Philippine Ajumma

By Linda Arnaez-Lee
(Translation from Kinaray-a by Jose Edison C. Tondares)

“Getting a husband is like gambling. You never know if it is good luck or bad luck that will hit you. That is why it is better for you a get a husband from somewhere near. If your husband hurts you, you can easily run home. What are you going to do in Korea? It’s too far. Here, even if it is just a harvester that you marry, at least you are close to us.” These were the last words my father spoke to me when I asked his permission to marry a Korean.

“What? You are marrying a Korean? Why a Korean? Just where did you meet that guy? You have so many suitors and you pick a Korean? Are you sure about that?” All these questions from my friends and co-teachers in a public school where I teach were like rattling gunfire.

I indeed had many suitors. There was a policeman, a politician, a teacher, an overseas worker, a Muslim businessman, a sacristan, a widower, a married man, a bum, a student, and one crazy guy. Beat that! I had all! But none made me tick! If this was at all, however, the reason for marrying I would have gotten married when I was still a student. The truth was my suitors did not really come up to what I called my standards. That was not how I chose whom to marry. I wanted someone who shared my views in life, and that would be building a family that was good and happy, that even if along the way plates and pots would fly out of the window, and love would be gone, we would still have the same views; that we would have handsome and pretty kids (we need to improve the race), long life, and stable jobs. The fulfillment of these dreams I saw in Bruce, a Korean referred to me by my elder sibling in Korea. That was why I did not listen to my father or my friends or those I knew. Against what they had to say, I flew to Korea.

On 24 January 2001, I was one of the passengers of Korean Airlines flying to Seoul. I had with me a suitcase and three paper bags filled with canned foods and noodles. I wanted to be prepared just in case I would not take an instant liking to their food.

The instant the plane’s wheels hit the ground, I instantly felt I was now in the land of slinky-eyed people fond of eating kimchi. I was motionless for a while. What fate was it that awaited me?

The paper bags I carried with my left hands were a topsy-turvy while I dragged my suitcase with my right. I saw him right away among the crowd waiting outside the arrival area. I was amazed that I saw him immediately. I did not find it hard to look for him even if everyone looked alike with their eyes in perpetual squint. It might have been because I had already seen and been with him twice in Manila, and I have closely studied the pictures he sent me together with a set of lotion which I would later found out were for the face. All the while I thought they were for my arms. No wonder it was harder to shake than a dead snail!

What’s funny was he hurried much to the airport but forgot to bring a winter coat for me. I didn’t really feel the cold perhaps because I was feeling too many things, or maybe I just had brought along enough tropical warmth. If I was an anchovy, I would say I had been sundried to the bones before I left the Philippines. I did not feel the cold until we reached their house in Busan from Gimhae Airport. He offered to take off his jacket for me to wear but I was like the courageous Gabriela Silang when I refused his offer and said, “I’m ok!”

When we arrived at his place, his mother was already waiting outside with the coat he forgot to bring. Mother-in-law had a curly hair. From afar, her head looked like cup noodles waiting for steaming hot water. Father-in-law was sitting on the floor and leaning on the wall by the door. He was crippled and he had to drag himself. Before him was a low round table laden with food. Mother-in-law wasted no time wrapping me with the coat she was holding while rattling off words not one of which I understood. That was when I started feeling the cold.

I did not like the food laid before me but I had to eat. I did not want to offend. I was not able to sleep to the first night I stayed at my husband’s. It was my first time to sleep on a warmed floor they called undol.

Very early in the morning I heard the pots and basins clanking. She was already up, Omoni. That was how they called mother in Korean. I glanced at the watch hanging on the wall. It was just four in the morning. Alarm clocks can glitch and batteries lose charge but not Omoni.

The first thing I learned at the training center for wives of Koreans was displaying respect. It was regarded to be of utmost importance in the household and in society. From waking up “Annyeonghi Jumosyeossoyo?”, to before meals “Jal mokesumnida,” to after meals “Jal mokossumnida,” to leaving the house “Tanyo ogesumnida,” to meeting someone by the street even if a stranger “Annyeong haseyo,” to arriving at home “Tanyo wassumnida,” to offering food “Jinji tuseyo” until before sleeping “Annyeonghi jumuseyo.” Endless courtesy. It was strange, however, this people on the second floor. They almost bump into you but hear nothing not even a cat’s meow of a voice. I would have wanted to have actually run into them.

Our marriage was arranged even if we were actually already married in Manila. This was to introduce me to the family, relatives, and friends as a new member of my husband’s family. There were no sponsors and godparents. The ceremony done by the pastor was austere. What was not simple was my three-inch thick make up and false eyelashes. My wedding gown looked like Cinderalla’s gown in some fairy tale book I read a long time ago. I had high heels and I smiled like the corners of my lips would reach past my jaws to my ears. Even Bruce had to wink three times with his mouth open at what he saw. I thought he couldn’t believe it was me, his bride. Huhum!

I could feel Bruce was nervous when he lighted the candle and it didn’t burn right away; and when his voice trembled as he responded “Ye!” or “Yes!” to the pastor; when our heads hit together when we bowed; when the corsage fell off from his suit. Everyone was laughing when Bruce picked it up and slipped it in the breast pocket of his suit. I on the other hand was calm, smiling as if amused and simply observing. Went with the flow.

The ceremony was soon over and was followed by a picture-taking beginning with the parents of the newly-wed. Mine was a pair proxy, a Korean couple known to the church. I remembered father. I would make it up to him when I come home to Antique. I plan to have another marriage ceremony according to the Aglipayan tradition. My father was an Aglipayan. Next in line for the photographs were the relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

“Popo!” “Kiss!” shouted everyone. Bruce’s trembling lips pressed on my checks. The camera flashed. The crowd applauded. Everyone was happy!

The wedding started at eleven in the morning and ended past two in the afternoon. We went home for the ritual bow to my parents-in-law. Then they gave me an envelope containing 300,000 won. Bruce had his too. We were to spend the money for our honeymoon in Kyeongju City. Bruce was simply unlucky. Red flag!

So Bruce wouldn’t feel so bad, we went around the whole of Kyeongju. We were out of our hotel for almost the entire time. We visited the Kyeongju Museum where one can learn about the Silla Dynasty. We rode a boat that from afar looked like a wading swan. We walked on a bridge arching over a pond and fed fishes as big as bamboo node. I was amazed. In my whole life I never saw fishes that big and they were of different colors. There was a red one, an orange, green, and a dapple of black and grey. Their splashes where like that of children playing in the irrigation canal during rain season. We had our picture taken. We took turns holding the camera, until an ajoshi, a man about 45 pitiful of us volunteered to take our picture together. “Hana, dol, set!” Klick! We also had our picture taken among the flowers. How beautiful they were. They were like pieces of puzzles places exactly where they should be. They formed a design. It was doubtless that a busalian was behind all of these. An obra maestra. Who would believe that on the rocky grounds of Korea will grow these flowers?

We had dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant where food seemed to be like all grass. There were many patrons eating, mostly couples like us. Perhaps they were newly-weds too. The women were all slim. I could not understand why “healthy” for them was being thin. In short, all bones! After dinner, we left the restaurant for some fresh air. I could not explain how I felt. Empty. Maybe I was just hungry.

Bruce pulled me further up. He brought me in front of a gaudily lighted door. Norebang. Videoke in our language. Bruce sang a few songs. He was a good singer. His timing was good and it was pointless to argue that he was used to norebang. He sang “kayo” or all-time pop songs but only a few. It was me wailing almost all of the one hour and a half that we stayed inside the norebang. “Manam,” or “The Rendezvous” was the first number I sang. This was the first Korean pop song that I knew. And then I sang English songs. One of them was “What’s up?” I haven’t taken a swig of soju but I was like drunk belting out those songs. Bruce was quiet. I thought I would rapture a vein in my neck trying to hit the high notes. I shouted out the lyrics. Was it really the lyrics I wanted to shout? But the lyrics of Bruce’s silence were even louder. The door opened. The manager of the norebang came in with a tray of Sewoo Kang, shrimp crackers in English, and saida and mekju in can. Cider and beer in can. The manager extended our one hour stay to another thirty minutes. “Serbisu,” was their term for “Service,” a Konglish for free. That was for my good singing. Bruce choked on the mekju when he heard the compliment.

It was already two in the morning when we returned to the hotel. Our room had two single beds. Bruce immediately sprawled on his bed. I went to the bathroom. Ay! Panulay! I was surprised by the automatic lighting. Everything was high-tech from the sliding door that opens just before you step in, up to the water closet that in a press of a button will wash your arse. Not good. Tsk! Not really good. There were simply too many things to press I didn’t know which one to press first. To avoid accidents, I decided to do things manually. When I stood up from the toilet, the water just flushed. I haven’t seen that coming!

I was smiling when I went out of the bathroom. Until I slept I had that smile of wonder, fear, joy and anxiety.

In the morning I woke up to a freshly-made breakfast by the bedside table and saw Bruce already dressed up. He was ready to go home to Busan.

The first few months at Bruce’s, Omoni wouldn’t allow me to do a thing. I couldn’t touch a thing without her taking it away from me. Dishes, laundry, vacuum cleaner, rags – she had to do them all. She told me to rest in the room, or fix myself, or go where I want to go. I thought Omoni was an angel descended from heaven but I found out all this kindness was the opposite of what she felt. The truth was she wanted me to force her to let me do the chores. That was their culture, even when giving money and gifts. You had to persistently refuse or give, whichever the case was, even if you had to chase each other and the 100 won coin, baegon is dented with mishandling. That was how they were.

One time, I disobeyed Omoni’s words. I went to her in the kitchen while she was frying fish. Just so I could start a conversation, I asked her, “Omoni what are you frying, mogi?” “Uung,” she replied. I thought Omoni did not understand my question. I looked up in the dictionary the Hanggul word for fish… mulkogi, and mogi meant mosquito! Santissima! Omoni fried mosquitos! Sigh… this Hanguk Mal was so hard. Every word sounded alike, mogi, kogi, yogi, tsugi, palli, palle. Hay… molla! Ewan! Ambot! Elam! Ambay!

A year and a half passed. What everybody waited for came – the grandson by the youngest son. My husband was the youngest son. Omoni was like grabbing kadyos from my legs while she was saying “Aigo…charanda! Uri aga charanda!” How good, my son knew how to do it! Omoni was ecstatic especially when she knew that I was having a son. This was where my calvary began.

If in the Philippines there were so many superstitions, the same is true in Korea. When I started conceiving, I was prohibited from eating ori kogi, a duck meat because if I did my son’s toes will join together like a duck’s. What if I ate balut? It was also not allowed because it was still a duckling cooked inside the boiled egg. I could not hammer nails for hanging my picture frames because my son might be born a harelip. I could not sit by the door or on the stairs because the baby may not deliver well. There are so many more superstitions. I can, however, scrub the floor every morning even if my back already aches from mopping the floor with my bare hands. (Here, mopping the floor with your feet was a sign of laziness. It should always be done with the hands.) I could also eat kimchi even if my hemorrhoids were so swollen. I could take milk even if I wanted to throw it up. They tell me I should be eating Miyok Kuk or seaweed soup because it would cleanse my blood. Omoni uses a huge pot to cook Miyok. I had more than enough to eat for a month. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, Miyok! Every day of my life, Miyok! There was simply too much of what can and cannot be done, what should and should not be done. The problem was there was nothing I could eat that I would not throw up later. My weight slid down from forty-eight to forty kilograms. I could not do anything for the whole day but to lie down and vomit. I had a wash basin beside me for my puke. When I asked for permission to go home to the Philippines, Omoni agreed. She could not, after all bear to see me suffering. Before I went home, I took some intravenous therapy from the hospital to regain some strength. When I arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, I immediately felt well. Tampuhaw! I could not feel any bad thing from the tip of my hair to the tip of my toenails. Amazing! Nagapanamkun ako sa Pilipinas!

After my one month vacation is over, I returned to Busan longing for my new family and hoping that the worst of my conception is over. It was not long when I smelled kimchi when Omoni opened the refrigerator and I vomited again, so hard I thought I was throwing up my innards.

It was not possible for them not to eat kimchi because it was staple. What I did was not to eat with them.

Hyeongnim, for that was how a kun myeoneri would call her sister-in-law in Hangul, complained why I was not eating with them and not helping with the household chores. All I did was roll on the mat. I should be doing this and doing that. There were too many things for me to do. What irritated me was that she was everywhere.

They told me that if you married a Korean, you married a whole family. It was not possible for only the husband and wife to decide. Everyone had to be included in decisions ranging from what to name the child, to the child’s insurance, to his schooling, to his diet, to giving him a bath, to his clothes, diapers and toys, even how many children to have. Everyone had to have a say on everything. There was no mine or just us. It should be all of us. But I wanted to spite them and did everything to the contrary. I could be worse than a big-pitted plum if someone challenged me. I was used to being independent and to trusting myself in the Philippines. I did not need advices especially if I did not ask for them. This was how our misunderstanding started.

I felt I was not important in the household and there was nothing I could say, or in more exact language, I could not say anything during decisions in the household. Bruce was ever obedient because he was the youngest among his siblings. If there was anything wrong, I felt I was at fault and everybody was ganging up on me. This went on as I could not fight back, express myself and explain my reasons and rights because I could not speak their language well. It was hard… my nose was running. Sob!

I realized that if we only had one child, they would continue to disregard me because they can readily take care of the child. Only one. They might even send me back to the Philippines if I no longer had any use for them. If we had two children, they definitely could not cope baby-sitting the kids. They would need me and they could not send me home. If we had two children, I could do two things if they wanted Bruce and I to separate: to bring the two children back to the Philippines, or leave them both with them. I wanted to see if this would be appealing to them. Both would be impossible. I knew what I had to do. By hook or by crook, our six-month old son should have a baby sibling. Mr. Bruce Lee, get ready!

Thus our only child became two and then three. A certain peace came about especially when we transferred to a duplex where Omoni had a different living quarter. It was just a wall between us. Hyeongnim must also have gotten tired of getting herself in our affairs. Gave up on my bullheadedness. She must have seen she’d get nothing from me. Aboji, my father in law went on to the next life. Omoni was living alone. She would only go to our house to check if the floor was dusty and to asked if I have cleaned the house or not. In the end, she must have also gotten tired of running her hands on our floor and had limited her visitations to seldom. She must have realized that I was not irresponsible inside the house. I was beginning to think more peacefully, but I had too much of household work for my self. Everything was mine!

I was like a propeller in the morning. I would wake up at six in the morning and nurse my only daughter with a feeding bottle. After feeding her and putting her to sleep, I would prepare the breakfast. While waiting for rice to cook and reheating the soup, I would put in my son’s lunch boxes their spoons and chopsticks, and also their water. They would have their lunch at school. While they are still sleeping, I would lay down their breakfast on the table and place their lunch boxes in their bags. Then I would rouse them up to eat. While they are eating, I would boil water for the thermos and for sterilizing the feeding bottles. Meanwhile I would wash the feeding bottles, warm their bathing water, and prepare their clothes. After they are done eating, have taken a bath and are dressed up, if Nene wakes up, I would carry her on my back so that I can go on working. When the kids are gone, I would air the pillows and blankets, fold them and put them inside the closet. Then I would go on vacuuming the floor, and damping them with a towel. I would boil the rags to keep them white. I would soak the laundry. I would feed Nene. When these were all done, it was time for me to eat my breakfast. This was my daily routine. I had not included yet my routine for lunch and dinner, helping the kids with their homework.

My eldest was already on Grade 3 and my second on Grade 2. Before, I did not have plans of having more children. My hope was only to have even just one child. They, however, bullied me and when I was at the hospital to deliver my child, Hyeongnim told me “Teng!” Korean for that’s enough. “Have only one child.” My ears rang like bells. I did not like being dictated. After the six-month period that the doctor prescribed for not getting pregnant, I was preggy with Jake’s younger sibling. That would now be my Minho Ho Lee (star of City Hunter and Boys over Flowers Korean drama series) dead ringer, Jewon. After seven years, Nene was formed in my womb. It was complete. Bek Chum! 100%!

Bruce would leave the house and seven in the morning to work and return at around nine in the evening. He would already be too tired to teach the kids about their homework, or read news or notices from the school. I could not do anything but try so hard to read and understand Hangul. If I could not understand it, I would look it up in the dictionary and just try to see how it all means in the homework. It was difficult because it was not my language. I was disabled from expressing what I wanted to say as what would happen during meetings or classroom observation at school. I was like dumb seating at the back understanding nothing about what they were talking about in front. I pitied myself but above all, I pitied my children.

One time, there was a letter from Jewon’s Kindergarten teacher. I asked Bruce to read it because I was having a headache understanding it. Bruce told me that on Saturday afternoon at around 1 pm, the kids will have a sports fest thus the children must wear the red t-shirt which was the school’s gift to them last Children’s day. I trusted that it was really what the letter said. On Saturday, Bruce went on leave from work to attend the sports fest. We rode Bruce’s Matiz and looked for the sports fest venue. We even got lost. We went to the wrong venue. We were late when we arrived. What was bad was that all of Jewon’s classmates were waiting for him, and all of them were wearing white. They asked Jewon why he was wearing a different color. Those wearing red were their opponents. I pitied Jewon and was upset with Bruce. I cried. Even if it was late I asked Bruce to get Jewon’s white t-shirt from home. How do you think a child would feel being different from everyone just because of a foreign mother who could not understand Hangul? Add to that a father who is just as clueless. Perfect dou!

By four in the after, I was wondering why everyone was taking out their victuals. There was a picnic and it was written in the letter! We haven’t brought even just a drop of water! So we swallowed nothing staring into space. Did Bruce really read the letter? Or was it because he was too tired and sleepy from work that he only skimmed over it and white became red and the picnic was gone? Magic?

If I was good in Hanguk Mal, I would never leave these things to Bruce. If was good in Hanguk Mal, I would be free to express my thoughts and feelings. I can do things on my own without dragging Bruce. There was only one solution. I had to go to school again and study the Korean language.

It was good that there was a free language course at the Kyeongsung University which was connected to Namgu Social Welfare Center for foreign spouses of Koreans. The enrollees were of many races. There were Russians, Chinese, Mongolians, Indonesians, Malaysians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos and others. If we talked all together in our own languages, market day at Sibalom every Tuesday would certainly pale. That was why the use of other languages aside from Hangul Mal was prohibited. Our classes were every Monday, Wednesday and Friday or MWF and starts from one to three in the afternoon.

Their program was not only Korean language. There were culture and food showcases which intention was to let the community appreciate the food and culture of other races. It was also to educate the native Koreans, especially those with multi-cultural families, about cultures other than theirs, so that they will understand and accept their foreign in-laws. I became active in the cultural group and became the coordinator-trainer for the Filipina group. It was here that I met the challenges to my skill in teaching in the field of acting and dancing. The show became successful. For the first time my family witnessed my skills with things outside of the house. I felt a change in how they looked at and treated me. Even the children, I felt that they were not ashamed of me and they were actually proud of me as their mom. Things got better when invitations for performances started pouring in and I got a job as a parttime English teacher in a hagwon or academy near our house.

The children grew up and so did our expenses. I had to help Bruce financially. I worked the odd jobs. I worked as a barista and waitress in a multi-culture café also managed by the Namgu Social Welfare Center; I also was a librarian in a public high school; I was a private tutor and was doing part time job at the hagwon as an English teacher. In every corner of Korea I felt racial discrimination, especially at the hagwon. There was one who wanted to introduce me as a Canadian to the students. They did not want me to introduce myself as a Filipino. I should dye my hair and doll up and apply blue eyeshadow over my eyes so everybody would think I was a Canadian or of white race. But what can I do, there was not denying I was a Filipino. There was no lying with my nose looking like pressed ginger and my height barely even with a walking cane. Maybe I can pull it off if I had a silicone implant in my nose and I wear five-inch heels but those were things I would never do in my life. I would argue and fight with those who look unkindly at my being a Filipino. I would look for a hagwon that would accept me based on my skills and not on my race, color and looks.

The government realized the effect and influence of Ta munhwa Kajong or multi-culture families on the future of Korea. More and more foreigners want to marry Koreans and their children also increase in numbers. In the next ten years, these children would become the leaders and citizens of the nation. What would Korea’s future be if the government did not pay attention to the education and livelihood of the Ta munhwa Kajong? The budget for Ta munhwa was increased. There were more projects, programs and propaganda for education, child rearing, livelihood and many others for what they call multi-culturalism and globalization. Racial discrimination was abated. The perspectives of the natives slowly widened and they began to accept the nature of their in-laws. This would include my own in-laws. They understood me better. We reached a compromise between our nature and differences.

In the eleven years that I had lived in Korea as a wife of a Korean, daughter-in-law, mother of three beautiful children, nothing was easy for me. I faced challenges as huge as the Beaktosan, the highest mountain in Korea; challenges in language differences, food, culture, and domestic and community traditions; challenges that strengthened my person and developed my mind and feelings. Even if plates and pots fled out of Bruce’s house, our family would remain strong. We would live long with hope, love, and joy in our hearts. This would be the fulfillment of my dreams.

Like what father said, I gambled when I married Bruce. My cards were Bruce, Omoni, Hyeongnim, friends and acquaintance, the society and my children. How I handled them was my suffering and endeavors to ultimately win. For those who are afraid to gamble, Filipino or Korean or whatever race, be a spinster and roll the barrels in the sky.

Linda Arnaez-Lee has a BSED Math degree from Saint Anthony’s College in San Jose, Antique and significant teaching experience in secondary schools prior to migrating to Busan, South Korea to build a family with his Korean husband. She is an active member and coordinator of a church-based cultural group and of the International English Association (IEAK)in Korea.

She wrote this personal essay as an entry to the 2012 Padya Kinaray-a sponsored by Balay Sugidanun. This was chosen as a Finalist and the Most Read Entry.

3 thoughts on “Philippine Ajumma

  1. Kon nagaindakal sa kasadya ang original nga bersyon, amo man ang translation ni Toto Edison-great job! Inday Ling dugangi pa.


  2. Thank you Nong Edison Tondares for the hard work. Thank you also admin (Dr. Gen Asenjo) for posting this. Can’t be grateful enough.^^ More power!


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