Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Korean newspapers report this with shock, horror, and Confucian righteousness."

There's a lot of talk in America about keeping up with the Jones's. This is the idea that if your neighbor purchases a new vehicle or vacations in an exotic locale, you must do something similar to be seen as even with them. In South Korea, this concept has apparently been taken to a different level.
In the Korea of old, before Seoul was a steel-and-glass jungle and a major exporter of TV dramas and breakdancers, most weddings were humble affairs. Marriage was seen as a union between families, cemented through an exchange of modest gifts like clothing and blankets. These days, however, South Koreans lament that weddings have become symbols of greed and waste, as families try to outdo each other with extravagant offerings. Houses have replaced housewares, while fur coats are now standard presents for new mothers-in-law.

"It's become ridiculous," says Kyeyoung Park, an anthropology professor at UCLA. "Now it's all about who is winning the game." The race to the top has gripped South Korea's upwardly mobile and competitive society. For much of Korean history, two traditional values—Confucian moderation, and the need to gain face—balanced each other out, but today, the latter has acquired the upper hand. "Traditionally you would exchange gifts of clothes among the extended family," says Tony Michell, a business consultant who has lived in Seoul for decades. "These days, people are talking about apartments and cars."

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