Tuesday, November 17, 2009

There But By the Grace of ...

The longer I live, the more acutely I am aware of the role of randomness in the circumstances of birth, and what the "luck of the draw" leads to. I was born in America during the headiest days of the American century--by the happenstance of being plopped down in the first world, I have had education, opportunity and resources unimaginable even now to about 90% of the people on Earth.

I think--I hope--people who know me believe I am basically a happy guy. I don't complain a lot, and when I do it's with the understanding that this is minor, that things could be worse. In fact, my biggest complaint these days is that my house has not sold--yet I am one of the fortunate few on earth that even owns a home!

I'll become 48 years old in two weeks time, and my biggest tangible problem is that I have too much! While it is not my intent to low-ball the financial difficulties of this situation, I am saying it could be worse. Much worse. I don't live in a refrigerator box, and I don't collect cardboard from the streets and haul it to the recycling center in heavily-laden carts for a few hundred won per kilogram.

Yet there are thousands of Koreans who do just that--and they are elderly halmoni and halabogi (grandmothers and grandfathers) who, simply through the circumstances of their birth, are not eligible for most of Korea's social security benefits. They were born too long ago, or they can't provide evidence of their place of birth.

And even they must be grateful--assuming they know it--they were not located 40 or 50 km north of Seoul, north, that is, of the 38th parallel, when the cease fire was declared in 1953. But here's my point--so must I.

And yet, Westerners like me seem to feel we are a special case, that we constitute a special class, an entitled class. I have never had to squat over a trough toilet (oh, I've squatted in the woods more than once, but that was matter of choice, more or less), much less grow up doing it daily, with members of the neighborhood right there alongside me. Budae jjigae is for me (and today's middle class Seoulites) a sort of comfort food, not the rare feast it was for war-impoverished Koreans scavenging the waste bins of Camp Johnson and other US bases.

Even in the 1970s, economic tough times, most Americans could count on tins of tuna and boxes of noodles as a minimum standard meal. While we complained, we could still spare a few cents to feed the starving masses in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 80s, the rich got rich richer, and the rest of us improved our lot, too--every home had a microwave oven and VCR player. Bought on credit, but still ...

I am drawn back to the image of elderly Koreans who are grateful if you leave the packing box from your new microwave where they can be the one to add it to their cart, their take, the meager daily toll they claim for twelve or more hours work.

The longer I live, the more acutely I am aware of the luckiness of my high level of general health, education, economic power, and control over my circumstances. For over twenty years, I lived in the same ZIP code in semi-rural Georgia--I found life there quite acceptable, it's fair to say. Here I am in Seoul, Korea, and I'm liking this place pretty well, too. Now I realize I am me, and you are you and he is him and all that, but I decide it. Some people--well, most of humanity--don't get that choice.

So, when I read of people living here (people from outside Korea) who spend the majority of their time complaining about it, whining about the theoretical constraints they feel, wanting to make this place into the place they come from (or the place they think they come from), I don't really connect to that. Like me, they have led a life of privilege, and are in a better position to change their lives than, say, almost any Korean.

Life is too short to be miserable. Quit whining, and do something to improve your life. Or change your attitude. In the words of Eubie Blake: "Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds."


P said...

Hear hear. We all need to shed our sense of entitlement, take a good look at the big picture, and count our blessings once in a while.

Adam said...

Thanks for another great post. I started reading your blog last summer when planning a trip to Korea. Now I read it for the window it offers into life in Seoul and because of your insight and tone. Also, I'm hoping to embark on a new career teaching English in Japan next year, so I've also been enjoying your posts on education. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

I've been following your stories from the start and I think this is one of the best, if not the best, expat blogs. Happy birthday in advance, Tuttle-Sunsaengnim!

I almost forgot about Leonid meteor shower tonight. Thank you for accidentally reminding me. ;-)

-A Korean

조안나 said...

Even just from what I see of my friends around me I always seem to be lucky. If there's something I want to do, it just works out. I have never had to scrape for money, even though I come from a lower middle class home. My mom has been lucky since she inherited our home, that she's never had mortgage payments. I've never seen my bank account drop below 1,000 dollars. I look at most of my friends, either here in Korea, or at home. Most of them are recent grads and most of them are just scraping by. They all owe exorbitant amounts for their student loans that they can never hope to pay back in less than 20 years. And many don't even have a graduate degree yet. Why am I so lucky that I have the leisure of sending home money whenever I feel like it to pay my loans? I have no idea... My best friend is working at mcdonalds because it pays better than anything she can get with her degree. I can't help but feel embarrassed to talk about my travels, because that's something that she may never experience for lack of money.

Bucheon Matt said...

love reading your blog and i cannot agree more. it seems that people just want to tell friends about their "adventure" living over here but in reality all they do is complain about the lack of mexican food and other things from back home. keep it up. also like reading about your baseball and sports adventures. me and my friends are the same way.

Tuttle said...

Thank you all for your comments. They were very heartening!

RealityZone said...

HAT TIP !!! Well said.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

This blog should be required reading for all the 20-something whiners and complainers.