I went back to the US this summer to see my family. The culture shock was, predictably, deeper than when I returned to the US while I lived in Europe in the 1990s. The cultural gap between Korea and the US is deeper than that between Europe and the US. So I feel like I noticed more this time. So here are a couple of thoughts.
1. Americans are really fat. I struggle with junk food as much as anyone, but my fellows citizens seem to be just giving up. Koreans are the slimmest people in the OECD (or at least, that’s what they tell me, and they look it), and the difference with Americans is really apparent. My girlfriend came home with me, and she was routinely shocked by the sheer girth of so many of us. We both picked up on it almost immediately as we entered the airport. A news report I saw said that 40% of Americans are obese now, not just overweight. A doctor friend said this is evolving into a ticking time bomb. In about 30 years, when all these people hit 60, the public health burden will be staggering – on top of all the other entitlement/health care problems already. The IR scholar in my can’t help but think this is bad in the long term for US power. As hegemons age they are supposed to become more sluggish and complacent, and they US population is certainly showing that. How can you lead when half your people struggle to get off the sofa? My only consolation is that Europeans and Asians especially smoke a lot. That is their own public health drain. Is it macabre to suggest that US tobacco exports to China aid long-term US power?
2. Fox News and the American Right is even more insane now than I have read about. I made a point to watch Glenn Beck, O’Reilly and Hannity while I have was home. One of the most important consequences of the GOP’s defeat last year is the opportunity for a post-Bush reconstruction. When parties suffer from major defeats like the GOP in 2006 and 2008, or the Labour Party from 1979 to 1997, it calls for a serious philosophical rethink. Labor did this and successfully modernized itself (i.e., dropped socialism after Thatcher and the end of the Cold War) under Blair. But the GOP seems to want to drive itself further and further into the wilderness. The lesson the GOP has drawn from the defeat of Bushism is that it was not pure and conservative enough. Instead of tracking to the center, the GOP is vearing even further to the right to purify itself. Instead of coming to terms with the major social changes brought on by Obama, his postracial challenge, and the Great Recession, the GOP would rather recite dated, toxic bromides. So Glenn Beck is saying Obama is a racist; Palin calls ObamaCare ‘evil’ and says it includes ‘Death Panels’ (i.e., end-of-life consultations); and the bloggers are claiming he is not a US citizen. Are you serious? This is the state of conservative commentary at a time of massive government expansion? Even the WSJ’s op-ed page is staggeringly uncreative. If this persists, serious middle class professional people will abandon the GOP. These kind of people voted for for Bush because they thought Clinton was sleazy and then to fight the GWoT. But if the GOP becomes regularly indentified with managerial ineptitude in government (Iraq, Katrina, ‘evil’ healthcare), then serious professionals will vote for Democrats. I consider myself in this group. I voted and worked consistently for Republicans in the 90s, since W’s election, I have drifted further and further. And if Fox News and talk radio become the ideological organs of the post-Bush right, then I will never go back.
3. The Great Recession is far more noticeable in the US than Korea. First, it is in the news a lot more at home. Second, people talk about it a lot more in the US. My parents and friends at home made regular reference to it in conversation, but friends and colleagues here rarely do. Third, one can see all those ‘house for sale’ signs all over the place. The real estate market in Korea does not work this way, so this very obvious and public marker of the GR is not evident. Koreans mostly live in high-rises, as I do. In general the GR has been lighter and shorter out here than at home. No one talks about 10% unemployment here; they’d be rioting in the streets (be sure to look at the picture).
4. American food is not that bad after all. Food is an important part of Korean identity, and Koreans occasionally cite as healthier and tastier than US food when they need something to throwback at an American in a conversation. And indeed, the American food in Korea is awful; its almost universally junk food chains like Burger King. So I had forgotten how good some American food is – deli sandwiches, microbrews, summer BBQ chicken. Korean food is certainly healthier on average than US food. I accept that, and I don’t care much. (Koreans do; they are nationalist about food, along with almost everything else). Unfortunately the American food that is exported is almost always the worst fast food, like KFC or McDonald’s. My sister laughed out loud when I told her that even Popeye’s Chicken is in Korea. This is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that most US cuisine is that sort of greasy, salty junk. But my family, friends, and colleagues in the US rarely ate fast food; most Americans seem to be aware of how bad it is for you; and there are a lot of non-fast food restaurants in the US. So the Cheesecake Factory, e.g., is unfortunately not in Korea, and I have never seen a proper (Jewish) deli here either. I always thought one could make a fortune in Korea if one opened a good western restaurant.