Henry Update (per request)
A lazy Saturday afternoon on Itaewon’s golden mile. I nurse my beer as Henry drinks what appears to be a Honey Butter Selfie-Stick Churro Macaroon Latte from Starbucks. Why he needs so much sugar and caffeine on a Saturday afternoon, I will never know. Ever since Henry’s Itaewon blowout last month, his wife Ji-young has put him back on the Korean husband allowance system (KHAS), whereby he has no access to credit cards and is given a mere 10,000 won per day on which to subside. I’ve never understood this Korean tradition whereupon getting married, the male hands over his entire salary to his wife, and is given back a pittance in the form of what we western folk would call and ‘allowance’.
The prevailing sexist ideology used to defend this age-old practice is that men are reckless and free-spending, and will ruin their families financially if they are allowed access to their own money; money they earn by toiling around their offices for OECD record-crushing work hours while still maintaining puzzlingly low levels of productivity. Henry seems to have proven this sexist generalization to be true, at least in his case. Furthermore, with his limited 10,000won per day budget, I also find the purchase of a Starbucks Honey Butter Selfie-Stick Churro Macaroon Latte to be a bit extravagant. Aside from the occasional blow-out, Henry has been pretty good with money, or so he says. “Hey man, I once saved my allowance money for 3 months to buy a baseball glove. Ate nothing but company cafeteria food, and walked to work everyday! Ji-young thought I was taking the bus, but nope, I was pocketing that 1,600 won.”
Three months of saving his allowance to buy a baseball glove? This man is nearly 40 years old. Sadly, my Korean colleagues, for the most part, live under this type of wage slavery system; lives controlled entirely wives by pinching the flow of ‘pocket money’ down to a trickle. Ironically, in Korea, it is men who are expected to diligently save for years in order to provide their nothing-in-the-bank, materialistic girlfriends with the apartment and wedding of their dreams. More often than not, the bride brings nearly nothing to the table financially, having frittered all of her cash away on overseas trips with girlfriends, shopping, etc. If the groom is lucky, the wife’s parents will provide furniture for the apartment.
This is one reason why the whole men-can’t-handle-money argument starts to get poked full of holes. A guy who saves up for 5-8 years for a wedding and apartment, suddenly after putting on a wedding ring, is no longer capable of saving money? Instead, his wife, often times jobless, rarely with a degree in finance, accounting, economics etc, is entrusted with the family’s entire financial portfolio. I ponder this as Henry downs the last of his overpriced coffee.
A female coworker tells me that she was in a PC room playing Starcraft when her grandfather died, and that her parents couldn’t get her to leave the PC room because she was in the middle of a game. This was in the late 1990’s. Another female coworker tells me she thinks that the big boss is having an affair; no she’s almost certain. No, it’s actually an open secret. Rumors abound that chairman Kim is using company funds to pay the lease on a car that mysteriously, nobody has ever seen. His wife already has a car, his loser kangaroo-baby son doesn’t have a driver’s license, and the big boss hasn’t stopped driving his own car despite it being three generations out of date. So where, then, is this new leased car that shows up on company accounts? Chairman Kim has been looking a bit happier these days, and taking longer lunch breaks. I’d like to criticize his lack of morals, but morals, ethics and running a profitable business in Korea do not go hand in hand, as they might say. So the big boss is practicing his immorality both in and out of the office now, who am I to complain? I’ve met the wife and son before, and I’m surprised it took him this long to find a girlfriend on the side.
I scan the parking lot for vehicles matching the description of the one on company accounting records, but alas the mystery vehicle is not in the company parking garage. Chairman Kim appears to be playing it safe, and outsourcing his liaisons.
‘Slow down, Dipshits!’ -Korean Government
The WSJ (whose fine publication I’ve been stealing from Korean hotel lobbies for nearly a decade) have recently published a piece outlining how the Korean government is trying to get everyone to ‘slow down’, even when it comes to so-called recreational things, like hiking in the mountains. After the Wall Street Journal deep-sixed it’s Korea Realtime website, I figured we’d see even fewer articles about Korea from them, but I guess I was wrong. The WSJ and other foreign media companies that cover Korea but are headquartered outside of Korea have the wonderful advantage of being brutally honest without fear of reprisal.
The article summarizes what anyone who has lived in Korea could have probably ascertained on their own; that Koreans cannot give up their ‘Me First Me First’ culture, even when it comes to formerly non-competitive things, like mountain hiking. Instead of enjoying their leisure time, breathing in the fresh air and enjoying as much time outside of their Daewoo Heavy Industries plastic coffin box apartments as possible, the locals have turned hiking into a pushy, shove-y, all-out race to the top of the mountain where they line up to take group photos at the peak before quickly rushing back down to the bus stop, the shouting, the traffic and the chaos of daily life. Oh yeah, and they do all of their speed-hiking in grossly overpriced, hideous ‘look-at-how-much-I-spent’ hiking gear in every shade of neon imaginable.
So what does it mean when a society takes something that is meant to be relaxing, and turns it into something unrewarding, stressful, rushed and expensive? Well, one could venture a guess. When a society takes a leisure activity and makes it into a miserable contest where participants compete to outspend and outpace each other to the top of a mountain for the sole purpose of gloating, taking a selfie, and immediately descending, it might indicate that these people are not in truth comfortable with being happy, and that they actually thrive on stress and misery. Perhaps Koreans are so accustomed to stress and misery that they have to generate stress and misery in situations that would normally be devoid of such things. And the ridiculous ‘look-at-me-I-spent-more-than-you’ childish culture of gloating about over-consumption and overspending is actually just a laughable race to the bottom. The hiker who spends the most on their hideous hiking uniform doesn’t thrive on the knowledge that others admire them, they thrive on the knowledge that they are creating envy and misery by raising the bar of consumption among their peers. The more you spend, the more you make other people miserable with envy, and the end result is that to escape their misery, everyone else spend-spend-spends hundreds of dollars on gaudy hiking uniforms.
The same basic pattern is readily observable in any type of past time that is publicly engaged in. Camping, for example. Another past time that most would consider to be relaxing. Get your tent, get your sleeping bag, get your BBQ and get as far away from the pollution of the big city as possible. Or, you can do it Korean style, by buying a $2000 tent, $900 BBQ, $400 cooler, and four $120 camping chairs, loading the family into the car and driving to the most densely populated artificially constructed camp site you can find, preferably as close to the polluted city center as possible, where you will then setup your $2000 tent 1 meter from another family with another $2000 tent. Your kids will be screaming and running around between bouts of smart-phone gaming.
Your wife will spend most of her time avoiding the sun and humble-bragging on Instagram with photos of your wonderful luxurious camping life while you show off your $900 BBQ grill to the family next to you, who bow their heads in shame because they could only afford the face-losing $700 grill. Your $900 grill next to their $700 grill clearly highlights your elevated (pretend) social status. All the while, large Korean companies laugh all the way to the bank because they are charging you obscene prices that people in rich countries would laugh at and call preposterous. Congratulations, you’ve won. Well, you’ve won until some other family shows up with a $1000 grill and you have to dig into your savings or burn a hole in your credit card to keep up with them.
So then, why do so many activities have to be a race to the bottom spending contest, a cheapened ‘me-first’ experience? Is it possible for misery and suffering to be culturally ingrained? Can this nonsensical behavior be un-learned? The article seems to think it will take around a decade to see any real change, which I think is optimistic.