Thursday, January 26, 2017

10 Year Reflections: Korea in the World

Seoul at night.

How did Korea change since 2006, when Ask a Korean! began? There is plenty to talk about, large changes and small. Some of the big changes: Korean economy grew to new heights, even as the world was going to the tanks following the 2008 financial crisis. But the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has been growing, the life at the bottom of the economic ladder has become more tenuous, and youth unemployment has been rising. Smaller changes? Coffee in Korea became a lot better, and so did beer. E-sports became a global thing. Gangnam Style happened.

But in my view, the most significant change for Korea is the international baseline of expectations for Korea. 

The concept of "international baseline of expectations" needs a bit of explanation. (It's a concept that I made up for this post. I'm sure there is a more sophisticated version of the concept in the academia somewhere.) One major lesson I learned from running this blog is knowing just how shallow the thought process is when people think of other countries. It is not simply that the people who send questions to this blog know little about Korea; it is that they do not think much about the fact that Korea is an actual place populated with actual people. 

People who are afflicted with a particularly stupid version of this think of Korea as some kind of fantasy land, filled with K-pop stars living in the sets of Korean dramas. As such, they are the endless wellsprings of stupid questions. Like this one: 
"How can someone in Korea like foreign girls, when Korean girls are so pretty? Would dating a blind Korean help?"
That's a real question that I received from a real person. Imagine getting this kind of questions every day.

I found, over time, that even the sharpest people rely on a version of this. Of course, the sharper people don't think Korea is filled entirely with beautiful men and women like it is on television. But even the smartest people fail to remind themselves of this basic fact: Korea is an actual place populated by actual people.

This leads to culturalism. In one of the most popular posts in this blog's 10-year history, I argued against Malcolm Gladwell who claimed that Korean culture's deference for hierarchy caused the Korean Air flight 801 to crash in 1997. Obviously, Gladwell is not stupid. But his claim, distilled to its essence, was incredibly stupid--that Koreans are willing to kill themselves and hundreds of others because Korean culture emphasizes manners. This is not so much a failure of intelligence, but a failure of empathetic imagination.

"International baseline of expectations," as I conceive of it, is what fills the gap left by this failure. Stated simply, the "baseline" is the vague, hazy image that comes to one's mind when one thinks of another country. What image comes to mind first when you think of Korea? Whatever that image is, it is the image serves as a heuristic for everything about Korea. Regardless of how smart you are, that image always lingers in the background of your mind. and colors every further interaction you have with the country.

My sense is that ten years ago, most people around the world had no baseline of expectations for Korea. If they had to, they threw in an image of a generic Asian country and went from there. Today, the baseline image is still hazy--by definition, it never becomes all that clear. But compared to a decade ago, Korea has a dramatically improved baseline of expectations. The default images now involve some combination of skyscrapers, electronics, e-sports and pop culture.

This, I think, has been the greatest change that Korea has experienced in the last 10 years. People around the world have some measure of positive expectations for Korea, no matter how hazy that expectations may be. Going forward, that may end up becoming Korea's greatest asset.

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  1. I remember reading an article in the WSJ about 15 yrs ago that called Korea "the land of quite not right" based on the b-rated goods produced such as electronics, cars, and home appliances. Oh how things change. Make no mistake, like the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, Korea (and Koreanism throughout the world for that matter) is living through its glory days now, with a deep long recession similar to Japan's waiting on the horizon. Immigration is a controversial topic, particularly in countries that values its cultural purity, but it's absolutely critical for any modern nation's future survival.

    TK, you maintain a kick-ass blog.

  2. first off, thank you very much for your keeping up your blog.

    i visited korea in 1999, 2003, and then 2015. i was kind of shocked in 2015, and you obviously can appreciate the huge difference between 2015 and 1999 especially in terms of the economy. wow! it's so funny that you mentioned that the coffee is a lot better because i definitely noticed that too. on my most recent trip, i got used to ordering 더치 아메리카노, while on my first trip i pretty much gagged on my first taste of korean coffee and questioned if the cafeteria accidentally made some kind of weird tea instead.

    back in 2015, i summarized my observation of contemporary korean culture as this: korea in 2015 looked like hong kong in 1998. first off, i found korea to be so much more "chinese" now. i mean, part of it was because i was stuck in metropolitan seoul and tourist areas like jeijoodo on this trip, and it was obvious that chinese tourist dollars were worth a lot more than america tourist dollars at this point. however, i felt it had to do with more than just tourist dollar but just increased general business/trade between the countries. also, the current level of spoiledness, opulence, and vanity reminds me what i saw while visiting hong kong back in the 1990s. maybe it's based upon the crowds i hung out with then versus now, but i felt like koreans were "tougher" back when korea was coming out of the imf days. like, another thing i kept having to mention when people would ask me for updates after my last trip was that guys (again, especially in seoul) were now such "pretty boys." again, maybe it's just the different crowds i hung around over the years... like, in the past, i was a taekwondo instructor and hung out with martial artists there, a lot of guys fresh out of the military. now, my wife's all into kpop dance stuff; so, yeah, hanging around those kpop dance studios maybe skewed my observations... i also hung around crossfit gyms and met more guys like ones i hung around in my martial arts days, so i know not everyone has shifted that way.

    anyway, the world keeps on changing, and i know korean culture will probably change again by the time i visit again.

  3. ... oh, yeah; another thing that made me say that korea is more "chinese" now is the domination of these bakery chains! paris baguette and tous les jours on every block makes me think of the taiwanese bakery chains in taipei, which i'll probably see have now been replaced by the korean brands when i next visit. it honestly disappointed me to see that korean street snacks have gotten more unhealthy. in the past, we'd stop for 팥빙수, 떡볶이, 오뎅, various meats on sticks... but now everything is such gluten, carb, and sugar overload!


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