A visit to the Seoul of Asia

SEOUL, KOREA–I arrived in this mega-city of 10 million people last Sunday night. Considered one of the Top 10 global cities in the Global Cities Index, with brands like Hyundai, Kia, Samsung, and LG calling this home, Seoul is high-tech. Internet speed? “They have 10 times the speed, the fastest in the world,” said Boni Belen, one of my companions in this trip. “While ours in Cebu, for example, is 2 MBPS, theirs is 20 MBPS. But, their pricing is four times cheaper!”

Yet, for all the prosperity and technological advancement of Seoul, me and my 14 companions were met with puzzled looks when we turned on our mobile phones upon arrival at the Incheon airport. Our phones don’t work here! Or, at least, our SIM cards are useless. This is unusual. In almost every nation I’ve been to, the moment you switch on your phone, telecom companies swarm your message boxes, asking you to pick their network. Not here. It appears to be a closed cellular network — and you’ve got to rent phones and use their system. Weird. Not Wired.

One more thing: there’s no French Open. Ouch. I’m here from Sunday until Wednesday late evening and will miss the every-night excitement that’s now playing in Paris. We’re checked-in at the Pacific Hotel and while the cable TV offers more than 50 channels, none include what this tennis fanatic yearns for. Two channels broadcast the UFC. They showed the Monaco Grand Prix. There’s a Golf HD channel. Korean baseball, of course. There’s CNN. They even replayed the Champions League finale won by Lionel Messi. But no Parisian red clay.

Seoul is the soul of Asia. That’s what they say. I’m here as part of a 15-man delegation of businessmen that’s headed by Dr. Bernardo Villegas, one of the country’s top economists. Dr. Villegas heads the Univ. of Asia and the Pacific in Manila. He heads our Business Mission delegation to Korea.

From Manila, there’s Jesus Zulueta, Gerry Abello, Jimmy Ortigas and several more. From Cebu, we are five: my dad Bunny, Joe Soberano, Dondi Joseph, Boni Belen and myself. We are to meet Korean business leaders and exchange notes (and calling cards) with the hope of conducting future business. In the field of tourism and English education, we know that hundreds of millions of them (OK, that’s an exaggeration; about 12,000 will study ESL in Cebu this 2011. So much for business-talk…

Now, food talk. Our first dinner — it was 10:30 P.M. (they’re one hour ahead compared to PHL) here last Sunday; temperature: 18 C — was funny not because of the spicy octopus that we ate but because of our bill. There were eight of us who dined in a cozy Korean restaurant and, would you believe, our bill was 175,000! Yes. No kidding. But that’s 175,000 Korean Won. No, it’s not One Peso is to One Korean Won — that would be a dinner more expensive than Pres. GMA’s in New York. But it’s P1 = 25 Won. So the dinner wasn’t extravagant; about P7,000. But imagine the shock of hearing 175,000!

Now, on to my game… Sports is major, major league in this land. Back in 1988, the Summer Olympics was held in Seoul. It was only the second time (apart from Japan in 1964) that an Asian nation has hosted the Games. (Beijing followed in 08-08-08.)

Cebu? The Philippines? Next to host the Olympics? Ha-ha-ha. Another joke. The 2002 FIFA World Cup was another giant event that the Koreans hosted (together with Japan). Brazil won the title, beating Germany, 2-0, but the real winner was South Korea, who reached the semi-finals out of 32 teams. My guess is that football, especially after that 2002 World Cup, is the most popular game in this nation of 50,000,000. Their version of the Azkals have millions of fanatics as rabid as our own.

Taekwondo is their national sport. In Korean, “tae” is defined as to “strike using foot,” “kwon” means to “strike using the fist,” and “do” is a “method or art.” The art of kicking and punching. That’s taekwondo; and this Olympic sport is rated by many as the world’s most popular martial art.

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