One of the first observations my mother made of Korean people when she visited me a few weeks ago was that everyone wore such nice shoes, especially the women, but the men also. A short time later she also noted that many of them had designer handbags, watches, and clothes.
I suspect the reality of Korea was nothing like what she might have pictured when I first told her I was planning to work there. I am guessing she would have had visions of Thailand or Vietnam, places where you can see development but also has its lion's share of poverty.
It does appear that everybody has money and is displaying this to everyone else. It can be difficult to pick out the wealthy from the relatively poor. It is almost like an arms race but it's not about who has the strongest weapons it's about who has the best brands and most expensive gear.
Status really matters in this part of the world, the Joseon Dynasty was the longest running Confucian empire and ideals of status within society run very deep in this line of thought. High status used to be based on bloodlines, scholarly accomplishment, battlefield triumphs, or good business acumen, but these days it is increasingly displayed by what people wear and own.
As well as the status element to their culture, Korea also is a group centred culture, which makes fitting in and being accepted by your peers and others even more important than it is in Western culture. This means if one person has brand name shoes or a designer watch everyone else tends to follow.
You can see the fall-out from all of this by just walking the streets but things become even worse when you are transported into a school. There seem to be a few must-haves for my high school students; colourful brand name trainers, North Face jackets, and - something I have only recently noticed - big divers-like watches.
If I sound a little out of my depth here in talking about what is fashionable, you would not be wrong. I have always distanced myself from all this brand name nonsense. It has always looked like a perfect waste of money to me and it has a divisive and shallowing effect on society generally.
This is how the war of status is played out in the classrooms and streets of Korea with trinkets bought from some of the most over-priced and pretentious department stores you will ever see. No wonder these places can afford to employ about 2 or 3 members of staff for every section and brand they sell.
I just do not know how Korean people afford all these things. They work some of the longest hours in the world then flitter all their cash on over-hyped garbage that they simply don't need and won't make them happier. It is all simply to make themselves either be as good as or better than the next person. You don't have to be a philosopher to realise this is not a great recipe for living the good life.
So are we in the West so much more enlightened? Well, when it comes to brand names maybe we do have more people who show disdain for them and because of our culture it may be a little more acceptable to not go along with the crowd. Many people do, however, still have an obsession with it, indeed we are the originators of it and it is further fuelled by the celebrity obsessed masses.
It has to be said, though, that our status games are fought on a battlefield with slightly different rules.
My country has spawned the slightly cringe-worthy phrase 'Cool Britannia' and I think this sums things up quite nicely, essentially it's saying we are not powerful anymore, but we are at least trendier than everywhere else. In the UK status is still important for people - it always will be in a social primate species - but it is not necessarily possessions that show-off someone's status it is their levels of confidence, arrogance, and sometimes their disdain for others, in short, how 'cool' they are.
Being 'cool' is how you are socially accepted and how you climb up the tree of status, exactly like the brand name obsession of Korea. Now, brand names can aid in this, but - conversely to Korea - one biggest aspects is being individual, being crazy, standing out in a crowd or rebelling against 'the system', whatever that is.
While expressing your individuality might seem like a good idea that would breed a healthy unrepressed sort of society, actually the opposite is true. There will always be the true characters that are genuinely different and that are natural and comfortable with being set apart from everybody else, but the fact is that most people are not like this at all, they only act this way to make others believe that they are.
'Statistics show that the average person doesn't think they are very average at all.' I have always liked this quote because it really is so true. This is also a little depressing for people from my culture who want to be different, wild, or crazy, because most just aren't. So in the 99% of people you see that are acting in a confident, outlandish, or in a maverick kind of manner, most of them are doing just that, acting, and it is not for the benefit of letting their personality run free, it is for everyone else so they can climb that status ladder. These people are on a par with those that are carrying the Prada bags, Gucci watches, and North Face jackets.
Coming back to Korea, it is not just us Brits that have this disease it has afflicted most of the Western world. When foreigners display 'the bulldozer effect' - this being a lack of sensitivity in handling touchy cultural situations - it is often directly related to looking good. One classic way of looking 'cool' is not caring about convention and doing things your way. Well, if people do that here, many Koreans will be offended, but then again they don't care, right? Offence is sometimes necessary, especially when there is injustice involved, but this is rarely the motivation behind most issues in Korea involving offence caused by foreigners.
English teachers living in South Korea provide an interesting experiment in status games because almost everyone is in the same boat; they have the same job, the same kind of apartment, and are mostly as unaware as each other of the culture in which they reside.
Now don't take this the wrong way but I always thought there was just something a little strange about many of the foreigners that come to Korea, some do not appear to be that genuine. Firstly, I should say that this does not apply to everyone I have met, but still a fair few fit into this bracket. This could be because they are in a foreign situation with no friends they have known for a long time, so they try too hard to impress. It could also be exactly because of the equality in jobs and lifestyles that they have to stand out somehow.
Some people who come to Korea to work have problems that are not of their own making as it is always a possibility (in any country) to meet unscrupulous people, but many create their own problems and this has a lot to do with the attitude they display in trying to elevate their status. Whatever happened to acting humble in a unfamiliar place?
Some people I have met in Korea have stepped off the plane in Incheon and approached each situation as bold as brass with a confidence and dare I say an arrogance which I could see would upset people, not only here but in any country. It is like stepping onto a football field having never played before and expecting to be on the same level as professionals. Everyone deserves respect but when the Western bulldozer comes through it must be hard for some Korean people to show it sometimes.
Finally, if anyone is having problems out there, you should know that status is so important here. If you accept the position of lower status and swallow your pride it can enable an escape from a variety of sticky situations. Transcend the brand names and status games in any culture and life usually tastes much sweeter, perhaps even more so in Korea.