Commissioned by a student publication during my exchange stint in Korea. I knew then that other folk would be paying attention, so I did a roundabout way of name-dropping the previous foreign locale I’d lived and worked in.
Small Worm, Big Apple
I could have been one of the many jinxes that started upending the Paradise that was New York City since the nineties. The World Trade Center was first bombed a few months after I arrived and collapsed a few months before I finally left for home. A demented tourist shot a number of sightseers at the observation deck of the EmpireState building – a structure that loomed right outside the office where I worked for almost eight years. An unemployed immigrant also shot several passengers on a train leaving the city for the suburbs. The stock market plunged twice, first because of the Asian economic recession, then because of the overvaluation of dot-com shares.
In all instances except the last, foreigners were considered responsible for what happened. Yet this was one of the contradictions about living in that city, as opposed to living elsewhere in North America: everyone there was a foreigner, or had descended from one. Of course virtually all Americans are non-native, but it seemed that only when they get to New York do they care to point out how, at some point in the past, they actually belonged elsewhere.
The place had a certain way of exacting payback. I was supposed to be able to finish my studies, my share of the all-American dream, through the all-American method of working hard. What didn’t show up in the equation was that the money I’d earn, the largest I’d ever make in my life up to that point, would amount to less than nothing in the face of the exorbitant cost of living. I eventually wound up with my graduate degrees, plus a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loans.
In the face of such an unwelcome and unmitigated disaster, how did I manage to muddle through? If I thought then, as I do now, that the place was just as badly (or even worse) hit than I was, that would have been no consolation. Once I left the city, I’d have to wait out two years working in the Philippine national university before I could find a job that paid decently enough to pay off the loans.
The answer would be self-evident enough to anyone living in New York. The place itself has enough talent and diversity to make even the poorest resident occasionally feel lucky to be alive. A master violinist from a major Chinese orchestra, a black doo-wop trio with remarkable timing and perfect harmony, a female performance artist who could assume unusual poses for long stretches, Peruvian musicians invoking the Andes through their charango and panpipes, and so on…and these were just the characters one could encounter performing for loose change in the subway.
When the major opera houses announced their new seasons, I’d be in line for my student-priced tickets, each one a tenth of what a Broadway musical would cost me. One of the little secrets of long-time “cultured” New Yorkers is that they never go to Broadway, only to the opera, although my reason for attending was that I was a student of the spectacle (of cinema, but before that, historically speaking, there was only the stage). When my out-of-town friends would insist on Broadway shows then complain about how backward the stories were and how old-fashioned their politics played out, I’d try to convince them to try an opera, which would have the same brand of outmoded ideological positions, but with better music, finer singing, and grander staging. Besides, I’d say, Broadway’s origins lay in a lesser form, the Viennese operetta. No go, though; seemed like people in the rest of the world would not respect any of their friends who went to New York and spent their time on presentations that did not feature pop stars and current music.
I always envied those who’d been to the great museums of Europe, but every so often the New York institutions would mount retrospectives that would be the equivalent of the usually-dead artists coming back to rework their magic: Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, the circle of French surrealists, and of course the shock artists whose exhibits Rudy Giuliani attempted to thwart. In my specialization, I’d taken the number of free and discounted film screenings so much for granted that, when my home university asked me for my first-year viewing list, I was amazed to jot down, based on my notes, brochures, and tickets, over 300 titles of the widest possible array of movies, from high art to trash, from festival favorite to disreputable pre-Disneyfied Times Square run, from fun genre sample to structural-materialist cerebration (my favorite, which I made sure to watch twice in its entirety, was two hours of Michael Snow whirling his camera on various axes from atop a Canadian mountain).
There’d be food my friends and I would treat ourselves to when we had the spare funds, categorized according to nationality: Greek (authentic but also occasionally the code word for all-around New York diner), Italian, Mexican, French, Spanish, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, and the always-reliable Chinese. Wines could be found for as low as $3 a bottle, so I could indulge my alcoholic depression by pretending I was learning vintage and vinification.
All in all the range and breadth of distractions would be enough to make you believe the place was worth living in despite its inadequate services and pugnacious population (and hey, I was one of them too for a time). Enough to sometimes forget what you originally came for, in fact. The first time my late father saw me again, he said: “I can’t believe it – I never thought I’d live to see the day when you grew old.” He said I reminded him of Rip van Winkle, a New York character created by a New York author. And at that point I knew the dream was over. I was finally back home.
[First published May 2, 2005, as “Growing Old in New York (Or Small Worm, Big Apple)” in The Hallym Post]
News about the latest saber-rattling from the pseudo-socialist feudal monarchy of North Korea still has the capacity to upset folks back home in the Philippines, despite the fact that South Korea happens to be, after Mongolia, the farthest East Asian country from the archipelago. Our connection with the peninsula goes deeper than the appreciation of telenovela and K-pop products shared by our neighbors and now, thanks to Psy, by the rest of the world.
The Catholic sector claims to having had historical precedence in Philippine-Korean relations (a pre-20th-century martyred missionary was supposedly trained in Asia’s first Christian outpost), but the more vital connection was realized by the Koreans first, prompted by their traumatic initiation in their experience of colonization: when they sought the help of Western powers to support their resistance against Japanese occupation about a century ago, they realized that the first country they expected to help them, the US, had effectively agreed (in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum) to allow Japan its “right” to annex Korea as long as Japan in turn recognized the US’s claim to the Philippines.
From that point onward Korea and the Philippines would be bound by America’s Asian interests. Filipinos responded to South Korea’s call for assistance during the Korean War, earning admiration from the beleaguered population for their level of prosperity, second then only to Japan. The Koreans’ cool attitude toward their former colonizers is key to what has since become a genuine alternative to Western-style development, where an aspirant to First-World status jump-starts (and sometimes maintains) its journey to material progress by forcibly exploiting an “other” population, whether within its borders (as slaves) or in another country, with plunder and extermination constituting extreme but (from the colonizer’s perspective) occasionally necessary measures.
What South Korea (henceforth Korea) had wrought since then, which several other non-East Asian nations managed to replicate, was an attainment of developed status using the formula claimed but never actually deployed by the originary European model: sheer hard work, where in effect the capitalistically exploited group is the native population itself. Such an option could only be available to genuinely decolonized states – and once the US extended its imperial Cold War arrangements beyond Latin America to include the Philippines, that model had less than a snowball’s chance in Manila of surviving on our shores.
Yet within the interstices of covert premises that distinguish marginal relationships (the political as much as the personal), it would be possible to assert that Koreans found their inspiration in the early Philippine example; in much the same way we could aver that Filipinos also persisted in their pursuit of the now-patentable Asian model developed, pun intended, by Korea, in spite of the US’s inescapable neocolonial stranglehold, not by resisting their colonized condition but by embracing it and proffering the only products they can lay claim to – their literal selves – to any master willing to take possession of their services.
This admittedly hasty account helps explain, on the one hand, why among East Asians it is the Koreans rather than the more historically empire-minded (and populous) Japanese and Chinese who found vast and open acceptance in the rest of Asia via their popular cultural products; and on the other hand, why it is the Philippines that has become the Koreans’ favorite single-country destination. As Filipinos, we shortchange ourselves if we believe that our English-language expertise and our tropical-paradise resorts have sufficed in attracting the hardest working, least self-forgiving nationals in the world, a people who deal with their distinction of having the highest unhappiness indicators (divorce and suicide) among OECD member-countries not by easing up, but by hunkering down and driving themselves even more mercilessly.
The trade-off becomes apparent to the increasing numbers of Filipinos who arrive in Korea as workers and/or spouses and participate in a highly regimented system where historically uninterrupted Confucianist patriarchy has fused with Western orthodoxy so successfully that the observance of hierarchical orders (the young deferring to the old, women deferring to men, and so on) has achieved the semblance of an all-encompassing secular religion: the government can set an audaciously precise goal (recovering from recession, for example, or introducing a microtechnological innovation) and the rest of the nation moves accordingly to ensure it arrives, as announced, on schedule. For this reason, long-time foreigners have learned to respond to unusual events such as North Korea’s latest noise barrage by taking the cue from the local population: their contemptuous dismissal of the stink being raised by the big boy across the DMZ rings louder by being so utterly silent. Try invading again, seems to be the sentiment, and see whether you’ll ever want to return to your old regime after taking in wonders your imagination can’t even begin to comprehend.
They may as well be addressing the Filipinos too, but the Philippines has a ready retort: free from the developmental treadmill that has the other Asians running just to stay in place, and much wiser after realizing how easily the American dream can betray most of its purchasers, the people of the islands can be as free as they wish to be, as cynical of the values that Western (and Westernized) peoples hold dear, and as kind as only those who have nothing to lose can get. Until one of a multitude of masters from foreign shores comes calling, life can be beautiful, as it was always meant to be.
[First published April 18, 2013, as “Across the Korean Peninsula, Unease in the Morning Calm” in The FilAm]