During my first torturous months in Korea I found some solace in the idea that my new home was a small country and that it was possible to escape to a better world just by hopping on an airplane. Bear with me as I nerd out for a moment, but with some horror I kept recalling a line from Star Trek: First Contact, when the Enterprise is surveying an alternate-timeline Earth that’s been assimilated by the Borg, and Data, running his fingers over a beeping console (as usual!), looks up and says something like: “Population nine billion. All Borg.” In the midst of ever-worsening depression and culture shock, I would replace the word “Borg” with “Korean”, and start to shudder as though I had wrapped my hands around an electric fence, wondering if I could even survive in a world that had been turned into Korea.
A more disturbing truth is that the Americafication of the entire planet has been underway since the end of the second world war, and that the world envisioned by WALL-E is possibly inevitable, without the spontaneous happy ending—but that’s another rumination. Here I want to muse on the Koreafication of America.
The profile of that country was on the rise before I even arrived, and the very trendy-looking Korean flag, with its I-Ching bars, its Taijitu whorl, the bread-and-butter of any tattoo artist, has been showing up a lot more often than I remember (although now I’m obviously positioned to notice it more). Just yesterday I watched a short documentary on the New York Times website—am I the only person on Earth who will admit to a reverent love of this newspaper?, regardless of how much Noam Chomsky (rightfully!) despises it?—I watched this brief documentary on how a rising factory complex in Haiti is (naturally) destroying the local ecosystem, displacing local residents, and taking advantage of an extremely low minimum wage (something like three dollars a day), all in the name of sweatshop labor, although as one official in the documentary smirkingly says, his factory is not a sweatshop because they’ve installed a few cheap air conditioners on the premises. I clicked the link because you can see a Korean flag in the preview frame, and was not surprised to learn that this factory was some sort of joint venture between Korean and American companies.
These days it seems like those pesky Koreans have their fingers in every pie. When I first left for that little half-peninsula it was almost as bizarre as taking a trip to the far side of the moon, but now everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s worked there, and everyone has at least one Korean friend or acquaintance or student they want to tell me about, and there’s an LG television in my family’s living room and Samsung cellphones in most people’s pockets, although at least up here in Maine everyone appears to prefer Japanese, German, and American cars to Hyundai motors—a minor fact I wouldn’t have given a damn about before I became brand-conscious in The Land Just To The Left Of The Land Of The Rising Sun.
One incredible moment occurred a couple of days ago when one of my friends (an American fan of KPOP!) told me that Korea is probably the cultural capital of Asia, as its music, its movies, TV shows, fashions, consumer items, things, essences, enjoy a prominence in that vast region of the world which cannot be understated.
But here in America I’ve noticed a different sort of Koreafication, where certain ideas, some big, some small, have been cropping up—things which I did not notice or which did not exist before my sojourn in Korea. Two days ago I saw tiny televisions mounted to some of the racks in a local grocery store, which I thought was purely a Korean thing (the aisles are still mercifully full of customers rather than cha-cha-ing workerjummas); but actually the most significant change (which may be totally subjective) could be the new emphasis on getting ahead in one’s education by attending after-school test preparation centers, by hiring expensive tutors, or by even holding your kid back an extra year before she attends kindergarten, to give her an edge over the other little bastards and ensure that she turns out to be a doctor, an entrepreneur, or a lawyer, by the time she finishes up at either Harvard or Yale.
I know that some American parents have always been crazy about ensuring that their unremarkable children become remarkable as the result of the attainment of material lucre (and I will always have a chip on my shoulder as a result of not being born into one of these illustrious families), but perhaps in response to the widespread tightening-of-the-belt, the perceived need to hunker down, after most of the world’s money was stolen by a few of the fine folks working at Wall Street, more parents (or more reporters) appear to believe that their children will not be happy unless they first make themselves miserable by getting yoked to the gravy train.
At the same time, as I read about this stuff almost every day in newspapers and magazines, I look out the window across the street at a very successful summer oceanography camp for kids of most ages, and see them winding down most afternoons with barbecues and games of volleyball, which would be unthinkable in Korea, where every spare moment must be devoted to the attainment of wealth, and where you cannot stop until you are the richest, most successful, and most beautiful person everywhere you go. My wife is an example of this worker bee productivity, as she cannot rest without thinking up new get-rich schemes, and can be observed, now, on the Seal Harbor beach, notepad in hand, jotting them down in unreadably cursive Hangul, so devoted to getting rich that, like Lee Myung-bak’s typical brother, she will probably not stop until she gets convicted of bribery and thrown into jail. Just yesterday she told me she wanted to get a bigger apartment, take a break (probably permanent) from school, and use that apartment to tutor people—a safe enough venture, except we would need to borrow the deposit money from her parents, who would probably have to borrow that money from a bank. She explained all of this to me without any awareness that she wanted to build our fortune on money laundering, and even after I pointed this out she was like, whatever, Koreans do it all the time.
Some of the Korean kids I know tell me they want to go to America because they can really be free here—they wouldn’t really have to study and they could play as much as they liked, all while acing their easy classes, if they could just find a way of saving up enough cash and making it through customs. From what I’ve heard about the ardors of emigrating to this place, it seems like swimming or kayaking across the Pacific might be the most practical option for them.
It’s only minor and slight, this instance of Koreafication, and I know there are a lot of freethinkers out there who are aware that this is a rat race, that life is sansara, and that no matter how far we get in the dash—the space between the dates on our tombstones—we all still wind up plugging the same bungholes, as Hamlet says. Before that eternal moment occurs, it might be better to dedicate ourselves to smelling the roses rather than the cheap sheets of paper used in Kaplan testbooks.