For the Lunar New Year, my extended family and I went on vacation to the Philippines, to the beautiful island of Boracay.
I’m not terribly close with the members of my paternal extended family, and although I expected – hoped? – that I’d be able to make some bonds, I ended up not having much interaction with them. Nonetheless, it was really enjoyable, what with the white sand beaches and the sea the colour of dishwasher liquid and rickshaws and motorcycles and lots and lots of people there for the Lunar New Year holiday.
And the beach. The beach was magnificent, almost unreal.
Some interesting things that happened:
1. The lady working at reception told me I spoke English very well. Another lady, who braided my hair on the beach, told me the same thing. So were they, and I bet so were many other Koreans who’d passed by, but – and maybe this is just something I feel – treatment is always different for people who have ‘American’ accents. They wondered where I’d got mine. As if it were a nice summer dress or something.
When I went to Sri Lanka last year, a really high-ranking official and probably the most ‘important’ person I’d met told me that I had an ‘American’ accent. Aside from the fact that it isn’t really (Canadian!), it makes me wonder if there is such thing as ‘better’ accents. Korean parents forced their children to undergo ‘surgery’ in the early 2000s, which supposedly would make their tongues more flexible. It was their fault for buying any of it, but still what a shame.
2. (And now it gets a little personal) My uncle is past forty and not yet married. My relatives considered bringing a lady from Southeast Asia, which is a common thing that unmarried middle aged men do in Korea. They asked my parents – who could speak English – to ask around in case there might be anyone to introduce to him. My opinions on this practice aside, it felt so weird when our tour guide – who had spent his whole life on the island – told us he had a niece who might be interested, and she was 18. Eighteen.
I am eighteen in less than six months.
We later found out that it would be difficult to find anyone older than in their mid-twenties, because by then most Filipino women are married. So maybe it’s just a difference in culture. But I mustn’t be the only one disturbed about randomly taking a young girl and marrying her off to a Korean, much older, man. The adults also asked the ladies working in the hotel lobby (including the lady who’d told me I spoke English well). They were so kind and friendly and young and pretty, it seemed so wrong to me that we would ask. Yet no one was offended. They all told us, laughing, that they were single but that a couple of them had boyfriends. I felt so uncomfortable. Boyfriends that they might end up marrying, instead of old Korean men – maybe richer, yes, but most likely single for a reason – and aside from right or wrong it made me sick imagining I might be one of the girls. After all, I didn’t do anything to be born as a Korean. And it’s not even just a matter of nationality, but sometimes circumstances push you to do things you otherwise would not do.
My sister caught a lizard in the hotel room and wanted to bring it back home. The adults said no, because “it has a family and a home and it won’t be happy in cold Korea”. I blurted out, “What’s the difference between that and bringing a girl to Korea to marry her off?”
3. I witnessed several injustices (as subjective as that is), namely how Korean tourist companies treat their local workers unfairly and a lot of the time as lesser beings. It made me think of books I’d read of the English in India a hundred years ago. I thought for a short instant that colonialism isn’t really dead, and maybe hierarchies are inevitable. Of course in another part of the world, a Korean could be the one being treated unfairly, and of that even I have witnessed instances.
It was a wonderful vacation. I loved the beaches, I loved bartering with the peddlers and talking to locals, I loved the sea and the sky and the palm trees. Inside, though, a part of me was uncomfortable. Maybe it wasn’t my job to be uncomfortable, because the Philippines is beautiful enough as it is without my condescending concern. Regardless, though, I felt many of the same things I feel in Korea when I see Koreans refusing to sit beside an Asian immigrant worker on the subway but feeling ashamed of not being able to accomodate a Western person in English.
Details on my trip coming soon.