On Rich Young People Today…

…for a value of today dating back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s tenure as a governess, and courtesy of Ruth Brandon’s book Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres:

Mary found them quite uncultivated, with no topics of conversation other than dress, dogs and marriage.

To which Mrs. Jiwaku immediately exclaimed: “It’s Korea!”

Meaning South Korea, today. Except that in contemporary South Korea, it’s not just rich young people… not everyone is like this, but the middle class, and even the aspirational types in the lower class, are mostly precisely this way.

Well, okay, dress, dogs, Kpop, and marriage.

Which reminds me, one of the bits of the script for The Music of Jo Hyeja that made me proudest was a little jab at precisely this dynamic, where one of the character Miju’s friends, a brainless girl of precisely this sort, completely misunderstands her friend’s fascination with surreal, occult, otherworldly (Lovecraftian) music. “Oh, I know exactly what you mean!” she exclaims, and starts blabbering about some ridiculous K-pop group called “Boys’ Life.”

The gag being based not on the (WTF?) ultramodern version of the magazine, which I didn’t know about at the time, but rather the Boys’ Life of the old days, the magazine Norman Rockwell painted covers for:

RockwellBoys'Life

The above invokes for us a degree of camp that wouldn’t raise many eyebrows in Seoul… and, hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if some boy band actually had dressed up in those iconic scout uniforms–pure-blooded little Korean princes, instead of blond Aryan lads, of course, but the sentiment maps fairly directly; I imagine them being across the terrain of their cheese-laden music video, led by some rapacious corporate sleazeball or other, compass in hand…

Yeah, sometimes, the metaphors ride close to the surface, really.

Or this, which was by some painter I don’t know:

boys_life_192506

… which certainly plays into the infantilization I see in Kpop generally. (And nostalgic attitude towards early childhood common in Korea today, which feels a bit like what we imagine was the American one back in a long-gone age.)

If you’d like to see other Boys’ Life covers, there’s an archive at their site going all the way back to 1911.

7 thoughts on “On Rich Young People Today…

  1. Hmm. I don’t quite see the connection between nostalgic kitsch and brainless ditzes (Oh hey, I almost rhymed!) so this post seemed fractured in the middle to me. That said, everything you say jives pretty well with my own experience here.

    I think I remember first coming to college (one of the highest-ranked in Korea) and looking forward to lots of intellectual exploration and passionate discussions with some of the finest minds of my age. I don’t have to tell you I was disappointed real quick. In fact, I found my highest-achieving classmates the least likely to want to talk about topics requiring intellectual effort, preferring to spend what few leisure hours they had zoning out on reality TV, trendy dramas, and K-pop.

    I used to be judgmental about it, but now I understand, and even sympathize, better. I even wonder if my proclivity toward intellectually taxing pursuits in my free time is evidence that I don’t work hard enough at my “real job,” studying medicine. But I still have trouble wrapping my head around the concept that people limit themselves to such empty pursuits willingly, that they’re satisfied not experiencing the exhilaration of being exposed to new vistas.

    Also, some of my other experiences have given me a new take on that situation: I wonder if, in fact, all the small talk going on is just a veneer, because I was surprised at how so many unassuming kids are actually deeply passionate and involved in their own productive pursuits. They just don’t talk about them because any kind of deep discussion can potentially cause ripples to mar the perfect placidity of Korean social life. And no one is interested in listening, anyway.

    1. Hmm. I don’t quite see the connection between nostalgic kitsch and brainless ditzes (Oh hey, I almost rhymed!) so this post seemed fractured in the middle to me. That said, everything you say jives pretty well with my own experience here.

      Ha, in fact we had a lengthy discussion on the connection down here just the other day… I think the valorization of nostalgic kitsch produces brainless ditzes. But the point was more than there is a weird synergy between the rhetoric of contemporary K-pop (boy bands at all, and the fact that a boy band being called Boys’ Life is totally believable) and what is now nostalgic, kistchy schmaltz to us, but which people kind of took seriously back in the day.

      I think I remember first coming to college (one of the highest-ranked in Korea) and looking forward to lots of intellectual exploration and passionate discussions with some of the finest minds of my age. I don’t have to tell you I was disappointed real quick. In fact, I found my highest-achieving classmates the least likely to want to talk about topics requiring intellectual effort, preferring to spend what few leisure hours they had zoning out on reality TV, trendy dramas, and K-pop.

      I used to be judgmental about it, but now I understand, and even sympathize, better.

      I can’t quite get there, no mater how I try. I can see them as victims, but in the same way I see as a victim the woman who lives with a man who beats her, and whom she and everyone knows will probably kill her someday. Her ability to exercise volition may be constrained, and maybe there are no good options, but sometimes a close examination reveals someone refusing to make decisions, to self-preserve, and eventually, it’s like, “Pack your shit and move out, okay?” And when the answer is, “But I love him, and he loves me…” my sympathy just kind of runs dry.

      Well, not really, but at that point it’s important to start talking about codependency. I think some of those top-achieving people–excellent test-takers, to be sure–use that as an excuse to justify not trying in any other area of their lives. I’ve seen people like that myself, both in Korea and elsewhere.

      I even wonder if my proclivity toward intellectually taxing pursuits in my free time is evidence that I don’t work hard enough at my “real job,” studying medicine.

      Bu… but… William Carlos Williams!

      What’s my “real” job? SF writer? Musician? Teacher? Scholar? Husband? This “real job” thing is a very stifling, capitalist way of determining one’s identity, if you ask me… funny priorities and all that.

      But I still have trouble wrapping my head around the concept that people limit themselves to such empty pursuits willingly, that they’re satisfied not experiencing the exhilaration of being exposed to new vistas.

      Yeah. Though you raise a good point about the veneer, and a reluctance to talk. My wife is one example: she met a lot of dumbasses, in fact, the majority of people she’d met till last year fit into that category. Then she met film people… with, like, actual intellectual ideas, and interests, and things to talk about. It was like a system shock to her. So was going back to socializing with long-time friends who had nothing better to talk about than lipstick and dresses and boys. She’d assumed they were the norm… and in Korea, in a way, they are.

      Sigh.

      1. Bu… but… William Carlos Williams!

        What’s my “real” job? SF writer? Musician? Teacher? Scholar? Husband? This “real job” thing is a very stifling, capitalist way of determining one’s identity, if you ask me… funny priorities and all that.

        Hah! I love WCW. And good point, there are always a million parts each person is playing at a given time.

        It was like a system shock to her. So was going back to socializing with long-time friends who had nothing better to talk about than lipstick and dresses and boys. She’d assumed they were the norm… and in Korea, in a way, they are.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjxY9rZwNGU

        Here, if you want to talk about politics, or society, or philosophy, you’re seen as a party-pooper, even rude for trying to drag people into potentially compromising discussions. Part of it has to do with high social stakes that require people to walk around wearing poker faces all the time. And that I can understand. But I honestly think the rest is laziness, and even now I am less willing to excuse that.

        1. Who doesn’t love WCW? He’s a wonderful writer.

          Yes, Mrs. Jiwaku often would get the most inane, ridiculous reactions to any attempt to talk about anything of any real importance. “Why so serious?!?!?” was the approximate response most of the time. That video is a pretty excellent summary of the kind of attitude that dominated, and yeah, the party-pooper thing was what she described. High social stakes… yeah, though I don’t know: my wife experienced this shit even in closed groups of friends, where there was relatively little to lose. She perceived it in part as a kind of kneejerk reaction against discussing anything serious at all, as well, of course, as defensive nationalism. Which, you know, pops up in such baffling places at times that you tell yourself you won’t be surprised next time, and then, it pops out in yet another baffling way, and you’re like, damn, I thought it wouldn’t surprise me again.

          The kneejerk is laziness, but it’s also pretty clearly the result of a particular sort of brainwashing… and though it may be unfair, I can’t help but see linkages between the brainwashing and the (status quo perpetuating, bourgeois-novel-ish) high social stakes. To be a little fairer, I also see the same brainwashing when I look at the Victorians. (My wife has often told the story of how, while she does like some Korean authors, she went from reading Japanese books recommended by her classmates, to reading “classic novels” recommended by her elder brother… and discovered that Victorian novels and even Tolstoy’s Russia in War and Peace bore a stunning resemblance to early 21st-century Korea.

          1. (To be fairer still, there are ways in which people in all societies are “brainwashed” about some things. But I tend to think of the need for a top-down, institutionalized system of (usually conservative) propaganda across many institutions (education, newsmedia, entertainment, literature, etc.) as necessary before I’ll use the word without scare quotes.)

  2. And when I say I understand my classmates better, it’s because, under stress and exhaustion, I find my own intellectual life deteriorating along those lines: for quite a while I spent most of my free time browsing shopping sites, or actually shopping (when I have the money, that is). No less shallow, so I’m afraid I’m being hypocritical.

    Even then, though, the high from having made progress on my writing, having read a new book with exciting ideas, or deep conversation is irreplaceable, if I can just get around to it, and so I’ve been trying to practice what I preach lately, and read more, study more, write more.

    1. Ha, yeah, well… one cannot be a gourmet all the time, about everything. I also do a certain amount of brainless consumption of media, the net, etc. I try minimize it, but there’s a firehose pointed at me.

      Like you, it’s the high I get from the good stuff that gets me to focus harder on using my time on that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *