Thought Catalog

Ways Northeast Asia Is The Future

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A couple of weeks ago my friends and I were walking through Hongdae, a fashionable, young district in Seoul, on our way to a concert. We came upon a crowd of 50 or so college-age kids, all wearing bulky headphones that covered their ears, dancing together in the middle of the thoroughfare. One of the kids had a flag that read “Silent Disco” and they were following him past the bars and restaurants they chanted to the LMFAO coming over their Bluetooth headsets. We watched them dance away, pumping their fists, chanting “shots, shots shots…” We didn’t need to join them. It wasn’t new to us and it really didn’t seem out of place at all. We’re used to it.

The time zone I live in is UTC +9. This means on Monday morning in New York, when people are beginning their day, I will already have come out on the other side. I’ll probably be at home learning how to make dumplings or drinking whiskey and watching a movie on my laptop. The time difference isn’t the only way that living here feels like the future. The major innovations in technology and manufacturing are coming from this part of the world. In Korea, where more than 80 percent of the population has an Internet connection, and it seems like even the elderly and pre-adolescents are early adopters, if you’re not a technophobe, or resistant to progress and our evolution as human beings, to live on the forefront of our adaptation to technology is fascinating.

It’s not just Korea. The last time I visited China, in both Beijing and Shanghai I met scores of young men and women who had moved there for the opportunity it offers entrepreneurs. The expat community in Seoul is dominated largely by English teachers for good reason—teaching gigs here can be excellent. But the expats in China are working a large range of jobs and they’ve been building their community into something interesting. In many ways China is the most dynamic of the East Asian countries simply because of the amount of opportunities. It’s the New Old Frontier.

When the economy of the country you live in fails you, and you have no sense of control or influence to change its course, then taking the time it needs to figure itself out to travel and live in a strange place like Japan or Korea or China isn’t a bad option. But if you’re coming, get here fast. Things change quickly. The rate of adaptation to technology, the speed at which Koreans integrate it into their lives is astonishing. South Korean researchers have developed a method of turning sound into electricity, so people will be able to charge their phones by talking into them. I tried to explain this at a dinner party the other night and the table just looked at me like I was talking about the Large Hadron Collider.

Of these three countries, for the futuristic element, for a place that really does look like Blade Runner, and where the street kids dress like they’re out of a science fiction novel, Japan cannot be rivaled. Yet, in a different way, what is the present for the people of these countries I hope is the future for the people of the West. These societies that were shaped by Confucianism have a quality to them that is the antithesis of long-held Western ideals.

Here it isn’t every man for himself. Here people won’t steal from you on the bus. Here there is a general sense of people being connected by more than just breathing the same air. Take the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the way the Japanese responded to it. It was remarkable the way there were no reports of rooting or lawlessness when millions needed food and medical attention. Imagine if something similar to that happened in the United States, where we are anything but united.

On February 20, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that “We’re living in the middle of an amazing era of individualism.” He went on to talk about how living alone means more time to develop talent and pursue personal interests. Yet David Foster Wallace and other contemporary thinkers have spent considerable effort in confronting this American ideal. It’s no secret that the individualism and self-reliance ideology that we’re taught as young Americans contributes largely to fundamental problems in the health of the States. From cowboy stories to MBA’s we’re taught that to be successful we have to be independent, ambitious, and often ruthless. We’re taught that single people are strong.

What I see over here is that many of those “personal independence” values are shunned. Being a loner is not a virtue. Loyalty is, and once you show it, you have built connections that are very hard to break. There are companies here that will not fire an employee. If a person doesn’t perform, or an entire team fails, management finds another place for them. In the West, if you don’t perform well enough people usually think it’s an internal problem, that the failing employee simply isn’t trying hard enough. That person’s usually fired. We don’t know how to take care of each other.

When I visit my friend in Korea who is married, has three kids, and also takes care of his mother, who is in her 90s, I always wonder if I could do it. If I could be human enough to bring my parents in when they get old and have them move into my apartment so I could take care of them. There are some Americans that raise children with large enough hearts for this, but how many elderly people live alone in retirement homes just so their kids can maintain their lifestyles? Should a person too old to start a new life have to live alone so you can feel “free?

I don’t know. All I know is I am constantly impressed by the way people here value others over themselves, and maybe one day, in the future, the rest of us will learn from it.TC mark

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  • Nishant

    Wow this is really wonderful. A very heartfelt and honest article. The values that you speak of apply equally to India wrt. not-alone living and taking care of elders. It is really great to see someone finally appreciate these blatantly non-American values.

  • Michael J. Fox

    Great portray of different and surely fascinating societies. But ‘the future’ is a bit too broad of a concept to be defined in such terms. Things come and go – and change fast as you mentioned.

    Once upon a time, ‘the future’ was newly industrialized Britain. Once upon a time, ‘the future’ was the USA… I personally think that what you are describing is actually ‘the present’. In many ways this article was a perfect description of where and how things are happening NOW. Wishing that things in the West were a bit more like the East seems to me a little biased. The west is great and our differences should be celebrated rather than diminished. In many ways, cultural traditions of huge parts of Asia make it feel very much like ‘the past’.

    I think ‘the future’ will be a lot more diffuse than portrayed here; with regionalisms implicating very little towards it. The future probably will be more like pockets of excellence spread out in various regions of the world and highly connected. Emerging markets (BRICS), educational powerhouses, natural resources, and technology are all good indicators of where those pockets of excellence are being developed. But really, who knows about the future?

    PS: Japan was the future in 1985.

  • Internetstrangeronemillion

    This is poorly-written, and I think conflating gadgetry with “progress as human beings” is horrifying.

  • Jo

    There are many wonderful things about Japanese culture. But there are trade-offs too–as there are in any culture–and you’re completely glossing over them. Again, I think it’s fine to celebrate the things you discuss here, and really, I agree. But don’t blind yourself and make Japan into a perfect fairyland of politeness and loyalty and the collective shouldering of burdens. These virtues come at a price, and right now you’re ignoring that entirely while focusing only upon that aspect on US culture–they’re still fair points to make about the US, but your presentation is skewed.

  • Katie

    Interesting article. The only way that the values of community will ever sustain themselves in the US is if they are cultivated in families and neighborhoods/communities. Despite popular belief, starting with government policies in hopes it will trickle down is probably not the answer. Be the changeee

  • Adrianna

    I’m thinking about studying abroad in Seoul (Yonsei or Korea U) and reading your accounts of living there makes me quite excited for my future semester in a different country! So thank you, for writing about some of the things that I will eventually have to learn and experience.

  • Mike T.

    Sorry, but this portrayal is just too idealized and shiny for me to hold any belief in.

    I’ve lived in Shanghai two years of my life a while ago- back then when it was on the cusp of booming, and even though I had a blast as a kid under the bright lights and great sights, it’s a big, bad city, without much regard for cleanliness nor courtesy, yet with a free spirit that cities like Singapore grandly lack. Still, the ethos of Chinese cities isn’t the kind that you find preferable to live in more than a month, especially as a tourist. (You will get scalped, manipulated, and looked at in an unsympathetic perspective.) 12 years later, I believe, amidst all the tearing down and building up, things might have changed- but probably not for the better.

    I’m actually doing the exact opposite right now- living in the States, visiting cities on weekends and breaks, and I can’t believe how nice people are *here*. The sheer fact that not everything is new, hypermodern and progressive does a lot to make American cities human, and you can actually *converse* with the people here just in a casual manner- unlike in say, Tokyo, Seoul or Singapore, where everyone is just too preoccupied and not bothered. 

    And if I could, I’d move to Detroit (authentic hipster cool) or Chicago (less hipster but equally vibrant) and live there for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I’d make a bad Engrish teacher here.

    So to speak, isn’t this all just ethnocentrism and grass-is-greener syndrome at work?

    • agreed

      I’d say it’s even “bigger, badder” today, especially in China. The capitalistic policies the government created (without the “social” side of capitalism) makes everyone hungry for money and only money. Lots of my relatives live Shenzhen, where this philosophy is especially rampant. There’s a huge new class of businessmen taking advantage of the boom, probably at the expense of the poor. I have to work hard not to be judgmental every time I visit. Asians are generally very shrewd even if it doesn’t seem apparent (probably as a result of competition since there are waay too many people living there). This combined with the government propaganda to promote wealth makes for a group of incredibly selfish people driven solely by monetary goals.

      • cobalt

        I also agree, as a Chinese-American person currently living in China (near Shanghai). I was surprised by the intense focus on profit at all costs that seems to currently permeate the culture. And “the way people here value
        others over themselves” does not seem to hold true on a broad scale. Perhaps true within family structures, it’s not quite true within the general public. China does have a lot of good along with it’s bad, but this article doesn’t even begin to delve beneath the surface to get to any of it. Also, China, Korea, & Japan are each so different that it seems difficult to see how discussing them as Northeast Asia would be useful in any way other than as a geographical description.

      • beatrice

        lol tell me about it, not to mention the businessmen from wenzhou woot woot

  • Petra

    I was hoping for a lot more from this article, because it’s a big and important topic, especially when it comes to politics  :(

  • beatrice

    “Here it isn’t every man for himself. Here people won’t steal from you on the bus. Here there is a general sense of people being connected by more than just breathing the same air. Take the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the way the Japanese responded to it. It was remarkable the way there were no reports of rooting or lawlessness when millions needed food and medical attention. Imagine if something similar to that happened in the United States, where we are anything but united.”
    Inaccurate in most northern asian countries, this is probably only a quality that is embedded in the Japanese. However, as you’ve mentioned in the later part of the article, yes asians do exercise filial piety. 

    Overall, coming from somebody who is asian and has lived in Korea, Shanghai and Tokyo for a couple of months each. Your impression though accurate to a certain extent, is falsely aggrandized. 

  • mcr

    I agree with what seems to be the majority of the comments: though intriguing, this article seriously glosses over some major issues in “Northeast” Asia. Yes, their gadgets are quite fancy and innovative, but if you take a step onto any train in Japan (where I am currently living) do you know what phone 80% of the people are holding? The iPhone.

    Some points I take issue with:

    -That all of these countries were shaped by Confucianism: That’s like saying all of Western culture is based off of Aristotle. Let’s get out of Asia Civ. 101 and start really analyzing each of these cultures. For one thing, Confucianism, though introduced to Japan hundred of years ago, only really became important in the Tokugawa period as a way of legitimizing the Tokugawa social structure.

    -As another reply stated, that gadgets equate to human progress. 

    -That collectivism solves all social ills. Sure, perhaps people from this region of the world are more inclined to take care of their parents in their old age. However, collectivism also has its downfalls, such as enormous social pressure that forces members of society to conform, offering no place for those who do not. This is especially troubling in times when free-thinking would be of great use to solving economic and social crises.

    All in all, this article seems to have been written by someone who, though admirably open to alternative view-points, is in the honeymoon phase of their time in Northeastern Asia. It’s a great place, with plenty of positive aspects, but let’s not turn it into some sort of utopia of the future.

    • jc

      Agreed. Definitely a Caucasian tourist’s romanticized version of Asia.  

  • Grammar Snob

    Stopped reading immediately after you confused “their” and “they’re.” Get your shit together.

  • Ethan

    Agreed with some parts, but also agree completely with the criticisms of this article: though the author seems to have picked up on the positive aspects of northeast asian cultures, they are far too generalized: Japan, South Korea, and China are all distinct societies with great social, political, and economic differences. Beyond that, though I can’t speak with much knowledge about Chinese or Korean culture, Japanese culture certainly has a fair number of problems that are not as present in the US. While I definitely would not go as far as to say the US is superior to the northeast Asian nations discussed in the article, each has its own downfalls. To say one is ‘the future’ is ignoring both the positive aspects of American culture and the negative aspects of Asian cultures. 

    Focusing specifically on Japanese culture, I recommend a good, fairly unbiased book titled The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture. It focuses on a number of elements of Japanese culture (both traditional and modern), how they differ from Western norms, and the positive / negative consequences of them on Japanese society.

  • Xiaowei_josh

    i think you present an idealized picture of life in some Asian countries.

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