[TRADING PLACES] For Dominicans, life is all about tomorrow
“We are born with merengue, so we feel the merengue in our body,” said the ambassador, with her arms poised in the air, ready to dance were she not sitting down in a middle of an interview. “We cannot hear the music of merengue or bachata without moving.”
“It’s true, I’ve seen Dominicans dance in the streets and even in the colmado [grocery store],” said Yang Sung-soo, who had spent 15 years in Santo Domingo and Moca working for a Korean hat-making company. “I would have never left the country if I could. I loved the blue skies and the sea that could be seen no matter what patch of land you were standing on at the island.”
There was another sight that Yang recalled was omnipresent in the Caribbean country, regardless of the hour of the day and night.
“The majority of the area would be pitch-black in nighttime in my neighborhood, but the baseball grounds were always alight,” he said. “Everybody there is crazy about baseball.”
But for Yang, who arrived in Moca in 1992 with his wife, many things were a first for the initial few years, including the time he arrived two hours after his wife gave birth at a local hospital because the road was blocked by the presidential election parades.
The year was 1996. It was the summer that Jose Francisco Pena Gomez was almost made president of the Dominican Republic, before he was narrowly defeated by Leonel Fernandez in the second round of votes.
Yang and his wife, four years into their marriage, could only see each other over the weekend because of the long distance from Yang’s house to his workplace. His wife, pregnant with their first daughter, was due soon. Her mother had flown in from Korea to help out.
Yang: Thank God she was there, because when my wife went into labor, the two-road highway from my work to the hospital was blocked by the campaign parades. I got to the hospital two hours after my daughter was born. But my wife was in good hands, it turned out. My mother-in-law told me that when the doctor told my wife that she will have to get a C-section, she started getting all hyped up and worried. That’s when the doctor suddenly held her hands and started praying with her to help her calm down. The doctors in Korea are usually very busy and not many would take their time to actually pray with a patient.
Pichardo: In our country, 95 percent of the population are Catholics, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that 95 percent of the population goes to church every Sunday.
Yang: It was a very kind gesture. But I have to say, my mother-in-law was so taken aback when the nurses got my wife a glass of iced orange juice after she gave birth, and then showed them into a room that was air conditioned!
Pichardo: Well, you know the temperatures in the Dominican Republic reach as much as 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer.
Yang: Yes, but in Korea, there is a certain belief that women must be kept warm regardless of the season after they give birth, and hospital wings are not air-conditioned even in the hottest of summers for the mothers.
Yang’s daughter grew up strong and healthy, taking on her multicultural identity in stride. She went to an American school, hung out in Santo Domingo with her Dominican friends in the afternoons, and met with Korean friends over family-friend gatherings.
But when she turned 11, the Korean company Yang was working for closed down its office in the country and the family had to leave their second home.
Yang: I thought that my position as an expat in the Dominican Republic would grant me more financial success. But by the time we were leaving the country, I found out that I was not able to save up as much as I wished. You see, the prices there are quite high, because many goods are manufactured abroad and imported. So when a Korean expat family brings in a refrigerator that, say, cost 1 million won ($897) back home, they can sell it for the same amount or at a higher price after they have used it for a few years. But this also meant that because of the high prices of goods, I just couldn’t save up as much.
Yang: And the situation must be similar across many sectors and wage levels. Yet I saw many Dominicans enjoying life regardless of their financial status. I saw a lot of workers at the hat-manufacturing factory wearing brand-name shoes like Nike that cost more than $100 a pair. I knew that their monthly wage was around $100. So one day I asked a guy there why he would use so much money on his shoes, and he said, “Why not wear something better? I would rather borrow money and buy something better than settle with something cheaper but worse in quality.”
Pichardo: Part of the reason may be that we don’t plan for the future so much. I noticed that some Koreans plan a lot to a big scale. We are not so, we wait for the next day. We take it as it comes.
Concepcion: There is a saying in Spanish that Dominicans use a lot, esperemos a que amanezca, which translates into “let’s wait until tomorrow comes.”
A bit of humanity
When Ambassador Pichardo arrived in Seoul with her husband Victor Decamps in 2011, their favorite pastime was exploring the nooks and crannies of Myeong-dong, Insa-dong and Itaewon. They would often get lost in their adventures into unfamiliar areas, but Korea, Pichardo feels, may be the safest country in the world to get lost.
Pichardo: I like the security in Korea - that is one thing that I would miss when I am away from Korea. We can walk in the streets without any care because everyone would mind their own business on the streets.
Concepcion: I have to agree, safety in the city is something that I would miss a lot when I leave Korea, too. In Santo Domingo, just like in any other big city, if I were to walk into a dark alley by myself then I would feel quite uncomfortable.
Pichardo: In general when you visit countries in Asia or Southeast Asia, there are areas that you are told to avoid as a tourist. But in Korea, you feel safe almost everywhere.
Concepcion: For example, here, I can leave my phone and my laptop on a table at a coffee shop and go to the bathroom without worrying as much that they may get stolen.
Pichardo: Yes, here, you come back and you’re sure your phone and laptop are going to be in place. A few years back, a visiting minister lost her iPod at a VIP lounge of the Incheon International Airport. We realized after searching for it for days that that’s where she had lost it. When we called at the office, to my surprise the staff member told me the iPod was still there! And more amazing still, we didn’t even have to make a trip to the airport. We paid for the mail and a staff member sent it to us.
Pichardo: And I think another area where humanity is displayed here is the bathroom services. Korea might be the only country that I can see in the world where you can freely use the bathroom services. You go into a cafe and ask, “Bathroom?” and they say “Yes, yes, it’s right here.” It’s not the same in other parts of the world in Europe, North America, South America, Asia and more. I think there is a bit of humanity in that. Usually the case abroad is that you have to consume or buy something at a store in order to use the bathroom there.
Yang: I think it’s also related to our drinking culture. Many Koreans drink every day, and the majority of them have intestinal problems, so everywhere they need urgent access to bathrooms.
Care for a drive?
One time that Concepcion experienced a bit of humanity here was last summer on Jeju Island. She visited the island with a friend and lingered at the Hallim Park, soaking in the sight of palm trees lining either side of her down the road, a common view back home but a rarity here.
They left the park around 5:10 p.m., thinking they’d catch the bus back into the main city at 5:30 p.m. It was only after waiting for the bus for nearly an hour and a half that they realized they were stranded for good.
Concepcion: We checked a mobile application, and to our horror we saw that the last bus to the main city had passed at 5:00 p.m. The road was deserted and the park closed. We really didn’t know what to do when around 6:50 p.m., a car stopped and an old couple asked us if we were stranded. They drove us back to our hotel. We laughed about it afterwards, but it is not fun to be stranded in a foreign place.
Yang: Back in the Dominican Republic, when I was lost I would ask for directions but only trust one after at least two people give the same directions. Dominicans are very generous with you when you stop them on the streets and ask for directions, but they’re also really eager to help you out, so you have to check with at least three people and go with a direction the majority of them gave. They never say “I don’t know” but always pera te, pera te [wait, wait].
Pichardo: It’s true, they always make an effort.
Concepcion: Sometimes they will say “I don’t know but go and ask there, they will know!” and point you in the direction. They will often say, “Just go this way and on the road more people will give you directions.”
Yang: Also they have something like a human navigation or human GPS.
Pichardo: In the countryside, sometimes you don’t know which way to take. So you ask a local who has a motorcycle to show you the way and you pay them afterwards. It is a human GPS.
Yang: And he’ll take you, even though it’s not his job to do so.
Yang: And when my car just stopped working on a road - cars stop everywhere there - all these people would come out of nowhere and come up to the car, and without even asking me anything, the first thing they’d do is open up the bonnet to see what’s wrong.
Pichardo: (Laughs) Yes, this is true.
Yang: Then they would leave without asking for money. So I would call them back and tell them that I want to pay them something, and they take the money rather reluctantly, you can tell they’re not helping out for something in return. It’s just pure kindness, and that was a wow moment for me. What an amazing country it is.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Dominican Ambassador Grecia Fiordalicia Pichardo
Coming from a family of 12 brothers and sisters, Grecia Fiordalicia Pichardo was appointed the Dominican ambassador to Korea in 2011. The ambassador completed post graduate courses in public international law, foreign policy of the United States and the Caribbean and more in Belgium, Ireland, the United States, Japan and Mexico.
She joined the foreign ministry in 1982 and became a diplomat in 1996. Prior to her post in Seoul, Mrs. Pichardo served as the consul general in Canada and Cuba, and was the top envoy in Panama from 2009 to 2011. She says she misses the most the Caribbean Sea and her husband, Mr. Victor Decamps, who recently had to return home for business, but has always been a huge support in her diplomatic career.
Karla Noelia Concepcion
Coming to Seoul in 2013 on a scholarship for a master’s degree in urban landscapes at Hanyang University in eastern Seoul, Karla Noelia Concepcion found a new passion in karaoke and dog and cat cafes here. For Dominicans and Latin Americans in general looking for bars that play merengue, salsa or bachata, she recommends Somos or Macondo in western Seoul.
Having lived in the Dominican Republic as an expat from 1992 to 2007, Yang Sung-soo says he misses the vast blue sky and the sea he could see from anywhere in the country, and would not have left if not forced to do so by the company decision to shut down its business. For 15 years Yang worked at a Korean hat manufacturer, Yupoong Company, which had a branch office in Moca from 1992 to 1997 and in Santo Domingo from 1997 to 2007.
Our latest series about the diplomatic community in Seoul, “Trading Places,” focuses on the experience of living in a foreign land. In each installment, an ambassador invites to his or her home a compatriot living in Korea and a Korean who lived in the ambassador’s country. They swap memories - good, bad and amusing - and describe how a distant country that was once an abstraction, a colored patch on a map, became a part of their lives. - Ed.