The Korus Girl

Last week started off on a high note. Literally.

My university choir, which we fondly call “Korus” is having a grand alumni homecoming in February 2020 and we just had our very first rehearsal. Korus was founded in 1962, so we have been in existence for 57 years. This makes it an institution, and one that I am mighty proud to have been a part of for 10 years. Gatherings like the homecoming, or just the mere rehearsal attended by 50 people from different decades are such a thrill! We may have served Korus at different times, but we share its music and love for show choir performances. This institution and the people who paved the way for me, helped shape me into the person I am today. I was a teenager when I joined, still building my identity and I found it here, with Korus.

I love telling the story of my Korus humble beginnings. It’s one of those blessing-in-disguise situations, and the outcome was a completely different path than I had originally imagined.

At the university Freshmen Welcome Assembly in 1997, I witnessed the performance of a choir. This made me realize how much I missed performing just like in elementary school. I just spent the past 4 years in a science high school where music and arts formed just a small part of the curriculum. How refreshing to see and hear an actual college choir! This piqued my interest right away and I took note of their audition schedules.

A year passed and no audition happened. I decided to put it off until next year so I can adjust to college life first.

True to plan, I geared up for audition as soon as sophomore year started. I was going to do it with my blockmate who also became interested the previous year. By then, we were living in different dorms within campus. I went to talk to him about going for our auditions, only to be told he already did, but with a different choir. He said I might like this other group too because it is kind of like a show choir, with dancing and singing and lots of Broadway. He said we didn’t see this group last year because they were on tour in Europe. Tour? Europe? Oh man! Sounds like a dream. He pointed to a flyer pinned on the dorm bulletin board and I saw a photo of a girl in Filipiniana beside Queen Elizabeth II herself! It was more like the girl photobombed Her Majesty, but hey! I’ll take that any day! The caption read, “I went to London to visit the Queen.”

It may have been around this time that the travel bug bit me. I thought, if this girl can see the world by singing and dancing, I can too! So, it was really the prospect of seeing the world and not going to school for six months that sold me to the idea of joining this other group. The singing and dancing was secondary.

I don’t remember exactly what day I auditioned, but I remember the awe I felt when I entered the College of Music. This was a college where you can create “noise” and no one will shush you. Some students were practicing their instruments – trumpets, trombone, drums. I could hear singing – of course. There was piano, and some students were just huddled in small groups talking. I remember I wore jeans and a pink shirt with little black flowers on it. I sang “Some Good Things Never Last” by Barbra Streisand as my audition piece. I think they also made us sing the National Anthem. Because you know, you will sing it hundreds and hundreds of times as a member. I was still able to sing the arrangement of National Artist Lucio San Pedro before it was discouraged because it “desecrates” the true nature of our anthem. Whatever. It was beautiful.

I passed, but I was assigned as an alto. I guess I sabotaged my own audition when I refused to go higher when they were testing my range. It was quite daunting and I myself didn’t know I could be a first soprano. A few months later, I was “re-classified” and became a Soprano 1. I continued to be one until I left the group in 2008.

I went on to train with Korus for 6 months before becoming a member. What was it like? I wish I could say it was rainbows and roses. Rather, I could only remember them as dark times. So dark because we would always go home so late. In fact, my friend A and I would always go home beyond dorm curfew hours, and we eventually got kicked out. But hey! I have goals. I was gonna go on a world tour by hook or by crook. If it meant being homeless before that, so be it. (Kids of this era, don’t try this at home).

Training was hard. I wish I could say it was the best time of my life. But no. It was rigid, grueling, demanding and at times psychologically taxing. This was probably where all of my values as an adult took root. You wanted something so bad, you had no choice but to adapt.

Time was sacred. You cannot be late, ever. If you were late to a rehearsal or call time, you may want to just ask earth to swallow you. Many co-trainees lost the battle for being tardy and getting punished for it.

Ever heard the saying, “The show must go on.”? The only time you will miss a performance is if you were dead. This is an exaggeration now, but this is where I learned to show up. No excuses. When I graduated and joined the corporate world, I always showed up. On time. It became ingrained into my being. It certainly helped me get to where I am now.

You had to be able to handle criticism. You have to have the nerve not to let harsh words get to you. Otherwise, you quit. I think this was the worst part, but also what I am most thankful for. I learned to ask myself in any situation, “What is the worst that can happen?” And I learned that the saying, “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger” is so, so true.

Learning new pieces was hard. I could not read notes at first. I still could not, who am I kidding? Hahaha. So I had to exert extra effort to learn my music. I had no recorder, I could not afford one, so I relied to memorizing on the spot during rehearsals. Or asking people to play my part on the piano.

I sound like a lunatic. It seems like I hated my whole life as a trainee. Well, the other side of it is, I really looked forward to every time we would finish learning a song and start choreographing. I loved the fact that we could sing and dance and move around the stage and be happy, or sad or in love and just interpret the songs. It was extraordinary. I loved that I got to sing at different events and perform with famous celebrities and singers. It was so cool. How many teenagers get to do it while in school? Not many, so I was privileged.

In the end, I made it. So did 12 others with whom I shared all the hardships of those 6 months. Our hard work paid off. In 2000, 10 of us went to travel the world for 6 months and had the most amazing, once in lifetime experience. We went to 14 states in the US and 9 countries in Western Europe. We joined a festival that many other Korus members experienced before and it didn’t matter that the food was always bland, we were in Scotland! We experienced the magical world of language barrier having lived with our precious non-English speaking host families. It didn’t matter, we spoke with our hands and eyes and laughter and eventually understood each other. It was in Italy that I met a jolly and doting grandma who showered me with hugs and pinches on the cheeks and tanti baci (lots of kisses). She spoke an Italian dialect and I can still speak the one sentence she taught me even if she has already passed. “A mi ma pias la polenta”. I had one Italian mamma who always made me and my roommate take honey before leaving the house because it was good for the voice. Another Italian mamma was so frustrated she could not speak English but she had a picture book so we can point to what we were talking about. She also asked me to learn Italian for when I go back and see her again. I really did that. BA European Languages, hello! Okay, I never finished it, but I learned enough. 19 years has passed and I can still remember everything. Most of all, I remember that we were treated well. We were accepted as part of our host families, and we learned to appreciate the many, many cultures around the world.

The festival that I spoke about, it was the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. Imagine yourself surrounded by many other youth groups from countries you never even heard of. Imagine an opening program where the only thing you all do is sing each of the participating countries’ National Anthems. How crazy and cool and wonderful is that? Ah….so much pride and nostalgia. I feel so incredibly rich.

I went on to become an active member for 10 years, represented the country and the university in 4 international tours, served as a treasurer and president twice and now a proud alumna.

Not many people will understand the journey. Not many were made to withstand the rough seas we had to sail through to get the most coveted status as a member. Not many know what it’s like to talk to a leaf and will it to answer back. I don’t know that either, but one of my co-trainees may. LOL. Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it! This is the glue that binds us together. There’s no experience quite like it. And to do that at such a young age, it really does alter your DNA. And those whose DNA were altered like yours, they become your lifelong friends. I could have ended up very differently from who and where I am now. I could have decided to just go straight through college and become an engineer. When tour time came, I could have just given up my slot and decide that travel wasn’t for me and just wait until I was working to have those. But I didnt. I was way too determined to achieve the almost impossible to take the safe options. But you know what? I’m glad I took the road less traveled. It was meant to be. I was meant to be a Korus girl.

Newsletter 4 – Week of August 12

Black Holes

I hate Korean Drama. Ever since it reached the Philippines, I’ve done my best to avoid watching them. My Koreanovela-obssessed friends would be so horrified to know that I have only finished four out of the hundreds that exist. Of those four, they either had Song Hye Kyo or Rain or both.

My hate does not come from not liking. I hate them because once you start, they are like black holes that suck you in and you disappear forever. Okay, maybe not forever. You resurface after the last episode with a huge hangover.

For example, the first K Drama I watched end-to-end was Full House. Yes, Full House from 2004 starring Song Hye Kyo and Rain. This was before K-Drama, K-Pop, and all those Samgyupsal restaurants invaded the Philippines. The show was even dubbed in Filipino. After that, I never wanted to watch a K Drama again. It was so beautifully created, I wanted it to be the only K Drama I know. I did not have the heart to taint or replace its memory. Loyalty to a fault. It’s possibly one of my greatest strengths. Or weaknesses. It’s up to you how you may see it.

In 2016, I finally decided to visit one of my best friends who has lived in South Korea for a decade. I suddenly thought of Full House. With technology more advanced, I was able to find full episodes on Youtube. I ended up not going out the whole weekend. This was my first black hole. It swallowed me whole.

Youtube is cunning. It gave me suggestions on what to see next. Soon after that, Black Hole 2 came. This time it was “The Fugitive: Plan B”. This was with Rain and Lee Na-young. It was a bit longer than the usual 16 episodes of a K Drama but it was well worth it. Having Daniel Henney in it was a real treat. He is my all-time Korean American crush.

When I was finally in Korea, I heard that Song Hye Kyo’s new project “Descendants of the Sun” was off the charts. I tried to pretend I wasn’t interested. After all, I knew what it would do to me. Eventually, I caved in and that’s my Black Hole 3.

At that time when Descendants of the Sun was airing, Rain also had a drama. It was called “Come Back Mister.” It’s not one of his best works, but because it was Rain, I still finished everything. That was Black Hole 4.

After Descendants of the Sun, it was easy to ignore the ones that came next. Next to Full House, this was my new favorite. The script was so amazingly written by award-winning writer Kim Eun-sook. Yes, I had to look it up because I loved the writing so much.

Late last year, when I saw an ad for Song Hye Kyo’s new project, “Encounter”, I knew Black Hole 5 has arrived. It was only a matter of when I would get sucked in. That question has been answered a few days ago. It was time. So here I am, wrapped up in my own little encounter with the divine fictional world of television. Aaah, it’s so easy to ruin your life these days. I wonder if there’s such a thing as K-Drama Anonymous, a rehabilitation center for K-Drama addicts. Sometimes I feel like this is worse than alcohol addiction.

Anyway, “Encounter” is awesome. I also feel like I am in a better place watching it because I have grown up so much since “Full House”. Fifteen years is a long time in between. I say I appreciate the story of “Encounter” more because watching it practically brings me all the feelings I’ve ever felt in the last 15 years. It’s a love story between a CEO of a big hotel, Cha Soo-hyun and a younger man, Kim Jin-hyuk. Fill in the blanks with all that you ever have to face in a relationship. All the beauty and heartache that comes with it. I told a friend the other day, “I’m watching Encounter because it has everything I don’t have in my life right now.” And possibly something that will never be in my life ever.

Nonetheless, I can relate. The last 15 years made sure I knew what butterflies in my stomach felt like. I learned how excruciating it can be to wait and endure uncertainty. I know that I can face disappointments and survive the worst of heartaches. I know that I can be brave and ask for what I want. I know when to persist and also know when it’s time to recognize the end of a road.

With “Encounter”, I saw my love for travel and adventure. Parts of it were shot in Havana, Cuba. It makes me want to see the sunset in El Malecon. I saw my love for coffee and sitting in a quiet cafe when I visit a new country. I saw how fascinating it was to listen to foreign music and feel a language even when you don’t understand the words. I even saw the face of a past love. He looks so much like Kim Jin-hyuk, I cringe. I saw how one must never lose hope or give up even when life is crap. I saw and confirmed what is always promised in the end: Things eventually work out the way they were meant to.

Mr. Nam said it wisely.

“No one can stop flowers from blooming in spring. No matter how hard the flowers try to resist, they all end up blooming in the end.”

CG