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.