Pinay professor shares ups, downs of working in Korea

By Prof. Emely Dicolen-Abagat, Ph.D.

Posted at Oct 14 2013 11:22 AM | Updated as of Oct 14 2013 08:18 PM

Emely Dicolen-Abagat is a professor from the Social Welfare Department of the Catholic University of Daegu (CUD), South Korea.

DAEGU, South Korea - Migration can be by choice or by force; it can be permanent or temporary as well, depending on one’s reasons for moving from one place to another. Migration has its “push and pull” factors. One of the basic push factors would be economic in nature.

People from lesser developed countries, such as the Philippines, seek for greener pastures in the more affluent countries where jobs are available. Reciprocally, the economic and technological advancements in the host counties, is one of the strongest pull factors why foreigners flock into the more developed countries.

South Korea is currently identified as one of the counties that need a strong labor force from foreigners due to its aging population and the decline of its manpower that are willing to do the 3D jobs: the difficult, dirty, and dangerous jobs. The country needs people to help them sustain its booming economy and continue its prosperity.

As a Filipina, I came to South Korea temporarily with the same objectives in mind: to seek for greener pastures, and be able to contribute to South Korea’s economy.

However, working in this country is no easy at all. Overwhelming challenges, which I call shadows, I have grappled with for the last nine years that I’ve been working here, but facing the shadows led to remarkable successes, which I call lights, as well.

Language and Culture

The Lights…

Who wouldn’t fall in love with South Korea? My length of stay in this country proves that I have fallen deeply in love with her. Every time I tell Koreans that I’ve been here for nine years, they would say, “Really? You are Korean!” I’d answer, “No, I’m not yet a Korean because I have much to learn about your language, history, and culture. Now, I enjoy showing off the little Korean language I’ve mastered to Koreans I meet: the taxi and bus drivers, vendors, students, and colleagues in the university. I can travel in any corner of Korea by myself because I can already read and speak the language, through the “survival Korean” I know.

Korean food is one of the best foods I’ve ever tasted. What makes it more delicious, I believe, is the history behind every food that is served on the table, the way it is cooked, the ingredients that go with the menu, and the art that is involved in its presentation, to the manner it is served to the guests. Indeed, a very rich history and culture.

The “pali pali” culture of Koreans made me realize the importance of time, being punctual, and not postponing things that you can do today. I started giving more value to my time and the time of others. Though difficult to change because I have also been used to the “Filipino time” syndrome, but nothing is really impossible. Wherever I go, even in my own country, I try to do things as fast as I can, the soonest, and on time.

The Shadows…

The lights were learned from the shadows.

Upon arrival at the Incheon Airport, I got my first “culture shock” experience. I came to Korea in August 2004 with not a single Korean word in mind. I arrived earlier than the Korean assigned to pick me up. So, I asked for the assistance of an airport staff who evaded me while saying “yongo! yongo!” and pointing to another airport staff when I asked a question in English.

From the airport, we went to a samgyeupsal restaurant, my second experience of culture shock. I did not know how to use the chopsticks and the manner of eating samgyeupsal. Kimchi was a total alien to me. People speaking in a totally different tongue were like parrots to my ears.

My first experience of riding the subway early in the morning was more shocking to me. I saw people running, heard the sounds of their shoes, all in a hurry to get into the train, not minding at all if they bumped into you. I stepped on the side and watched them as they ran.

Korean Work and Management Ethics

The Lights…

When I was still working in the Philippines, I did give importance to my work, respected my superiors and co-workers, and gave the best I can to every task or duty assigned to me. But in Korea, I learned the meaning of EXCELLENCE in everything I do.

In my country, 8-work hours is normal, with a break time in the morning and in the afternoon, and an overtime pay if work is beyond the required work hours. In South Korea, I learned the value of working beyond the required hours, without expecting for any overtime pay, or for anything in return, for the company’s sake. I learned to be more generous in sharing my time and my skills.

Loyalty and seniority are one of the important values among Koreans with their superiors and also with their co-workers. My value of loyalty as well was “challenged” in many circumstances of working in the universities and companies I’ve worked with. I say “challenged” because I came to see the difference between “enlightened loyalty” and “blind loyalty.” I am proud to say that “enlightened loyalty” is more liberating, and that is what I am determined to do all my life. Losing someone, a job, or an opportunity is more freeing rather than blindly following someone or something against my will.

As a former administrator in my country, I made sure that all policies and decisions were documented, all on paper, to serve as a reference for the future. I realized that I was on the right track. This is one management value that I should keep all my life.

The Shadows…

I have worked as a missionary and a volunteer to the Philippine Center for quite a while. Filipinos come to share their burdens and difficulties. They come to share their stories with their sajangnims, samonims and Korean co-workers. They complain about long hours of work beyond what is written on their contracts, doing overtime and asked to work even during the night, and sometimes on weekends and holidays, without overtime pay.

I am not exempted from experiencing unpaid salaries. I was not paid my 2 month salary in a private company in Seoul. A baseless non-payment of a 2-month salary for a school’s obvious failure to fulfill the teaching hours written on the contract despite the free services I gave in the internationalization efforts of the school. For someone like me, a breadwinner, a 2-month pay is worth my family’s food on the table, my children’s education, and my survival in Korea.

The body is not a machine. It needs rest, sleep and recreation. But in times when production of the goods and services in the factories are necessary to meet the demand of the market, the body is sacrificed for more money and profit. This happens at times to a lot of factory workers and even among those who are in the professional fields like me.

In the universities I’ve worked with, I observed that loyalty and seniority are prevailing values but sad to say that, in some instances, these were given more priority over other values, which, in my opinion are more of value and importance. Unwritten policies have become the source of baseless management decisions and unfair treatment and penalties of foreign workers like me.

Emely Dicolen-Abagat with the Philippine Resource Persons Group, the association of Filipino professors in South Korea.


The Lights…

Love of my country and being proud of being a Filipino - I came to appreciate this in South Korea. In this country, I was given a lot of opportunities to speak about my country, defend it, and tell the Koreans that we have been good friends since more than 60 years ago when my brother Filipino soldiers came to help them obtain their independence and freedom during the Korean War. I mentioned this to every Korean I meet in my classrooms, in conferences, meetings, and even in ordinary conversations, not only with Koreans but with other nationals as well.

In the companies and universities I’ve worked with, I tried to make a difference and made my presence as a Filipino felt in all activities. I’ve made sure that Filipinos working with me in the universities were recognized and appreciated in every way I can.

The Shadows…

One time, my friend recommended me as a private English teacher to a “Gangnam Omma” to her daughter. We met in a coffee shop in Gangnam and the first question she asked me was, “Where are you from?” I proudly answered, “I’m from the Philippines!” Without hesitation, she tactlessly answered, “I don’t want a Filipina teacher for my daughter. I want a native speaker.” Without letting me finish my coffee, she left. When some Korean moms learn that I’m from the Philippines, they would immediately quote a lower price of tutoring fee compared with westerners.

When taxi drivers learn that I’m a Filipina, the next question they ask is, “Are you married to a Korean?” or “Do you want to meet a Korean man?” The same questions are asked in stores and in other places where I usually visit. But when I introduce myself as a songyosa or kyosunim, they immediately change their attitude towards me.


Lights and shadows, challenges and successes- they are intertwined. The shadows and challenges as a foreign worker I encountered in South Korea were the very same lights and successes I reaped after gradually immersing myself into the country’s culture.

The language and cultural barriers encouraged me to learn and later assimilate Korea’s language and culture, the totally new and different work and management ethics made me appreciate the work and management culture I grew up with, the discrimination I experienced transformed me into a nationalistic, patriotic and a prouder Filipino.

Despite the lights and shadows, the successes and challenges, I sincerely extend my heartfelt thanks to South Korea. These successes would not have been possible without you. Kamsahamnida!

Prof. Emely Dicolen-Abagat, Ph.D. is a Professor from the Social Welfare Department of the Catholic University of Daegu (CUD), South Korea and the current Chair of the Philippine Resource Persons Group (PhilRPG), the association of Filipino professors in South Korea.