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Annyeonghaseyo: Reflections of a Korean in the Philippines

My journey of living in a foreign land commenced last March. The scorching, tropical weather seemed to foretell imminent experiences in the Philippines but my heart was overflowing with unmitigated zeal and confidence. Challenges, after all, make life more dynamic and provide pivotal experiences to make one stronger. Even though I am a mere student at the Ateneo de Manila University under the auspices of my parents, I realized that I am taking on more roles. Studying abroad has enabled me not only to see myself in relation to Filipinos, but also to be cognizant of the broader international relations between South Korea and the Philippines.

This essay is a reflection on Koreans as a subcultural group in the Philippines. A subculture can be defined as a group of people who share ways of life distinct from the mainstream but do not transgress the social rules, beliefs, norms, and values of mainstream society. Koreans living in the Philippines are regarded as a subculture because, while they take part in Philippine culture as residents of the country, they still practice elements of their own [South Korean] culture.

The migration of South Koreans to Southeast Asian countries began in the 19th century. In its incipient stage, Koreans settled in the Philippines because of its pristine, vast, and attractive environment and relatively low cost of living. However, the recent surge of Koreans to the Philippines is largely related to the setting up of businesses, leisure travel, and education. Koreans, known to spend roughly $800-$1000 per month – an aggregate contribution of over $1 billion annually – have been significantly contributing to the Philippine economy. Due to the growing number of businesses run by Korean immigrants, the number of jobs open to local people has increased and the scale of tax payment from Koreans has risen. These economic ties are further illustrated by the 27.93% increase in exports to South Korea (Wong 2013).

Despite the statistics, there has been some pessimism with regard to the ways that Filipinos perceive South Koreans. This is brought about primarily by the incidence of Kopinos – children of Koreans and Filipinas out of wedlock. Such societal deviance is also generated by the influx of Korean men to the Philippines for sex tourism. Once the women get pregnant or give birth, they are often abandoned by the Korean men responsible, and the Kopinos are raised without their “fathers.” Based on my experience, this phenomenon has led many to label South Koreans as irresponsible and lewd villains.

Several years ago, I visited an urban poor community in Manila when I volunteered to donate relief goods from our church. Here, I met a Filipino woman who raised her Kopino son alone. She told me the story of how her Korean “husband” left her once she became pregnant after one night with him. At that time, she moved back to her parents’ house because of the inability to raise the child alone. The experience of social stigma among Kopinos and their mothers can engender conflict between Koreans and Filipinos and hinder the establishment of mutual ties because of growing antagonism.

Tensions can be exacerbated by stereotypes. Often, people think along “racial” lines, applying the stereotypical traits and characteristics of a cultural or ethnic group to all members of that group. For instance, when a number of Koreans engage in sex tourism in the Philippines and produce Kopinos, there is a tendency to think that all Koreans are lewd. As Koreans, they are thought to be born with that trait. Such “racial” thinking is erroneous because it ignores that fact that traits are learned, not genetic or inherited. The assumption that traits are inherited can be the basis for racism, prejudice, and discrimination because cultural differences now become a matter of heredity rather than social environment.

While there are instances of stereotyping of Koreans, I can still sense a connection between Koreans and Filipinos, especially since cultural diffusion has enabled the permeation of Korean Pop culture, called “Hallyu,” in Philippine society. When I arrived, I was amazed at the spread of Korean cultures in the Philippines. I have been greeted with “Annyeonghaseyo,” which means “hello” in Korean. I have heard Korean songs being played on the radio and seen Korean shows on TV.  Everywhere you look (at least in the more urban areas), you can find Korean fashion, Korean restaurants, and Korean dessert cafes. Korean pop culture has become easily accessible to everyone, regardless of social class, allowing Filipinos to directly or indirectly experience a Korean lifestyle.

Such cultural diffusion can fortify the bond between the two cultures by facilitating and deepening solidarity and understanding. As mainstream culture embraces new trends through the process of enculturation, people from different backgrounds can, despite being diverse, share common interests and common experiences.

As the number of Koreans in the Philippines increases, so does the number of Filipinos migrating to Korea. Earlier migrants from the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries were blue collar workers, working in factories and doing menial tasks. While this has also led to certain biases, the stereotyping has gradually ebbed because of the many Korean businesses in the Philippines and the Philippines’ reputation as a country for learning English.

Further, some Filipinos in Korea have also started to succeed in a wide variety of fields. For instance, Jasmine Lee, a politician and former congresswoman, is a Filipino who migrated to South Korea after her marriage to a Korean man. Her husband died while trying to save their daughter from drowning in a river. After his death, she began working as an actress, starring in a number of hit movies. Jasmine Lee also joined an organization that advocated for the rights of migrant families. She was later elected to congress. Despite institutionalized racism against Southeast Asians and a relatively conservative society, Jasmine Lee’s case demonstrates the possibility of members of a minority group to succeed in the mainstream. Jasmine Lee’s efforts have contributed to the breaking down of prejudice against Southeast Asians and to the opening up of South Korean society.

While the encounter between Koreans and Filipinos, both in Korea and in the Philippines, has not always been positive, the spread of Korean pop culture and recent developments, such as Koreans studying or establishing businesses in the Philippines, or Filipinos breaking stereotypes in Korea, have resulted in greater understanding between these two groups. Such ties can perhaps lead to greater cooperation between the two countries as well.

Image taken from this site.

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