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Monday, August 02, 2010

Korea: Materialism Rampant, Happiness Not

These are not my personal evaluations. They might not even be true. Or verifiable. But, in any case, I've been hearing some tidbits like this in conversations here and there, and just recently found links to the following two mini-articles from the Chosun Ilbo, one of Korea's major papers:

"Koreans Most Materialistic People in World"


"Korean Kids Unhappiest in OECD"

The first article seems a little strange to me. I am tempted to believe it - Korea is doubtless a land of insane department stores, ridiculous commercials, absurd style [As evidence, I cite the following picture of random heartthrob boy celeb with dumb haircut:],

infinite meaningless fashion changes, impossibly annoying cell phones, disgusting celebrity worship, the shallowest, most superficial trendiness imaginable, and two channels of STARCRAFT TV. But there's something fishy: the same survey which gives Korea a score of 69 apparently reports that the Chinese (also 69) are equally materialistic, and that Indians (67) are right behind.

Can that be right?

Consider that Korea's GDP per capita, roughly USD 30,000 per person, is four times that of the average Chinese and ten times that of the average Indian. They may all answer the question "Is money the most important sign of success?" (which is what the survey asked, though there are no specific quo the same way, but does that mean they are equally materialistic? How much of each country's GDP is in excess of what citizens need to scrape by? And how do they use whatever discretionary income they have? Compare the rate of new phone purchases between Koreans and Indians, or the average age of a car on the road, or the last time someone spent a month's income on a designer bag, and I'm sure the resulting gap between the countries will be much larger. When an Indian (not all, of course - the wealth gap there is incredible) thinks of the success money can bring, s/he may well be thinking about having a flushing toilet and maybe even a refrigerator (which will likely be on the fritz due to an underpowered electric grid anyhow). A Korean, on the other hand, will more likely be thinking about a new shiny suit, some front row tickets to a baseball game, or a nice weekend trip to Phuket. Do these two situations display the same amount of materialism?

Of course, though this reasoning disputes some of the less emphasized details of the article, it mostly serves to confirm the headline. But what if we also include the least materialistic countries, like Canada, Western Europe, and the US? (No, no typos here!) Scoring 27, 30ish, and 33 respectively, these noble ascetics apparently know that materialism doesn't lead to happiness. Sure, they earn and spend the most money, depend the most on imports, use the most stuff, generate the most trash, cause the most pollution, drive the biggest and newest cars, expunge the most species, and do their best to hinder meaningful environmental regulation, but they don't think that any of it is particularly important. They don't do it out of a desire for success. They just do it because...that's the way it's done.

Does anyone else detect a big fat load of of cognitive dissonance? If, for the sake of my own happiness, I trash the world, consuming far more than my share and delivering misery unto distant, nameless others in the process, then I am of course a selfish individual. But if I do it not for my own happiness, but for some other reason (are there any?), then it can't really be said that I'm prioritizing my own interests over the health, safety, and well-being of others. In other words, declaring that my happiness and consumption are unrelated ensures my innocence; it makes it possible for me to consume massively, without being a heartless "consumer."

My thesis is that Korea has not yet reached the stage of guilty-richness, the sort of self-conscious recognition of one's own wealth that forces one to evaluate its effect on others.** Despite being one of the richest countries in the world (ranked about 30th by per capita GDP [which I feel is a little silly, since the population is much higher than that of Qatar, Luxembourg, and other top/tiny countries] or 13th by plain GDP) Korea still considers itself to be somewhere in between developing and developed. I'll often hear things like "한국은 아직도 못 사는 나라야" ("Korea is still a country that is barely scraping by), and lots of people expressing jealousy at how nice life must be in the States (and incredulity when I mention that we have our own problems too.)

So: I don't think this survey can really tell us who's more materialistic. What it can tell us, though, is who's more honest.

**This meshes with my (limited) experience with attempted environmentalism here: very little interest in general, and those who are interested, are so primarily because they want to protect the local environment, and not because they care about the welfare of the Chinese or Filipinos or whoever is bearing the brunt of the effects of their consumption.

The second article doesn't surprise me at all, though the statement that "one in two Korean children and adolescents are dissatisfied [with their lives]" is open to a lot of interpretation. Kids here seem to spend about 8/10 of their waking hours at public school (where they often sleep through lessons, and sometimes get beaten), at after-school academies (where they also sleep and get beaten, but learn things a year or two ahead of the public school curriculum), receiving private lessons at home, doing homework, or at some other sort of school for developing musical or athletic talent. The other 20 percent mostly consists of being shuttled around to and from these various activities, with just enough time in between to grab some street food (all low-quality meat, carbs, grease, and sugar) or a bag of chips and a banana-flavored milk from the convenience store. I used to have fourth graders who were too busy to eat dinner and eighth graders who finished their extra math classes at 1AM.

Not only are the kids busy; they're determined. Of course, they resist studying and look forward to playing as much as they can. But they're also told things like "no matter how hard you try or how smart you are, someone else is trying harder" and encouraged to think test scores as evaluations of self-worth. How else could you get them to accept and internalize the ridiculous demands placed upon them by their parents, teachers, and society at large? I know a twelve year old girl who thinks she's stupid for getting an 88 on her math test (with questions harder than I was doing in middle school), and middle-schoolers who kick themselves for missing just one question on their final English exams (in the "Shit, my life is over" way, not in the the "Argh, I was so close to perfect" kind of way), which are harder than some of the state-level standardized tests I took in high school.

Korean children learn at a young age that, since their country can "hardly scrape by" (again, despite being extremely well off in comparative terms), they need to be in constant competition with their friends and classmates if they are ever to gain entrance into a top middle school, high school, university, or company. Of course, they have friends inside and outside of school, but there is still an omnipresent sort of pressure lurking at every turn.

I am now officially out of thoughts. Rather than pretend to be able to tie it all together, I think I'll just cut it off. Farewell!


Jamal said...

I'm back baby! I'm officially caught up with you blog and ready to edify you with my comments. I've also started blogging again, for those of you who care to click on the "Jamal(in Arkansas)(Lame)" link.

Laura said...

1- I like that heartthrob's haircut
2- Aren't most adolescents dissatisfied with life? Isn't that part of what being an adolescent is? I'm pretty sure you wouldn't have even made it through high school if I weren't constantly baking you heart-shaped goodies.
3- Speaking of materialism- in mine and bobby's new apartment, my shoes get a whole closet to themselves!!

Dave said...

A couple years ago I read a piece in the WSJ about Korea's increasing suicide problem. The only reason I noted it at the time was because there were at least a half-dozen Koreans working at my office. Anyway, your post reminded me of it, and although I couldn't find it, I think this guy gets across the same ideas.

It contains lots of semi-disturbing lines like this: "In Korea, and much of Asia, there’s this notion of face. That maybe it’s better to take one’s life than bring shame on oneself and one’s family."

Mike said...

J: That comment was more self-promoting than me-edifying.

L: I agree that most adolescents go through some sort of stuff like this. I think it's in some sense healthy, since often what they're responding to is the inability to do what they want, the pressure of being channeled towards becoming useful to society. Optimally, we would understand this as a real problem, a sign that something we're doing is a bti screwy, and not just some sort of growing pain that everyone should have to accept as a matter of course.

One difference, though, is that in the US there are some productive outlets, like sports and clubs, which help to deflect one's thoughts and also build camraderie. There's much less of that here, which means the sense of competition and isolation are probably more intense. Or so I would guess.

D: Not only is suicide relatively common here (though I've never heard about it happening to a student, a student's friend, someone they know. or anyone at all, actually), but gruesome or absurd murders are also on the rise. There's a website called "Korea Beat," where an American whose Korean skills are truly excellent translates and reports on lots of articles. Most weeks, he translates the headlines of the most popular internet news stories in the "Society" section.


They're almost always full of rapes, murders, kindnappings, and sexual abuse. I doubt these things were entirely absent in the past, but people often express woe at the fact that they seem to be increasing so quickly.

I have heard a lot about the notion of "face," but really, I think it's mostly a way of exoticizing the society here. Do we really need a new name, one which takes a normal word and puts it in quotation marks to show that it has a new and mysterious meaning, just to say that Koreans count more on their children and less on their government to support them in their old age?

Dave said...

Not sure if this relates to anything, but I just watched 2 minutes of a little league game featuring Japan and the announcers were discussing how much Japanese pitchers dislike beaning opposing players. If a pitcher hits an opponent in the head he is automatically removed from the game (even if it was completely unintentional). And there you have it.