[PHOTO -Grace: It’s so hard to have a relationship with anyone when everyone wants to talk about it.]

MANILA, AUGUST 11, 2012 (PHILSTAR) By Nathalie Tomada - Grace Lee never felt like a foreigner or out of place when she and her family relocated to the Philippines from Korea when she was 10 years old. Her father, who is in the trading business, brought them here because he wanted an all-girls, Catholic education for his two daughters.

In an exclusive interview with The STAR, Grace fondly recalled: “I didn’t know how to speak English, I didn’t know how to write A-B-C, then at that time, they didn’t have special classes for foreigners. I was the very first foreigner who studied at St. Paul’s Pasig. The nuns didn’t know what to do with me and my (younger) sister. So pinasok kami sa regular class at araw-araw mayroon akong stationery bilang regalo ng mga classmates ko. So I used to tell my mom, ‘Mama, wala ba tayong night class kasi gusto kong pumasok all-day.’ Ganun ako katuwa.

“The experience I have here is the opposite of what people expect that just because you’re a foreigner and that you don’t know how to speak Tagalog, perhaps you’ll be alienated and that they don’t treat you well. But I felt the acceptance right away and maybe that’s why I fell in love with the country right away.”

Grace said that she didn’t expect, however, that many years later, Filipinos would also fall in love with Korean entertainment and food, thanks to the so-called Hallyu or the Korean pop culture wave. Incidentally, Grace is the endorser of the master franchise of Chef’s Noodle in the Philippines. It’s a popular fast-casual food chain in South Korea that offers dishes formulated by the Korean celebrity chef Choi In Sun, with its first-ever branch in the country now open at the University Mall in Taft Ave.

“I’m glad because the Filipinos’ knowledge and image of Koreans and Korea (nowadays) ay dumami at gumanda,” Grace said, adding that “Filipinos now know about Kimchi” and other dishes due to Koreanovelas, several of which are food-oriented, patronized by Filipinos. “Nakakatuwa di ba?” she enthused.

Asked if she ever considered of returning to Korea to pursue a career in its vibrant showbiz industry (like Sandara Park, whose showbiz potential was first discovered via a Philippine artista search and is now part of a famous Korean girl group), Grace, whose real name is Lee Kyung Hee, said: “I was offered before kaso lang gusto ko dito. I have no intentions of leaving the Philippines to work or be based somewhere else. I really identify myself (not just as a Korean but also) as a Filipino.”

This is one of the reasons why the 29-year-old TV host decided to undergo the process of being a naturalized Filipino citizen more than a year ago.

“I mean, why not? I’ve been living here for so long, and I’ve identified myself as a Filipino so might as well (get naturalized),” she explained.

There are some rough patches though. “I don’t know when I will be naturalized because it’s more difficult to acquire a Filipino citizenship than (say) an American citizenship. Because our system here doesn’t aid foreigners to become Filipinos,” Grace related. “I always say, if I were in the US, and I was there for 20 years and never left the country for more than one month in my life, the US government will actually give me a citizenship. But here no. The laws here are very ambiguous, and on top of that, the system is really difficult for foreigners to get (a citizenship). For me, parang nakakalungkot kasi a lot of people think it’s quite easy.”

Told that she can easily be a citizen by virtue of marriage, she gave out a laugh and said, “After all these years, I don’t want it to be the reason why I became a Filipino.”

There was a time early this year, however, that it was widely reported she was considering marriage to the most eligible bachelor in the country, President Noynoy Aquino. (Grace would later issue a denial on expressing such intention or saying anything to that effect.)

To recall, Grace, albeit already a familiar face on TV, courted media frenzy when P-Noy himself admitted that they were dating. Grace’s beauty first caught the President’s eye in a Cebu event last year which she hosted. The attention would extend to the South Korean press, from whom her manager would receive as much as five calls a day at the height of the frenzy.

Then the next thing the public knew, they were no longer “dating.”

But Grace would not be prodded to talk about this episode in her life, more so the details that many of us might want to hear — particularly why, when, how things ended. She didn’t even mention the President’s name during this interview. She talked in general terms, dwelling more on the lessons.

Grace said, “After everything, this year, ang natutunan ko talaga ay I really have to deal with the fact that I cannot please everyone and that there’s always gonna be irresponsible journalism so sabi ko instead of me being upset about everything that is happening, I’ve learned to just go with the flow and just accept things, and I really realized who my true friends are, who the honest people are out there, nakita ko yun, and I think that’s a big asset to me. I think I grew up a lot this year... because of all the pain that I had to go through, not because of a particular person, but the pain I had to go through because of the lies people were spreading.”

It will be noted that Grace didn’t back down from what she called as “lies,” strongly denying that she was asking for presidential security, getting a Ferrari from a rich suitor, hoping for an altar date with P-Noy, etc. in some interviews and via her Twitter account. Some took issue with this style and accused her that she was mining it for the publicity. But she also earned the admiration of others for showing that she’s not one to take things sitting down.

[PHOTO -Grace, whose profile as endorser is notably increasing (her newest is for Chef’s Noodle, a popular Korean food chain that’s now in the Philippines), maintains that her endorsement deals were settled long before the news of her being linked to P-Noy came out.]

“The thing is, at the end of the day, hindi lang ako yung involved eh, nadadamay family ko, kung sino man ang nagmamahal sa akin, so I really have to fight, because I’m not really fighting for myself but I’m fighting for the people I love or whoever I love at that time. It’s not fair,” Grace explained. “I really didn’t have a choice. Kung ako lang talaga, my God, I couldn’t care less. I’m pretty tough, I think. Kung ako lang, okay lang eh. Pero pati ex-boyfriend ko nadamay. Parang my goodness, where do you stop?”

Asked if she’s feeling relieved that all of that seems to be over now, she said, “I try to come out of every situation better. I always try to see, ‘Lord, bakit kaya nangyari sa akin to?’ At the end of the day, mas maraming positive kaysa negative, if you think about it that way. I’m thankful to the Lord because I do think I became a better person because of it.”

One thing is sure though, “it’s so hard to have a relationship with anyone when everyone wants to talk about it. And you’re being scrutinized, mahirap talaga,” admitted Grace.

“Well, better luck to me next time,” she added with a laugh. “ Ay naku, gusto ko na talagang mag-asawa no, kaya better luck talaga. I’m really praying about it, even my Bible study group is praying for it na ‘Lord ibigay mo na sa kanya kung sino dapat sa kanya.’”

Asked for any advice for fellow women on how to move forward after being in a failed relationship (or “after being on several dates with a man,” as Grace lightheartedly described her case), she said, “You know when you’re single, I think that’s the best time to really take care of yourself, spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. And love yourself, read a lot! I read a lot; I read two to three books in a month. Aside from that, it’s time with my family and friends, and I think that’s the time you discover that you don’t really have to be with someone in particular to be happy because there are so many people who love you so much without conditions.”

Grace, meanwhile, has changed home networks and will be seen next on TV5. She signed up with the entertainment and news and public affairs departments, although she said she would be avoiding showbiz-oriented talk shows.

She’s been working on TV since 2007, since her break via The Sweet Life on then QTV. Grace said, “I had imagined (working on TV) as a kid like any kid at one point in their lives would imagine themselves on TV. But hindi ko talaga inisip because in college I wanted to become a lawyer and that’s why I took pre-law courses (at Ateneo University) but when I graduated, my heart was led to this, and I’m happy because not all people are blessed to do what they want.”

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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