In May 2014, while I was visiting her in Korea, my friend Marianne and I sat down to talk about her intercultural experience. Thanks to Marianne for the family photos.
I’m proud that I was born and raised in the Philippines. I was—and still am—a fun-loving kid, running around barefoot, jumping into dirty fish ponds and climbing trees. Because my parents chose to work outside the country so they could feed their family back home, I also got to live overseas. When I was a child I was in the care of one aunt, while two other aunts took care of my younger sister and brother. Then at the age of thirty-one my mother’s younger sister got married, and she and her new husband had all three of us—an eleven-year-old girl, an eight-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy. I didn’t realize how difficult that must have been for a newly-married couple because I was very comfortable with the arrangement. I called my aunt Mommy.
When I was eight I came to Korea for the first time and lived in the five-star hotel where my parents were working. Over the years they worked at the Hyatt in Seoul and Cheju-do, the Chosun Beach Hotel in Pusan, and the Ramada Renassaince Hotel in Seoul. They were featured in newspapers every Sunday. My mother was a singer, and my father was her pianist. For years I wrote school essays about our time here. Everything was so luxurious I felt like I was one of the Hilton kids. I could use the pool anytime or eat in any of the restaurants. The staff looked after me. They were fabulous. I came back again when I was sixteen. At eighteen I came over for six months to work, but actually I just wanted a break from school. Then I went back to college.
I graduated in March of 1995. After that I came to Korea and worked as a singer in Sadang and Uijangbu. I had a very good opportunity to work at the Hilton. At the audition everyone said I could sing, but I was still very young. I was 22. They wanted me to go around the bar, sit down and drink with the customers. I didn’t drink, I didn’t want to talk to customers, and I was uptight. I thought, “I’m a singer, not a bar girl.” I smiled, but I didn’t agree, so I didn’t get the job. My parents eventually learned how to interact with the customers, but since they were partners my mom could rely on my dad, whereas my partner was sixty years old, and he didn’t understand why I was so uncomfortable talking to the customers. He was a sweet man, but he didn’t want any complications. The club at Sadang was my favorite because the owners just wanted me to stand on the stage and sing whatever songs the customers wanted. I felt comfortable there. I sang from November through April.
By May my mom was setting me up for new jobs. I kept saying. “Mom, I don’t want to be a singer forever. I’m using this as a stepping stone. I want a normal 9-to-5 job where can maybe hang out with my friends after work.” The problem with being a singer was I slept all day because I worked from five in the afternoon to midnight or one o’clock, then went home and had dinner with my family at two. We talked until four and then went to sleep. My parents were fine with it because they had each other. My sister was only eighteen, and she was content with that lifestyle.
Now, I want to make sure I say that without my parents I wouldn’t have had the chance to work abroad. Usually this isn’t easy because you’re away from your family, but my family was with me in Korea, which I always considered my second home. I insisted on having the life I wanted. “Mom, I know what I want. I want to work in an office.”
I had finished a degree in business administration with a major in management. I didn’t take marketing because I hate field work and sales, and I didn’t do accounting because I knew I didn’t have the discipline to study for the board exam after graduation. I chose my major because my parents had tried so hard to run a business in the Philippines and they always failed. They had capital but could never follow up. They couldn’t see the big picture, so there was no long-term success. Also, because they were always out of the country, apart from relatives they didn’t have the connections. For a while they had a student canteen in Davao City where the high school kids would come and eat. They sold school supplies. My mom did money-lending, but some people didn’t pay. The borrowers were all people she thought she knew, so there was no background check. I know she’s done other things, but those are the ones I remember. So I thought that with my parents’ capital and with my formal education—this is how confident I was—some day we could have a proper business together. I enjoyed doing volunteer work at the university. I loved paperwork. I got high looking at the files I got to work on. [Laugh.] I knew you were going to roll your eyes at that.
Mom was working at the Seoul Club. She would tell people, usually Koreans, that her daughter was looking for a job and arrange for me to meet them.
Yeah, Koreans feel they have to get to know someone first before doing business with them, even for something like editing, which doesn’t require face-to-face interaction.
We could meet for coffee, not a formal interview. It was just to meet me. There was never a follow-up. This was fine with me because when I asked about the job it was never something I was interested in.
One day my mom said, “This is the last time. I promise you. I won’t set you up anymore.Just meet this guy. He’s looking for an administrative assistant, preferably Filipino because the office is full of Filipinos.”
They told us to meet them at a place in the Dongdaemun area at one-thirty. I assumed it was another coffee time. I had an audition at ten in Apkujong-dong. The club people had told me to come dressed as if I were going to sing. So at ten in the morning I had big hair and makeup, jeans and a sexy top I covered up with a black blazer. I took the subway. I said, “Mom, I’ll meet you and Dad in Dongdaemun around 1 o’clock, hopefully 12:30.” I thought I looked presentable enough. Again, this is being immature and young and inexperienced. I was also delighted that I had gotten the singing job. After I met my parents we couldn’t find the place.
I had trouble finding that place too, and I lived in the area.It’s not on any map.
That was before cell phones, so we had to use a public phone to call and ask for directions again, and I realized I was talking to an American. We finally saw the location, I looked at the guards, and I said, “Mom, this is a US military base.” No one knows there’s a base there.
“What do you know about this company?”
When they signed us in, I realized it was a job interview. Then I met Mr. Dougherty. He said, “Are you ready? Would you like your parents to be in the office during the interview?”
I said yes and then no. When we sat down in his office, I said, “First of all, I want to apologize for the way I look. My mom did not give me proper information about today. All she said was meet somebody for a possible job. I didn’t know this was a job interview. Otherwise, I would have dressed properly and brought a resume. And I wouldn’t have brought my parents with me.”
A week later he called me to say I had the job. That was May 6, 1996. I worked there for two weeks, and then I had to go home in order to change from a concert visa to a consultancy visa. When I got back to the office, they said,“HD’s coming back.” I said, “What’s an HD?” Oh, Mr. Dougherty’s son, Harold Dougherty. He’s going to be the manager for the admin assistants.”
“What about Mr. Gates?” It made me feel sad because we loved Mr. Gates.
I met HD on June 17, 1996. I thought he was cute. But my mom told me not to encourage that feeling. I didn’t want to get fired. I was picturing the Doughertys as very formal, with classical music in the background, and they were just the opposite.
During the first three months I thought HD hated my job performance. He was always nice to the other girls and very relaxed, but with me he was firm, and he’d use a very flat, monotonous voice. “I need you to make a copy of this.” “I need to make sure that you get the messages from…” This was before the internet, so I had to go from building to building checking the in-boxes to see if anything had come from the company’s clients. At the company picnic I knew something was up because he kept talking to me. That was a Saturday. Monday he asked me to his office.
He started out by saying, “This is not something I do all the time, and I don’t like doing this.”
I thought I was getting fired. All I could think was, “What am I going to do?” To be a singer in Korea you had to have a promoter, and I’d already told my agency I didn’t need my contract renewed. He kept going on and on, and then I heard, “I’d like to know you on a more personal basis.”
“Wait, what are you trying to say?”
He backed up a little bit and said, “I’m asking you out on a date.”
I was so relieved I had my job that my eyes got teary. “I thought you were going to fire me.”
“No, you’re doing a great job. Why would I want to fire you?”
I was just so happy I didn’t even think about answering him. Then he said, “I think you should say no, and I would totally understand if you said no, and I think it’s probably smart if you say no.”
“Do you want me to say no?”
I asked if I could think about it first because I didn’t know what the rules were about dating someone inside the company, but especially dating my immediate superior. “I don’t want to get fired.” It didn’t help when he said, “Oh, I don’t want to get fired either.”
That was in September. About two weeks later I accepted because a male friend called at the office, HD answered the phone and gave me a message, and I didn’t want him to think I was dating the guy who called. We had our first date September 11. On our third date on September 29, it got serious. In December he asked me to go to the States for Christmas. I asked Mom, “Is this okay? I’ll be staying at Mr. and Mrs. Dougherty’s house.”
“Sure. I could never take you to the States. Just make sure you stay at Mr. Dougherty’s house.” So I did. March 18 we got engaged, and we got married on June 17, 1997, exactly a year after he arrived in Korea. We realized that when we were applying for our marriage license.
Trying to get our documents finalized at the US Embassy was a nightmare. It took three days. They would never tell you in advance what documents you needed. You’d submit your documents, and they’d say, “Where’s your 100-dash-something?”
“We need that?”
When you went back you’d need another document. They would never tell you. Nowadays you can get all that stuff online. When we had all the documents, they said, “You need witnesses.” We were just going to pick anybody at the embassy. But they said, no we needed witnesses who had official Korean signature stamps, chops. Thank God our driver, Mr. Shin, was waiting. He said at the back there were some guys who had their chops with them who would be willing to be witnesses for 30,000 won [$30]. They weren’t allowed to go into the embassy. They just stamped the document outside. By the time we got back to the office it had closed at three o’clock. When we went back on the third day, we were number 89. We assumed there would be another document we would have to get, but the official started stamping our paperwork. We looked at each other, raised our right hands and said we solemnly swore that this was the truth….
The official said, “Congratulations. — Number 90?”
That was it. We kissed and went back to work. We never had a real wedding, but I wouldn’t change that experience for anything. We didn’t even have a honeymoon until the next year when we went to the wedding of my sister-in-law.