July 2007
Alien Nation

The perpetual ‘guests’

IN HER school uniform and with an accent that is more Sandra Oh than Sandara Park, Sarang Lim does not look or sound too different from the rest of her schoolmates at the country’s oldest university. But the 24-year-old is part of the latest foreign invasion to hit the Philippines, although her countrymen, contrary to public perception, have not been flocking to our shores only recently. In fact, Koreans have been coming over in significant numbers for at least two decades now, many of them making the trip as families.

TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD Sarang Lim (right) has lived in the Philippines for almost eight years. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

It was partly due to the increasing cost of labor in South Korea, as well as the appreciation of the Korean won, that Korean companies outsourced their factories to countries like the Philippines in the mid-1980s. The first recorded Korean company to set up shop here was Han-Phil Industries Inc. in 1985. This sparked a wave of migration spearheaded by Korean businessmen, employees, and their families, to this country, according to sociologist Virginia Miralao and foreign studies professor Kanako Kutsumi.

By the 1990s, says Danilo Almeda, chief of the Alien Registration Division of the Bureau of Immigration (BI), Koreans had displaced the Japanese as the top visitors in terms of number to the Philippines. Last year alone, 572,133 of the country’s foreign visitors were from South Korea.

Most visitors can stay for up to three weeks, the maximum period of time Koreans without a visa are allowed to stay in the Philippines, on the condition that they have an onward or return ticket. Those who wish to stay longer can apply for an extension of up to one year. Many are opting to stay longer than that; Korean communities have already sprouted within several subdivisions in Parañaque, Las Piñas, and Cavite, as well as in places farther from the capital, such as Baguio, Dumaguete, and Davao. And while immigration officials are hard pressed in coming up with a current figure for Koreans in the country, it estimates that the number could run up to 900,000.

Students make up the bulk of the newer arrivals, and then come businessmen and workers, and missionaries and retirees. In 1998, few Koreans stayed in the country for more than three months; these days, about half of those who arrive spend at least a year here.

Yet just like those who came earlier, few of the newly arrived Koreans have expressed intentions to stay in the country for too long, much less permanently; the BI itself says there are only 20,130 Koreans who are registered aliens in the Philippines (meaning they will be sticking around a lot longer than tourists). This may be why although they have become more visible in recent years, Koreans have yet to “connect” with Filipinos, who still see them largely as strangers instead of as neighbors or even frequent guests.

Most Koreans here seem to make little effort to mingle with the locals, preferring to keep to themselves, even to the point of establishing and patronizing businesses catering exclusively to fellow Koreans. Or as many observers put it, Koreans, seeing themselves as visitors, do not seem to be interested in “building relations with their host communities.”

IT’S A situation that can lead to several problems, among them friction between communities because of inaccurate perceptions. In Dumaguete, where there is a small Korean community, locals confess to a “vague unease” toward the foreigners in their midst, says sociologist Lorna Makil in a 2002 paper. And while she notes there have been no overt negative reactions, that may not always be the case.

A KOREAN internet cafe in Brgy. Holy Spirt, Quezon City. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Most of the Koreans who live in Dumaguete are actually missionary families and students. Yet, says Makil, “the comfortable life of Korean pastors, living in better homes and driving their own cars, contradicts the image of the poor and sacrificing Protestant pastor.”

The perception that the Koreans are well-to-do will hold so long as they remain a “closed” group, says Makil. Unfortunately, she echoes observations about Koreans elsewhere in the country in saying, “There is little sign that the Koreans who live here want to show more of their own culture to their host community.”

It doesn’t help of course that Korean presence in a community does not necessarily translate into more profits for local businesses. Indeed, some Filipino entrepreneurs have complained over what they say is unfair competition from Koreans who have cornered the local Korean market.

In Cebu, for instance, local tour operators say they do not earn anything from the hordes of Korean visitors to their city because these are met and serviced by Korean tour guides, contrary to Philippine regulations. In Baguio, residents say some Korean businesses have been set up by dummy corporations to take advantage of the large population of Korean students there. Makati and Ermita also have “Koreatowns,” which are actually strips of Korean stores catering mostly to Koreans.

BI Immigration Regulation chief Gary Medina says the bureau will crack down on foreigners engaging in business illegally. That includes Koreans, he says. Medina adds, though, that Korean guides are able to operate in the country because the Estrada administration had granted special work permits to Koreans, with the condition that they would teach Filipino tour operators to speak their language.

Apparently, such “teaching” has yet to take place. The promised crackdown, however, has begun — although some Koreans say it has been more of a shakedown, with immigration agents asking for money in return for leaving them in peace. Earlier this week, the Korean Embassy was even moved to halt the issuance of visas to Filipino workers bound for South Korea, in protest, it said, to what was being done to its citizens here. The immigration bureau has replied that it will conduct an investigation on the complaints.

FOR SURE, though, there is a considerable number of legitimate — and major — Korean investments in the country that have helped the local economy, in part by providing thousands of jobs. According to the Korean Chamber of Commerce, there are more than 1,000 businesses owned by Koreans in the Philippines. While these include small and medium ventures such as restaurants, groceries, and Internet cafés, Koreans own an estimated 250 large factories in special economic zones in the Philippines and are big players in the power and shipping sectors. They are also among the top investors in the tourism industry, according to regional media reports.

A KOREAN grocery in Brgy. Holy Spirt, Quezon City. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

South Korea is actually the Philippines’ third biggest source of foreign investment, after the United States and Japan. In 2006, Korea invested $1.2 billion of the $3.5 billion that flowed into the Philippines. Reports indicate, however, that much of the money is being used for the ongoing $1-billion shipyard project inside the Subic Bay Freeport Zone in Zambales that is being undertaken by South Korea’s Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Co. The shipyard will be the fourth largest in the world.

Aside from direct investment, Korea has also stepped up its overseas development assistance (ODA) to the Philippines. Between 1992 and 2006, ODA contributions from South Korea totaled $113.75 million. An official delegation from South Korea said recently that the Philippines is a top priority country for its ODA.

Korean ODA to the Philippines started in 1986, but these consisted of studies, training, and technical assistance projects that were not monitored by the National Economic Development Authority, because these were not part of a loan.

Ongoing Korean ODA projects have focused on infrastructure: the widening of the Gapan to Olongapo road, the NorthRail and SouthRail linkage project, and construction of the Laguinduingan airport in Cagayan de Oro City.

It’s hard to tell if there is a correlation between South Korea’s generous aid and the increase in the number of Koreans here. Perhaps it’s a mere coincidence. Whatever the case, there’s no denying that Koreans have been coming in droves in the last few years. Every week, 42 flights carrying Koreans arrive in Manila, Clark, Cebu, and Kalibo. The last was added just this May, and the charter flight was nearly flown by a Korean airline, until local fleets protested. All those flights, meanwhile, translate to at least 8,400 Koreans entering the country on a weekly basis.

Miralao says that among the things Filipinos find odd with the growing Korean population here is that “this goes against the usual migration pattern of people moving from poorer places and countries and going to richer and more developed ones.”

But Koreans themselves say there is nothing unusual about their growing presence here. Sarang Lim says, “Many students come from Korea to learn English, because [the Philippines] is only three and a half hours away by plane.”

The Philippines also offers a relatively comfortable lifestyle for little money, which works for parents who want to accompany their children who will be studying here. Miralao says that while Korea’s increasing prosperity has enabled its rich families to send their children to school in the United States or other Western countries, middle-class families come to countries like the Philippines.

The sociologist also says that while the proximity and lower cost of studying in the Philippines are important factors behind the influx of Korean students, the Philippines has also gained a reputation among Koreans for having quality schools and universities and being a good place to learn English. (Many students double as tourists as well, making repeat visits during their summer or winter break to combine their English lessons while sightseeing.)

In 1998, there were 1,543 Korean students in Philippine colleges and universities, according to the Commission on Higher Education. Last year, the number of students rose to an estimated 100,000, according to Malacañang. The government has accredited 215 schools to teach Koreans. (see table)

Source: Korean Directory, Philippines, 1998, Commission on Higher Education
* data for the University of the Philippines unavailable for 2006

1998 University of the East 90
University of the Philippines 40
Philippine Christian University 31
University of Santo Tomas 29
Centro Escolar University 21
De La Salle University 19
Gregorio Araneta University 10
Philippine Women’s University 5
2006 University of Santo Tomas 100
University of the East 70
Centro Escolar University 69
Mapua Institute of Technology 12
Assumption College 10
Emilio Aguinaldo College 7
Our Lady of Fatima University 2
Central College 1

LEARNING ENGLISH is an important skill for Koreans, as they must take the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) in order to work. TOEIC scores also help determine their salary.

Thus, for every Korean who enrolls in university in this country, many more are taking intensive English language courses. Last year, the BI issued 1,871 student visas (9f) to South Korean nationals, in addition to four Korean students who had already arrived with student visas. The bureau also issued 21,876 special study permits to Koreans.

It used to be harder to get a student visa — one had to be already accepted into a four-year university program and secure a visa from one’s place of origin. But during the mid-’90s, the BI relaxed its requirements to attract more students from abroad. Tourists can now convert their visas to student visas, and special study permits are issued for short courses that last from two to three months. Once a foreigner is granted a student (9f) visa, he or she is considered a temporary resident.

The high value Koreans place on education is only one of the many things they have in common with Filipinos. So, too, is their love of family. But circumstances have ensured that it is the differences that are emphasized, and what may be isolated incidents are highlighted and applied to the entire community. Some Filipinos, for instance, have complained that Koreans could be obnoxious golfers on the green, wantonly shove and elbow their way through crowds of people in malls, and uproot pieces of coral and giant clams from the sea floor whenever they scuba dive. Academic Lily Ann Polo also says Korean managers are perceived as “too pushy, demanding, inflexible, hot-tempered, and easily prone to physically or verbally abuse Filipino workers.”

Polo says that Koreans, for their part, see Filipino workers as “having no sense of urgency, and having a tendency to chat and make jokes even while working.” Even Korean students at local universities express exasperation over the so-called “Filipino time.” Says Jacob Kim, a sociology sophomore whose parents are missionaries based in Pampanga: “It’s disappointing when they show up two or three hours late and they don’t feel (any remorse).”

KOREAN students from the Catholic University of Daegu visiting the University of Santo Tomas. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

The Koreans’ inability to speak the local language and English has also made them the target of snide remarks from some Filipinos, as well as exposes them to abuse from malevolent elements in government agencies. One Korean student says — very carefully — that she has had to rely on English-language brochures because “immigration people are never kind to explain what’s going on.” She says many of her compatriots opt to pay “fixers” to get their papers as a result.

The advent of Koreanovelas on local TV, however, may help ease tensions, even by just a bit. At the very least, these give Koreans and Filipinos something to talk about, however haltingly. At the same time, the Korean soaps have managed to give Filipinos glimpses into Korean culture, which can only aid locals in understanding their somewhat reclusive guests a little better.

“(Koreanovelas) still show the old custom of bowing and the virtue of filial piety,” marvels avowed fan Hannah Petrache. “You rarely see them eating at McDonald’s, and when they want to get drunk, they drink soju (a local brew). They still believe in acupuncture and yet they are also open to modern medicine.”

It could well be that language is one of the major reason why Koreans here have been reluctant to venture outside their tight circles. Lim, for instance, says that in her homeland, she used to be talkative and “lively.” That changed after she and her family moved here. “I became quiet,” she says. “I don’t really show how I feel. I can’t speak the language.”

Still, after almost eight years of living in the Philippines, she can now speak a smattering of Taglish and can understand Filipino. Yet the architecture senior says she will not be staying in this country, where her family owns and runs a restaurant. Lim is barred from taking the Philippine licensure exam for her chosen profession, but she has no plans of changing citizenship just so she could work as an architect here. Instead, Lim says she will simply change her location and apply for an apprenticeship abroad.