Korea Day: Speaking the same language

Not far from where I stood, the drumming interrupted a young woman mid-sentence as a look of alarm suddenly crossed her face. Around her, other people—regardless of race, age and gender—were subsequently hushed. Soon enough, all eyes seemed fixed on a foreign sight: a fluttering, hanbok-clad lady tailed by a band playing samul nori—a traditional percussion-based music of Korea. At that moment, SM City Cebu—a place and time where discourse was usually held in either English, Cebuano, Tagalog or Korean—listened to the universal language of music. It was October 6, 2012, the first Saturday of the month. Cebu City was celebrating its second Korea Day—an occasion set last year by the local government to honor the provincial capital’s close ties with South Korea. In 2011, festivities that marked the occasion were held at the city’s Ayala Center. This year, the chosen grounds were that of a local SM mall.

At the mouth of the establishment’s cinema hall, there was a line of Filipino women leading to a makeshift booth where they were given the opportunity to have their photographs taken while wearing brightly colored hanboks. Nearby, people flocked around kiosks serving dishes best known in South Korea. And in one of the mall’s theaters, nearly everyone on stage, at one point, danced to Psy’s “Gangnam Style.”

It was a reintroduction of the country’s culture that went beyond pop music and telenovelas. And to the Cebu Korean Association, the organization that planned the events, these have become necessities.a

“There are more and more Koreans coming to the Philippines these days,” Ken Choi, the president of the organization, said. “Currently, there are about 35,000 in Cebu and around 50 percent of the province’s tourists are from South Korea.”

With their numbers continuing to grow, the organization believed that there was a need for Koreans to foster better cultural understanding with Cebuanos. Now more than ever, it has become an imperative to bridge gaps, break barriers, and communicate in what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called the universal language: music.

A quest for diplomacy

My visit to Cebu City with photographer Don Oco began on October 4. From the Mactan Airport, we rode a car that transported us to the provincial capital. Along the way, we crossed the Marcelo B. Fernan Bridge and soon enough my side of the vehicle was flanked by a reeling line of flags—each representing a different nation. South Korea was among the first to be accounted for.

No more than 30 minutes later, we arrived at the Quest Hotel where we were booked for a five-day stay. Its general manager is James Montenegro, the same man handling the operations of Mactan Island’s Crimson Hotel and Resorts. And like most people in Cebu, he is no stranger to Koreans. “Cebu is popular among Koreans because of the proximity,” he said. “We are among the nearest resort destinations from Korea.”

Like most establishments within its area, Quest has considerable dealings with foreign nationals and has shown that it is more than fit to shoulder the growing tourism of the province.

As a soaring structure towering behind the Ayala Center Cebu, Quest has 427 rooms. It was originally pegged to provide a middle ground between budget lodgings and top-notch accommodations that are now crowding Cebu City. But since its grand opening in September 20 this year, the establishment has been on a quest to surpass expectations.

“We position ourselves as a mid-range, reasonably priced hotel but we still have the amenities you would expect from a five star establishment,” said Montenegro. And among the said features include four room types complete with up-to-date conveniences, an open-air pool area overlooking the skyline of the city, a gym, several function rooms, a business center, a multi-lingual staff and hotel-wide internet access.

Another popular offering of the establishment is the food. At the base of the structure is Puso, a multi-cultural restaurant frequented by the hotel’s patrons and walk-in guests. It is the belief of its executive sous chef, Steve Pramagac, that a person’s dining experience always starts with the eyes. And with that, most of the dishes served by the restaurant appear emboldened with the intent of being an ocular feast.

To the staff, one of the best offerings of the hotel is its culture of hospitality—the predilection to open doors, greet anyone they come across and ask if there is anything more they can do to make your stay comfortable. To the mayor of the city, Michael Rama, this is a “Cebuano thing.”

“We are very welcoming people,” he told asianTraveler. And to him, this is the reason as to why other nationals, especially Koreans, have been coming in. Mayor Rama added that Cebuanos are also known for being resilient, for being so quick to adjust in order to accommodate the emerging needs of visitors. During our trip, however, it would appear that there are Cebuanos that did more than adjust to the influx of Korean nationals.

Achieving peace Gangnam-style

It was after our visit to Cebu when I read one of the most prominent reports written concerning Korean pop culture in October. In an article from the Agence France-Presse, it was said that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon dubbed “Gangnam Style,” (a popular fad dance song by Korean rapper Psy) as a possible instrument in achieving world peace. Looking back at our experience, I can see where the man was coming from.

Before the actual Korea Day celebration, we were invited on October 5 to watch a K-pop competition which pitted over 20 local youth acts. The competition was won by the duo of Hanbyul19 who performed Sistar19’s “Ma Boy.” They sang before a spirited crowd whose general admiration for K-pop was such that the mere sight of a music video being played on a projector was enough to incite a surprisingly riotous clamor. When the commotion surged for the first time, I thought that there was a popular celebrity that entered the premises. It turned out that the intense, almost fanatic display was incited simply by what they saw on a screen beside the stage.

“There are times when I don’t even know what some K-pop songs are about,” said Derek Castillo, one of the audience members energetically cheering. “But, with songs like Gangnam Style, the catchy beat and the fun nature is enough for me to like it.”

Among those taken aback by the reception was, Dasuri Choi, a Manila-based Korean performer and choreographer who was invited to judge the competition. “It is my first time to visit Cebu so I didn’t really know that they are very into K-Pop,” she said. “As a Korean, it makes me happy that the reception toward our music is so positive.”

Currently working as a teacher at Philippine Korean Embassy’s Cultural Center, Dasuri is familiar with the affinity for song and dance shared by both Koreans and Filipinos in Manila. It is, as she states, a bridge over the gap created by culture and language. And after witnessing the same kind of ear-splitting adoration coming from Cebuanos, she believes a similar connection can happen in the provincial capital.

But the relationship between Koreans and Cebuanos is not without its barriers. To Tara Rose Donayre, a girl who won the K-pop competition last year with her group Generation Next, there is still room for improvement.

“I still see some prejudices coming from both sides,” she said. “Maybe in a few years, if we continue with events like this wherein we get to take part in each other’s cultures, both sides would develop more open minds toward each other.”

Better understanding between Cebuanos and Koreans—it was repeatedly touted as the main goal behind the festivities surrounding Korea Day. And, in an attempt to achieve this, the main program held on October 6 sought to find a middle ground between two different cultures.

There was the performance of Tae Kwan Do Team Cebu City who did a demonstration of the martial arts that originated from South Korea. There was Min Jung Kim who played the haegum—a string-based Korean instrument—to the tune of Liezel Garcia’s “Gisingin Ang Puso” as the Filipino members of the audience got involved with the performance by singing the lyrics of the song from their seats. And there was the Yeosu Children Samul Nori Band who, while playing their percussions, appealed to the general Filipino fondness for flair and acrobatics by doing stunts, balancing discs on their drum sticks, and performing head-based choreography that twirls the ribbons tied on the top of their head gears.

At the end of the program, when all the performers were being called on stage, “Gangnam Style” was played and the effect of the song was palpable. The Filipinos on stage began to perform its trade mark armwhipping dance and their movements soon affected their more reserved Korean counterparts. Everyone—Filipino or Cebuano, young or old, monolingual or otherwise—was into it. To Donayre, who currently has a number of Korean friends, this is usually the case.

“Koreans in the Philippines often keep to themselves and it is the Filipinos who usually initiate the interaction,” she stated.

However, I did witness a somewhat parallel exchange earlier that day. Before the start of the main program, a hanbok-clad lady led a samul nori band in a parade around the mall. Donning their ornate headgears and white uniforms, they skipped through a sea of curious eyes while banging on their instruments. Eventually, they performed at the center of a crowd near the department store.

It was an unusual sight for some of the locals. There were those who didn’t understand what was going on. A man even approached me and asked in lilting Tagalog what “the Chinese” are doing. And there were those whose initial looks of suspicion melted into softer, more cordial expressions. Soon enough, there were people raising their phones to take pictures and videos of the band.

And then it happened, the lady leading the band fluttered her way toward one of the spectators, gently pulled her into the center and started swaying. There was a phase of awkwardness. The girl approached had misgivings contorting her visage. But when the hanbok-wearing lady persisted with a smile, the other girl started to copy her movements.

And right there, between two people, with two different mother tongues, a lingua franca—beyond English, Cebuano, Tagalog and Korean—came into play. Communication occurred, a level of understanding was reached, and no words were necessary.