Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tragedy fails to shake Filipina's belief in Korea

Few have become a symbol of Korea’s multiculturalism like Jasmine Lee.

Lee, who has appeared on television shows such as KBS’ ``Love in Asia’’ and a cameo in the hit film ``Blood Brothers,’’ had no inkling her life would turn out this way when she first arrived in Korea in 1995.

The pretty and dusky Filipina was a 17 year old college freshman in 1994 when she met Lee Dong-ho, then 29, a seaman who was staying in her hometown in Davao, southern Philippines. Despite their age gap, the romance led to marriage a year-and-a-half later.

Their marriage initially encountered opposition from his parents, who did not understand why their eldest son would want to marry a foreigner. Plus language was also a big barrier, so she had to learn quickly.

``I didn’t even have a chance to teach my children English or Tagalog when they were small because I was busy learning Korean. We lived with my husband's parents and grandparents in the same house, and they’re old. We didn't understand each other. It was impossible for me to ask them to learn English, so I learned on my own,’’ Lee, who is now fluent in Korean, said.

At that time, there were no free Korean language classes, so Lee studied Korean from books, watched television dramas, and practiced with her husband and family members.

When she went outside, Lee endured blatant stares and prying questions from Koreans on the street. ``If I tell them I’m married to a Korean, they would always ask, `Why? How did you meet? What does your husband do?’ I always thought, `why do they have to ask those questions?’ It was too stressful to answer those questions,’’ she said.

Lee also had to deal with people’s misconceptions about the Philippines. Instead of getting offended by some Korean people’s negative opinions about her country, she tried to understand where they were coming from.

``I didn't blame them because they only saw the documentaries about poverty in the Philippines. Some people only knew the country was poor and some would tell me there are a lot of pickpockets and beggars,’’ she said.

Becoming Korean

In July 1996, she gave birth to a son Seung-geun, but when she saw the family registry, it only included her husband and son’s name.

``Since I was a foreigner, I was not included. I was living under the same roof, but the government does not recognize me as a person living in that house. Am I a ghost? My child does not have a mother? So I decided to change to Korean citizenship (in 1998),’’ she said.

Even after becoming a Korean citizen, Lee still felt very conspicuous. When her son began going to school in 2002, she did not accompany him to avoid letting people know that his mother is Filipina. By second grade, she ran out of excuses and had to go to her son’s school.

``Children pointed out I was a foreigner, maybe from Africa, and I felt like a clown in a circus. I didn’t want to but I still stood out in the crowd. I was worried my son would hear these comments and deny that I’m his mother, but when Seung-geun saw me, he shouted `Omma,'’’ she remembered fondly.

It was hard at first, with other parents thinking that she was either an English teacher or a housekeeper who visited the school in place of Seung-geun’s real mother.

Her son and daughter also had to endure taunts and nasty nicknames, such as ``Philippine monkey’’ from some classmates, but Lee says her children are tough and would fight back. ``My son is cool about it, but he would fight them if they start calling his mother `wonsoongi’ (monkey),’’ she said.

While it was hard making that first step into Korean society, Lee realized it was necessary to go out more and gain acceptance. Once people became used to her, they even forgot she was a foreigner herself.

``I couldn’t live my life inside the house all the time. I realized the more I hide, the more that people don't know (about multicultural families), the harder it will become,’’ she said.

Stepping out in society

As her social circle widened, opportunities started opening up for Lee. She joined a television quiz show and a New Year's Day singing contest for foreign wives, and worked as a translator for ``Love in Asia,’’ a show depicting the lives of multicultural families.

Her happy family life was featured on the show, a welcome change from the usual sad stories. ``The writers wanted to feature my family because I was different: we were living in Seoul and in the same house with four generations of my husband’s family. Plus I was good at Korean. They said it was a perfect example of multiculturalism,’’ she said.

Soon after, Lee was hired to become a regular panelist on Love in Asia, where she met other foreign wives.

These experiences have given Lee a realistic perspective on what it means to be a multiethnic family. She regularly gives lectures about multiculturalism in Korea for teachers and student leaders.

``Each person has their own biases. We may think we don't have biases but they don't know it yet... I always tell them to discard their biases and prejudices. Some teachers think that they are protecting biracial children but their unnecessary sympathy can make it worse. The children get more annoyed when adults will make them feel that they are different from other kids,’’ she said.

For instance, when her daughter was in first grade, a teacher told the class to be nice to her because her mother is a foreigner.

``It’s wrong for teachers to have this bias that just because she is biracial, then she will be a `wangtta’ (outcast)... My daughter didn’t even tell me about that experience, but now she said it is okay because the other children are looking up to her since she’s been on TV,’’ Lee laughed.

For foreign spouses, she encourages them to make efforts to learn the language and to venture into Korean society, which she says are the keys to being accepted.

``There is a big difference between those who speak and don’t speak Korean. Especially when the children are growing up, they get annoyed when they speak better Korean than their mothers,’’ she added.

Dealing with tragedy

It has been a month since her husband Dong-ho died. He suffered a heart attack while rescuing his daughter, who was caught in a whirlpool in a mountain stream in Okcheon-dong, Gangwon province.

Lee was devastated by her husband’s death and is still coming to grips with it. ``I never realized how important he was in my life until he was gone. His mere presence was a source of comfort for me,’’ she said.

A smile passes her lips, as she recalled how Dong-ho would pick her up at the subway station, and how he took charge of household chores when she started working.

For the last 14 years she used the last name Ba, a shortened version of her real name. It was only in June when Dong-ho decided to file the paperwork necessary for Jasmine to change her surname to Lee. But in a twist of fate, Lee received the approval to carry her husband’s last name a week after he died.

```It’s his last gift for me,’’ she said, sadly. ``There were many times before when we wanted to change my name but didn't do it. Now that we did, he couldn't even wait for me to become a real Lee.’’

Lee is not sure what the future holds for her family but she wants to keep making her husband proud. ``I do want to continue what I’m doing. (My husband) was really proud of what I was doing,’’ she said.

by Cathy Garcia

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