalloped-edged paper placemats, charming curio cabinets, and flowers everywhere. On the way there, she points out her favorite haunt – the Lotte premium outlets at Munsan selling Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith, CK, Guess, Levi’s, etc. I wasn’t surprised for she maintains a roomful of her clothes and accessories right at Min’s apartment. I don’t think she had ever wailed in her whole life, “But I don’t have a thing to wear!”
That day, Omma also took us to the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone which is the no man’s land border that divides North and South Korea. Min’s spritely 84-year-old grandmother is from North Korea. Min speaks of the pain her grandmother often experiences when she thinks of the family she left behind in the North. Halmoeni (Grandmother) left for the South and married Haraboeji (Grandfather). Two years later, the North and South were divided and the doors to the North were closed permanently. Halmoeni never saw her mother and sisters again.
On Sunday, I would meet not only Halmoeni and Haraboeji but also Appa (Father), Oppa (Elder Brother), Oppa’s wife, and Kari, Min’s maltese terrier. My companion Marivic and I were treated to a Korean-Chinese lunch and, afterwards, everybody converged at the family residence in Seoul. The family is a loving close-knit one with Min obviously the baby. Oppa speaks good English for he honed his language skills for a year during a wine course in New York. What Min is most proud of is her 91-year-old Haraboeji. “He was a famous English teacher during his time,” said Min. Though now partially deaf, Haraboeji tried to engage me in conversation. I would speak in my sparse Korean as much as possible and Haraboeji even thought I spoke fluently to my great amusement. I wonder if he’d say the same had he been blessed with better hearing. Appa gifted me with a box of pumice bars which his factory makes while Halmoeni brought us bags of miyuk (seaweed) that I so coveted but couldn’t find during a trip to the Namdaemun and Dongdaemun markets in Seoul. Before we left the residence, we had our “family” picture taken and that picture is now etched forever in my mind.
Every night, Min would tune in to the London Olympics. How she loves sports (she is an avid golfer as the rest of her family are) and was honored to be tasked by the Korean government to orient the Korean delegate before they departed for London. Min thinks lightly about it but I believe she holds an important position in the agency. She represents Korea in international conferences and one of the reasons why she and I couldn’t get our schedules right was that she is always sent out of the country – to Norway, the U.S., India, Thailand, and, later, China and Bhutan. I always teased her, “You’re an important person” but she would pooh-pooh the idea. She’s the same old humble Min that I used to know.
Korea is a lovely, orderly and progressive country with an efficient system. However, if I have to be candid about it, I wouldn’t have enjoyed my stay as much without Min and her family. Just like any other country in the world, it’s the people who count. I owe my deepest gratitude to Min and her family who welcomed me into their arms. Annyeong haseyo!