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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Greetings From Seoul

A piece of art from my friend Lami:

The title:
The Theory of Relativity of Pillows
Had you ever even considered turning a pillow the wrong way? Wow. I sure hadn't. Mind-boggling.

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!