Finding a Home in Hyehwa

Ruel Neri watches over his section of the Hyehwa Filipino Market on a cold winter day

Ruel Neri watches over his section of the Hyehwa Filipino Market on a cold winter day. Photo: Anna Waigand/International Underground

Ruel Neri

Ruel Neri Watches over his section of the Hyehwa Filipino Market on a cold winter day.

Frozen pork chops sit to his right next to the dried snacks. In the middle is a case of San Miguel with a stack of mixed egg and coconut pies on top. Sautéed shrimp paste, a bottle of Jose Cuervo and jars of coconut in red gel fill two plastic baskets on the left. Standing over the goods, snow or sun, is Ruel Neri.

Neri is bouncy with a broad grin. He jokes with his neighbors and nearly everyone who passes him on the street. He greets, negotiates, and yells out in three languages, English, Korean and Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, to coax people into taking a second look at the food.

Kabayan, bili na,” Neri says, Tagalog for “countryman come and buy something.” “Happy new year.”

Neri works 12-hour days, six days a week in a factory, but he has spent his day off selling snacks in the cold because it allowed him to stay connected to his community and to earn some extra money on top of what he sends home to support his wife and three children. Neri is one of 51,000 Filipinos in South Korea, mostly working manual labor and factory jobs, who support their families in the Philippines. They work long hours in dangerous conditions with a significant language barrier, but one day a week they come together to transform a traffic circle in a Seoul college neighborhood into Little Manila. A place for adobo chicken, Catholic mass, conversations in Tagalog, health care in English and assistance in solidarity.

“You miss home. So if you’re here, like, seeing many Filipinos, that feeling somewhat disappears. For a couple of minutes, for a couple of days, and it’s ok. It’s fine,” Neri said.

The Filipino market is in the Hyehwa neighborhood outside the Hyehwa-dong Catholic Church where mass is held in English for Filipinos. The market is only the most visible slice of a concentrated expat community that materializes on Sunday mornings and then packs up as the workweek starts again. There is also a Woori Bank branch that stays open on Sundays to serve the many Filipinos who are transferring money home. A clinic provides free health care in English, a migrant labor organization provides counseling and a workers rights organization affiliated with the church helps people will all sorts of problems, but also gives them a place to relax and watch a movie together.

Ruel Neri crouched next to a gas heater

“Neri lights the gas space heater that he uses during the winter to keep warm and make coffee. Photo: Danielle Harms/International Underground

The market emerges out of stunted box trucks, portable grills, and plastic baskets. At 8 a.m., a dozen trucks open up their sides to unload canned jackfruit, pancit noodles, live fish and Filipino chorizo. A dozen vendors stretch out along one side of the traffic circle with a cluster of cooked street food sellers on the south end. Near the north end, in front of a fountain that bubbles all winter, is Neri.

Lunch for Neri is often egg rolls and empanadas from the Filipino catering business at the other end of the market. They’re reheated on a sheet of aluminum foil on top of a space heater. The heater eases the frigid winter days and makes Neri’s section a meeting place when customers are scarce. A silver kettle on the heater constantly boils water for coffee that only guests drink. One of Neri’s neighbors, Sonny, usually dressed in a leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, came to warm his hands and make jokes at Neri’s expense. Neri laughed and turned away, a little embarrassed. Sonny doesn’t need Neri’s space heater to warm his hands. At his own stand is a steaming pot of balut, a traditional Filipino snack of fertilized duck eggs, but he comes to Neri for the conversation.

“Sir, if I’m going to rub this kettle there will be a genie?” Sonny said.
“Genie, yeah, a genie pop up,” Neri said.
“That will pop up?”
“But you have tried it yesterday, I mean last week. There is no genie.”
“How long to rub to make the genie to come?”
“There is no genie.”
“There is no genie,” Sonny said.

Then Sonny lifted the top off the kettle and peered in.

“Hello genie?” he said, replacing the lid. “There is no genie.”

The sellers have time for jokes and conversation before the post-church rush at 3 p.m. Then it’s all friendly haggling, hellos, well wishes and jokes to friends as they pass. Most of the sellers have similar selections of canned and packaged goods so they often yell to one another in a market version of the grocery store intercom price check.

Neri’s job at the market is nothing like his job during the week. He has spent the last four years working outdoors at a small, family-owned lumberyard. The work starts at 7 a.m. with cleaning away yesterday’s sawdust. At 7:30 begins a day of clearing wood scraps away from the cutting floor as orders are filled from the chalkboard on the wall. Thirty minutes for lunch, 15 for dinner. In the summer, overtime is common and often pushes days to 12 hours.

Ruel Neri smiling and standing in the market

Neri stands over his baskets of Filipino favorites and uses his smile and jokes to attract customers. Photo: Anna Waigand/International Underground

During the winter, Neri has been able to work at the market for a little extra money. On a good day, Neri’s section pulls in 600,000 won (about $515) and Neri’s cut is 50,000 won. That makes an extra 200,000 won a month on top of his salary of around 1.3 million won. The lumberyard is in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul and home to lots of factories where Filipinos work. Neri’s Sunday commute to the market is an hour and a half each way, making it a long day standing outside in the cold selling snacks. But Neri doesn’t see it as work.

“I consider this as fun. This is for fun. I come to meet Filipinos, Filipino countrymen. And helping them like how to cope, because [our jobs are] very boring,” Neri said.

Working a 3D Job

Even when the snow flakes start coming down and the cars start honking in the traffic circle 10 ft. from Neri’s stand, the job is still preferable to many that Filipinos work in Korea. Marlene Lim is a missionary pastoral worker and day-to-day manager of the Catholic Center, an assistance and advocacy organization for Filipinos in Korea that is part of the Sunday community in Hyehwa. It’s affiliated with the Hyehwa-dong Catholic Church and funded by Sunday collections. The center is only a couple of blocks from the market and is a stop for many Filipinos during their Sunday routine. Lim provides assistance with job problems, medical care and child custody or domestic abuse issues for Filipino women married to Korean men. She said both employers and Filipinos are responsible for workplace problems, which are exacerbate by the language and cultural barrier.

“[The Korean government] have laws in more than enough, the problem is these employers do not implement that, and their best excuse is they are not aware of the law. It is [the government’s] task to orient the employers,” Lim said.

Labor disputes are made worse because Filipinos workers don’t talk to their employers about small issues and don’t make an effort to learn the language, according to Lim. Both Lim and Neri said workers also make problems worse because they forget what they were told during orientation seminars given to workers before moving to Korea. Neri remembered being told at the seminar that your skills wouldn’t transfer.

“If you’re going to work, forget about what you studied on, forget about what you worked on for the past years. When you go to Korea you will be human labor,” Neri said.

Neri, Lim and other Filipinos refer to those human labor jobs as 3D jobs: dirty, dangerous and difficult. Filipinos are often given the most dangerous or dirty job in a factory. Neri’s job at the lumberyard certainly qualified for all three Ds. The outdoor lumber yard was sweltering in the summer, humid when the rains came in July and in the winter the workers warmed themselves over a fire in an old metal drum while they waited to drag away more scraps. Though Neri has managed to escape injury so far, the heavy lumber, cutting saws and fast pace made his job dangerous.

In February, Neri requested to be released from his contract at the lumberyard and went looking for a new job. Leaving his job meant vacating the housing that came with it, but he was able to sleep and store his belongings at the Catholic Center while he looked for a job. Only a couple of days later he was moving his bags south of Seoul to Icheon and into a factory that makes metal sheets for elevators. A new job meant going through what Neri called the “baptismal fire.”

“They want to test you, your patience, how do you work. They keep on nagging faster, faster! The more they saw your sweating and all, the more they like you, but the more they want to push you harder, push the limit until such time when they are convinced that this man is good,” Neri said.

He still works 12-hour days, but this new factory has a lot of benefits. He has two more breaks during the day when the factory ajumma, the wife of the owner, serves the workers coffee and cookies. The indoor factory is still dirty, but it’s better than his last job.

“So far here, I guess maybe 30% of the 3Ds are here, compared to my previous company. This is much different and more relaxed,” Neri said.

His living conditions have also improved. Filipinos typically live in a shared steel shipping container that has been retrofitted into a living space. Small quarters, bad roommates and bathrooms in a container next door can make it hard to relax after a long day on the factory floor. Rebenson “Reeve” Recaña and Marcelino Serdeña III are the past and current presidents, respectively, of Sulyapinoy, a workers rights organization for Filipinos in Korea. They have both lived in shipping containers and describe it as a common condition for Filipinos.

“It’s very difficult living there. Right now it’s wintertime and it’s very cold in there. Steel walls covered with plywood. And then during summertime it’s too hot also,” Reeve said.

Many employers don’t provide beds so workers have to find their own, and four or five men sometimes occupy the already small spaces. They compare the containers to living like sardines in a small box. Marcelino said the crowded conditions make him feel unsafe in his home.

“If the light, you know, broke, and shorted the electric current it might burn the [container],” Marcelino said.

Connecting with home

Neri’s new job provides him with a small private room. In one corner is a mat on the heated floors common in Korea. Next to the door are a couple suitcases, a side table with drawers and a pop-up cloth bureau. Ramen, a rice cooker, and baseball hats adorn the few flat surfaces. Neri was happiest that his small desk and chair came with Internet that worked as soon as he plugged it in. The Internet is Neri’s biggest form of recreation. To relax from a long day at work, Neri often spends an hour playing the popular video game Call of Duty 4 online with other players from all over the world.

More important than letting him connect with other gamers, his Internet allows him to see and talk to his family in the Philippines through Skype. Neri puts on his headset with the big fuzzy microphone and when the ringing stops and the window pops open, on the other side are his wife Joyce, his son Kyle Cyrus, and his daughters Kate Collin and Kian Chloe in his home town of Cagayan de Oro on the southern island of Mindanao.

Ruel Neri and his wife and three kids seated on a couch

Ruel sits with his family in the Philippines.

Joyce is set to graduate from nursing school in March and hopes to take her licensing test in July. On his son’s ninth birthday, his family was having Internet connection problems so they could only talk on the phone. Neri said it’s hard to be away on special occasions like this.

“I don’t want to say that he is used to having me not around, but I guess in reality that is the reality. I haven’t been there for four years,” Neri said. “I’m sad every day.”

They talk on Skype almost every day and can text and call using phone cards that Neri and many Filipinos buy near the Sunday market. The option to video chat using Skype is important to Neri because, among other benefits, it allows him to do some long-distance disciplinary parenting. His kids recognize the furrowed eyebrows of an angry dad and are sometimes surprised by how much Neri can know from Korea.

“Before I talk to them one by one my wife would tell me first ‘oh, today your daughter blah blah blah.’ So I have all the knowledge,” Neri said. “Then my kids say ‘oh how did you know that?'”

Using phone cards bought from the market are still the preferred way to communicate for most Filipinos. Many Filipinos in Korea are educated, but Neri is especially tech savvy because his previous job in the Philippines was as a sales supervisor for a small Internet service provider. Their main business was selling subscriptions for dedicated Internet connections between ATMs and banks. The company had many offshore accounts, especially in the United States and India, but everything changed with the 9/11 attacks.

“Considering that our accounts, once they heard that [we were] from the Philippines or other areas other than the US, all our contracts, what we called not denied, but cancelled,” Neri said.

The company closed and Neri lost his job. That’s when he decided to leave his family and move to Korea to support them. There are lots of tough days that Neri has to endure while away supporting his family, but he said Christmas is the worst.

Ruel Neri pointing at his hometown on a map of the Philippines

Neri’s family still lives in Cagayan de Oro on Mindanao Island
in the Philippines.

Christmas is an especially important holiday in the Philippines. Long Catholic mass, fireworks and elaborate midnight feasts bring families together. Neri makes between 1.4 and 1.5 million won ($1,235 to $1,325) per month at his current job, depending on overtime, and sends back between 1.1 and 1.2 million to his family. Even though he can see his wife and be a father figure over Skype and even though he is supporting his family by being in Korea, Neri wishes that at Christmas he could be there in person to give them the support he works so hard to get.

“If you have 1 million won in your hand, oh that’s thick,” Neri said laughing and holding his fingers apart. “It can not fit in your pocket. So basically that’s the one thing. If I could bring this to my kids and to my family. Ok, let’s go shopping… But right now [it is the] same thing. If I have 1 million won by the following day they could receive it. But somehow I wish I could, somehow I could give it to them personally. Ok, here is the fruit of my labor.”

A community living in uncertainty

Even though Neri is excited about his new job and the ready-to-use Internet in his new room, it’s a cautious optimism. His employers seem trustworthy and dependable, but Neri has been working for a couple weeks even though his boss hasn’t registered him and the other Filipinos at his job as employees with the government. Until all the papers are in order, Neri is cautious that his job could disappear at any moment and he would have to pack up his stuff and look for a new job and a new place to sleep. In a country where you don’t speak the language, your housing is dependent on your job and there is a history of mistreatment of foreign workers, everything is tenuous, uncertain. Traveling to the market on Sundays to transfer money, receive health care in English and find aid in resolving labor disputes has helped relieve some of that uncertainty for Neri and other Filipinos.

Now the location of Neri’s new job is so far away that the support system and extra money that working at the market offered him have become impossible to continue. It used to cost him 4,000 won and an hour and half to get to the market, but now it would cost him 12,000 won and 3 hours each way, which eats up too much of his one day off and of the 50,000 won he would get from working at the market.

But the rest of the Filipino community might have the same problem because the market, which is the meeting place and center of the Sunday Filipino community, is in danger of becoming a practical impossibility. The Jongno District Office, which overseas the area where the market is, said because of complaints they are going to push the market to move off the traffic circle and to a new “multicultural street,” according to a Korea Times article. The district said complaints about litter and large crowds spilling into the street when the church gets out prompted them to decide to move the market. Filipino community members say vendors are willing to respond to complaints and that moving the market is at odds with Seoul’s goal of becoming a multicultural city. The new multicultural street in Nakwon-dong is far from the current location and would make it difficult for many Filipinos, who travel from all around, to visit the market as well as all the other cultural and practical necessities that the Sunday community provides.

“The set-up of the Filipino market in Hyewahdong [sic] symbolizes a part of the Filipino culture that dates back to the Spanish times. Sunday is not only a “Church-day” and “market day”, but most of all, a “family day” for us. During those days, it is a time and place where Filipinos gather together, meet with friends and families, young and old alike…Here in Korea, the best way Filipinos can preserve part of their culture is when they can cook and eat their own kind of food,” Lim said in an email.

As Neri faces uncertainty at his new job, the whole community of Filipinos may lose some of their support and the culture they are trying to recreate in Korea as the market is forced to move. Lim, who has dealt with Filipinos with all kinds of problems, said the truly scary part of living and working in Korea is the unknown. The unknown of the language, the environment, and of the workplace, but that Filipinos had a saying that helped them through.

“Here we have this thing bahala na. Come what may and God will provide,” Lim said.

In the meantime, Neri and the Filipino community will continue to support each other as they work abroad to support their families at home.

This entry was posted in Inside Seoul's Filipino Community. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Finding a Home in Hyehwa

  1. Nancy Harms says:

    excellent info and amazing insight.

  2. Hyanne says:

    Interesting post, haist now I know there’s a Filipino community in Hyehwa I thought just in Daegu…been here for months and I am really craving for Pinoy foods but can’t find in the supermarket near us…^_^

  3. Tim says:

    The writing takes me right there.

  4. Kaylin says:

    Did you get a sense from Neri and any other foreign workers separated from their families if they have realistic plans of reuniting? Will Neri eventually go back to the Phillipines?

  5. I think most will eventually go back. Even though there are many Filipinos who have been in Korea for awhile I saw very few older men at the market or in the church. Almost everybody looked like they were in their 30s. I think that suggests that older men return to the Philippines. Many workers hope the economy will improve in the Philippines and that they can get jobs there. As for Ruel, if his wife gets a good job as a nurse he might be able to return and still support the family with a lower paying job in the Philippines, but nothing is certain for them.

  6. Well you will certainly be able to get your fix of both street food and cooking staples at the market. What’s your favorite Pinoy food?

  7. Kevin says:

    Informative and very interesting article,Northwestern journalism grad! I’ve always wanted to visit the market and will do so when my girlfriend arrives for a visit from Manila the end of the month. Your article provides great insight into the trials and tribulations of OFWs in South Korea. It makes me appreciate resilient Filipinos even more than I already do. I hope you’ll write more about the Filipino experience here in South Korea. You give them a voice that needs to be heard. Again, excellent article!

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