Asian Asymmetry

01/02/2012

Eliz and I returned yesterday evening from a nine-night layoff in the Philippines, and aside from being a more-than-welcome break from the Chinese water torture that life in Korea can be, it provided an interesting vantage point from which to sit back – Filipino beer in hand, obviously – and compare the two wildly contrasting ways of life. Often it is all too easy to just lump Asia together as one huge, 4,000,000,000-strong group of people, but a moment on holiday highlighted how wrong this is. We were eating and drinking and chatting about Korea with a family of Filipinos when one asked “how do they speak in Korea? ‘Cha du wah koh nah chang chong nahhhh?'”. It was a funny – if slightly racist – reminder of the differences  between countries that from back home seem relatively geographically close despite being in reality worlds apart. At times it was tempting to slip into a worryingly anti-Korean mindset – why can’t Korea sell a litre of rum for under a pound like the Philippines do? Why can’t Korea sell Hellmann’s mayonnaise in its supermarkets? – but I realise that if things were slightly different and I was holidaying in Korea midway through a year teaching in the Philippines I’d have complaints about the latter instead. Hence, this will hopefully turn out to be a gentle comparison rather than a giant whinge.

We flew to the island of Cebu, which is a popular tourist destination for Koreans (especially honeymooners) and so we were able to glean some accommodation recommendations. The cost and location of these places struck me. Despite browsing Agoda with the giddy spendthriftiness the financial backing of 5 months’ wages of one’s first ‘proper job’ provides, the Shangri-La and other suggested five-star resorts were well out of our price range. They were also all within walking distance of one another. Later on during the trip we met someone who agreed with our assessment of most Koreans as reserved and suggested that in general they were unwilling to venture outside of their comfort zones – something backed up both by the fashion conformity here, and the astonishment at my “bravery” for getting on a ferry in Cebu to another part of the country – but of course there are exceptions to every rule. We expected to see Koreans on holiday, but save for those at the airport (and a group of Japanese girls I mistakenly said “감사합니다” to for taking our photo) we didn’t, although chatting to resort owners it seemed on Bohol it seemed as though we missed them by chance. I think the Comfort Zone Theory (good band name there) also contributes to general difficulties in learning English, too.

It was so nice to be around people we could speak English to. We got so used to it that when we landed back in Korea and ordered some food Elizabeth asked ” ‘ow muhch fuvvuh fries?” and got a surprised “uhh, fryyy?” in response. I can’t give you any statistics but I’m certain the Filipino government doesn’t spend anywhere near as much as Korea on English education. Being very much monolingual I’m not in a position to moan about this, but basic manners and politeness on the other hand are a different kettle of fish. Simple thank yous and excuse mes at first appeared to be overly grand gestures of refined social behaviour, until we realised that we just weren’t used to hearing them anymore. I said I wouldn’t whinge but it doesn’t take much to step around someone (or, God forbid, wait for them to move before you do) rather than shoulder-barge your way through them. Moving on…

When we tired of Cebu we visited nearby Bohol, which was, as far as we could see, devoid of Koreans. This was a shame because it’s the only place in the world you can find the tarsier, a tiny bug-eyed primate that I reckon would be right up the street of many here: it’s cute. Very very cute. We also took a van through the heart of the island to see the famous Chocolate Hills, and the scenery on the way there was something to behold, too. I’ve never seen so much green in my life. In another part of Bohol, the family of Filipinos I mentioned earlier invited us to share the celebrations of someone’s birthday – I can’t complain that we’ve not recieved impromtu invitations to picnics in Korea, because we have – but it felt like they did so because they were genuinely interested to meet and talk to us, rather than to enjoy our reactions to various strange new foods. We raised some of these concerns with our new friends, but then I frequently found myself, either mentally or aloud, defending Korea: Koreans may be reserved but once they know and trust you they are extremely loyal and can be very funny; the stares and giggles are a result of curiosity and genuine interest, and it’s not so bad being called handsome daily; many children are taught entirely in English at school in the Philippines – so there.

And last but not least, there’s food to consider. Unfortunately, this gathering provided some of the best we’d had on our holiday. There was plenty of variety in the Philippines, but they should take a leaf from Korea’s book and stick to what they know. At times in restaurants I felt myself longing for the familiar bowl of kimchi to arrive, no questions asked, so I’d have something to much while waiting for a beautiful bowl of bibimbap or a Korean BBQ, before a waiter would bring me crashing back down to Earth with a soggy cheeseburger or sweet-enough-to-be-a-pudding pasta. It felt strange coming back to Korea rather than London after a holiday, but it sort of felt like home.

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