SEOUL, South Korea (MindaNews/1 November)—The Philippines and Laos have been famous to Korean tourists. Last year, South Korea was the top source of tourists for the Philippines with over one million arrivals, while nearly 54,000 South Korean tourists visited Laos. Here, two foreign students, a Filipina and a Lao woman, have survived the challenges and realized the need to go home after their graduation to help their own countries.
The cold autumn wind gently breezes through a flock of pedestrians below tall, modern buildings in Seoul one late morning. Amid the hustle and bustle of a megacity with over 10 million people, a 34-year old Filipina, Michelle Palumbarit, arrives at our meeting place just on time. Her breakfast was coffee in a paper cup, holding it like an accent of her fashionable black leggings under a grey skirt and long-sleeve blouse. She mixes up with Koreans like a citizen now after five years of adjusting to their daily lifestyle as she pursues higher education.
“I have learned the system here myself because no one ever taught me,” she says and explains the subway train map at the last page of her pocket calendar. All station names are written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. The map can also be viewed through mobile applications available for smart phones. She claims, however, that she’s a bit “old school” as her handy is only “smart” enough to make phone calls and send text messages.
It is the same phone she was using when she first came to Seoul for a Korean government scholarship in a master’s degree on Korean Studies at Yonsei University, where she is also currently a scholar for a doctorate degree on Political Science major in Comparative Politics. She finished her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of the Philippines in Miag-ao, Iloilo. “Obviously, I am an Ilongga,” she says proudly. Ilongga refers to native women in Iloilo province, while men are called Ilonggo, which also refers to their dialect.
Palumbarit has been interested in Korea since then, as her first master’s degree was Asian Studies with Korean Studies as her area of specialization at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. Living in a country that is more developed is more of a boon than a bane. She points out Seoul’s efficient transport systems and high priority on safety and security. “If you are lost, just ask the traffic policemen. They are very helpful,” she advises, recalling her first few days in Seoul. She hopes that some good things here could be applied in her country someday.
She dreams of becoming an educator as her way of “giving back to the people who paid for my education at UP and actively and positively contribute to the country I have always loved.” At times when she was sad, frustrated and lonely, and wanted to give up, she says she thinks of the Filipino people.
“All I ever dream of is to be a good teacher and a person who can inspire others to be the best they can be through education. For now, I am working on that dream,” she says, waiting to get off at the train’s next stop.
Unlike Palumbarit who is familiar with the subway system, Lao student Ms Lattanaphone Vannasouk, 24, barely uses public transport and has not explored South Korea except during a few school field trips since she came here five years ago. In an interview in the evening, this petite woman, also called “Tookta,” in her denim pants and checkered long-sleeves, says she prefers to set meetings in familiar surroundings so she won’t get lost. Her school, the Korea Development Institute (KDI) School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul, sits in a compound after a turn from Hoegi-ro Road. It is not so easy to find.
Tookta was only 18 years old when she arrived in Seoul alone in 2008 to avail of a Korean government scholarship program. She took a bachelor’s degree on business administration, major in trade and industrial policy. Dreaming big after her undergraduate course, she applied in the same school for a new scholarship to pursue a master’s degree on public policy, which she is hoping to complete next year.
Setting a goal helped Tookta cope with a new culture and system of education. “The system of education here is similar to that of Laos, but the students here are different. To compete with Korean students is very hard. I’m not going to compete with them but I have to force myself to study hard, just like them,” she says. Aside from seven other Lao students, Tookta developed friendship among foreign students from Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Mongolia.
Although she admits that technology and quality of education, among other development facets, are better in South Korea, she still misses her homeland. “It’s really hard to eat the same kind of food all the time. Lao food is hard to cook here,” she says and laughs. When she misses tam-mak-houng (papaya salad), she makes her own version with green papaya but without padek (fermented fish sauce), making do with some fish sauces found in the market.
“Here, I see a lot of development. Compared to Laos, we are still left behind,” she says. Tookta wants to bring new ideas when she comes back to Laos. She hopes to work in a private company first while waiting for the chance to work in the government, particularly in the Ministry of Planning and Investment. But she admits that it is hard to assert new ideas in her country if she will just be alone. “It’s hard to change the way they are doing. I will just be one person there. If I am alone, I think it’s really hard but if we have a team, I think we can.”
She points out that Laos has a lot of potential for investment, citing the 4,000 islands in Champassak province. “It’s my parents’ hometown and I personally like the province. Don Khone and Don Khet islands have many prospects for investment,” she says.
Studying hard and being patient are some of the lessons that she learned while in Seoul. “I always tell my cousins and relatives to study hard and if they have the chance to study abroad, [they must] grab the opportunity.” (Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)