Director, Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines

“For almost three decades, Korea has invested so much in the cultural sector, and all the appreciation that the world has for ‘Hallyu’ is the fruit of that. Because of this, I want to become the bridge between Korea and the Philippines.”

She uses culture to bring two countries closer
When IM Young-A headed for Manila earlier this year, she was looking forward to a new and exciting stint as director of the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines (KCC). Instead, she faced a completely unexpected experience: months of quarantine and anxiety caused by a deadly virus the world continues to do battle with.

With several projects understandably put on hold, Young-A had to hunker down and continue the KCC’s promotional initiatives and advocacies that she and her team have tried to adapt to the so-called new normal.

Uneasy childhood
Young-A is no stranger to uncertainty. She grew up in Cheorwon County, Gangwon-do Province, South Korea, bordering North Korea, also popularly known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Her father, a soldier, was stationed there. Living in an environment where fear and curiosity co-existed, she says, greatly shaped her view of the world and the interconnectivity of people no matter where they lived.

“I had a unique childhood because I grew up surrounded by soldiers,” Young-A recalls. “Cheorwon County was a place for soldiers.” As a youngster, she remembers the attempts their communist neighbors made to invade South Korea. “They built so many underground caves [in Cheorwon County], which is why I grew up being afraid of North Korea.” Life in the DMZ for this only child was always tinged with threat and unease.

“I had no siblings,” she reveals, “because in 1970, the Korean government recommended that citizens have only one child to avoid overpopulation.”

TIES THAT BIND (Above and below) Powering the Korean Cultural Center in the Philippines is a dynamic team of young professionals who are passionate about strengthening the ties between the Philippines and South Korea. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

Her sheltered upbringing bred a sense of adventure in Young-A, who has worked for the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism for 20 years, 10 of which were spent in the US, Brazil and now the Philippines. But it was only in Manila where she witnessed the full intensity of the Hallyu phenomenon.

For the uninitiated, Hallyu or “Korean wave” refers to the interest in Korean culture, particularly in K-dramas and K-Pop music, that has swept the world in recent years. And no one has been more surprised by developments than Young-A, who says: “The reason why I wanted to come here [to Manila] was because I wanted to experience Hallyu. Also, it was a good chance for me to learn how to manage an organization like the KCC.”

“The Filipinos are so warm,” Young-A adds, sharing initial impressions of her first Southeast Asian assignment. “And I really love the fact that they love our country and our culture. It’s so impressive!”

“I was [also] pleasantly surprised to I discover how hardworking Filipinos are,” she says. “In Brazil [my last posting], work-life balance was really important. But here, sometimes my Filipino colleagues call me about work [even] at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. It means that they are doing overtime, which is something similar to Koreans, who also spend a lot of time working.”

Young-A says she is constantly energized by the spirit of her young and dynamic team.

“[As a leader], I often just show them the way or direction that I want to go to [with regards to a project], or what I want so see. As for the small things, I entrust those to my staff because I don’t want to control everything. I just focus on the output.”

Digital promotions
Throughout the lockdown, Young-A and her colleagues continued to raise the profile of South Korea through more digital-centric initiatives that aim primarily to educate, entertain and engage the market, as well as build stronger ties between the Philippines and its North Asian neighbor.

One of the KCC’s popular initiatives has been the “K-Healing: Overcome Together” campaign, which awards medical frontliners a K-Healing package, containing Korean goodies and pandemic essentials, such as rubbing alcohol, face masks and hygiene items. “Basically, (through K-Healing and other KCC projects), we want to show our gratitude to the Filipinos for their love for Korea and the Korean culture,” says Young-A.

The KCC has also hosted unique online programs such as the recent K-Drama Production webinar, which has updated local filmmakers in best practices of their Korean counterparts; Cooking with KCC: Hansik Sessions; the online Korean Film Festival; and K-Dance Party with Dasuri Choi, among others. Next year, when the pandemic is expected to be brought under better control, more programs will be rolled out.

One event that Young-A is certainly anticipating is the launch of the new Korean Cultural Center in 2021. She says: “For almost three decades, Korea has invested so much in the cultural sector, and all the appreciation that the world has for Hallyu is fruit of that.

“Hopefully, I can assist in becoming the bridge between Korea and the Philippines, and raising further awareness of the Korean culture.”

The pandemic may have thrown a monkey wrench in the expat executive’s activities, but it has benefited her personal life. “(Before this pandemic,) I was focused on my career and not my family,” she confesses. “But with some of my colleagues falling ill and others experiencing mental health problems, I have come to realize the importance of family.”

She admits to being a workaholic, but adds: “I have always tried my best to do my duties at home as a mother. Thankfully, I have been able to spend a lot of time with my daughters [in the past months], and we have gotten to know each other more. I think I’ve been able to build a good relationship with them even though I have yet to memorize how to best ‘play’ with them. For sure, I am learning step by step.”

She also misses her husband “more than ever,” as well as her parents. Once the Covid-19 crisis settles down, she and her girls will be on the next flight to Korea.

But for now, this bridge builder will keep on encouraging Filipinos to ride the fascinating Hallyu wave.

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