Hers is a story fit for K-drama.
“I felt like a pauper,” bared Gennie Vergara-Kim, as she recalled her starving days in her first year in South Korea. Her voice cracking with emotion from the memory, she revealed how the pangs of hunger made her quietly cry on the 2-hour way home from her backbreaking work at the brake shoe factory.
“Even if my family in the Philippines is not wealthy, I never had to experience that kind of hardship,” she continued, unfolding one by one the most difficult parts of her migration story. As it turned out, it was her Korean husband, then still in Cebu, who misled her into believing that Korean wives are obligated to turn over their full month’s wages to their mother-in-law. For four years since setting foot on Korean soil in 2003, she only received about a tenth of her monthly salary as allowance from her mother-in-law. This was only enough to cover her monthly bus fare to and from work.
At an Independence Day celebration led by the Philippine Embassy in Seoul
Trying on the traditional Hanbok for size at Ganghwamun Palace
Assisting Filipino community organizations that promoted their fund-raising film showing on her radio show
As course coordinator at the opening of the Free Skill Vocational Baking Course for migrant workers
Asked why her husband was here in the country when she and their one-year old son, Sung Jae, were in Incheon, she replied that the plan was for him to follow suit. But 4 years hence, she learned from her husband that he already got his girlfriend in the Philippines pregnant. It was from then on that she decided she would only provide her mother-in-law with just enough for the upkeep of the house and their daily living allowance. Still, she hoped and prayed her husband would see the light one day and eventually join the two of them so they could live as a family again. But she never imagined it would take 10 years before he did make it to Korea, and, alas, for reasons contrary to their agreed initial plan.
With tears held back, Gennie paused for a second to regain her composure before continuing, “After all the hardships of the 10 years that I waited for him to join us in Korea, I was filled with hope when my son called me at work one day in 2013 to announce that his father had finally come.” She came home in a rush to a very happy son excitedly chattering with his father. But as soon as Sung Jae was in bed and out of earshot, his father told Gennie that he would like a divorce.
Hurt and enraged, she replied with a flat-out “No.” Images of her sacrifices in the last 10 years came flooding in, side-by-side with imaginings of her husband living a much more comfortable life in the Philippines with his girlfriend and their 3 children by then. Her husband pleaded for her consideration for a whole week to no avail. She gave him the silent treatment in the next three months, absolutely resolute that she will never agree to a divorce. But when her mother-in-law tried to intervene, and ended up guilt-tripping her over caring for her son while she was away at work, she finally made the decision to go to court for the divorce. She had only one condition, which was that all custody rights over their son would be hers. Her husband readily agreed, which hurt her even more, further implying that he didn’t care much for their son.
The court first asked her if she spoke Korean. As she had been working on-demand through the years as a translator, she quickly said, “Yes.” Then the court asked her if she was willing not to receive any financial support from her husband or her in-laws. To that, she replied with another “Yes”, but said further that, in fact, she has been the one financially supporting her mother-in-law in the last 10 years. The judge was taken aback. In the end, the court ruled that not only will Gennie have full custody of their son, but that her (ex) husband indemnify her for every Won she had spent to support her mother-in-law. Ex-husband promised to initially pay half of what the court ruled. The next day, however, he was nowhere to be found and had reportedly flown back to the Philippines.
“I had practically spent more time with my mother-in-law than her own son,” said Gennie, as she paused again, as if preparing to segue to the next question in the interview, which was on how she ended up in radio.
At her first job in the factory, she experienced discrimination because of the language barrier. So she resolved to learn Korean at the soonest opportunity. She moved to a cellphone assembly company, where she rose in rank to team leader, upon which her immediate supervisor recommended that she be sponsored to learn the Korean language. She gladly grabbed that chance and made the most of it, even becoming the mouthpiece of her fellow Filipinos in the workplace. She would have stayed as long as the company wanted her there, but unfortunately, it suffered setbacks from the 2008 global economic crisis, so she left.
She then worked as a marriage counselor at the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea. While counselors-in-training were taught skills to address victims of domestic violence, the calls they received ranged from the most trivial concerns to sensitive issues such as working conditions, marital problems, and extra-marital affairs.
In 2010, the Philippine Embassy in Korea held a Philippine Independence Day celebration in Incheon. Gennie was asked to be one of the emcees during the event since she was still a resident of the city then. She was introduced to the Human Resources Development (HRD) Service of Korea, since it had just opened a training program for the Employment Permit System (EPS) workers. She then started working as a translator for HRD Incheon every Sunday and she has been doing this in the last ten years. She also holds lectures for workers under the EPS. Her stint at HRD Korea in Incheon brought her closer to her kababayans, who would tell her their problems and personal stories.
In 2011, Gennie guested in a radio program, then hosted by DJ Regina, a Filipina student on scholarship at Ewha University. The director, who happened to listen to the program, gave his card and encouraged Gennie to apply for a part-time job in case of a vacancy. She never really took it seriously since she did not have any background in broadcasting.
When there was a job opening, however, she tried her luck despite her lack of qualifications. She knew that she was competing with other younger Filipino scholars studying in Seoul. Fortunately, the station, Multicultural Family Music Broadcasting operated by Woongjin Foundation and Digital Skynet, called back and she got the job.
She had to undergo training for three weeks before finally going on air on March 18, 2013. “Since I came from the Visayas, I was so anxious about my Bisayang Tagalog accent,” she recounted. “I would feel nervous whenever I did my recording. As I continued doing several segments, however, I became less conscious of my accent and more focused on the benefits that I give my listeners.”
She prepares all materials – from punchlines, audiences’ stories, and music selection. Even her minutes spent commuting are used to research news to be shared to her listeners. She takes no breaks, and even on Christmas Eve, she would be recording her program while playing Christmas songs.
Her radio program does not only entertain her fellow Pinoys, as she also does marriage counseling. The multicultural radio program aims to ease the loneliness of kababayans in South Korea, thereby, improving their quality of life, especially those who are working far away from the places where Filipinos would normally gather on a Sunday. The program also provides information for Filipinos who want to go to Korea, and plays back Pinoy music and original compositions of OFWs or their cover of famous songs.
It was in May 2013 that Gennie’s husband came back to Korea to ask for a divorce, roughly two months after her first airing on radio. By then, she had already grown enough self-confidence to embrace the divorce gladly without any animosity in her heart.
Gennie Vergara-Kim went on to win the CFO-led Migration Advocacy and Media (MAM) Award several times for her radio program in South Korea, becoming the first Hall of Famer for the Awards. She is also currently a nominee of the Presidential Award for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas (PAFIOO) under the Banaag category, which is conferred on Filipino individuals or organizations for their contributions that have significantly benefited a sector of the diaspora, or advanced the cause and interest of overseas Filipino communities.