Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea

Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea

Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea

Measured Excess: Status, Gender, and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea

Synopsis

This insightful analysis of the ways in which South Korean economic development strategies have reshaped the country's national identity gives specific attention to the manner in which women, as the primary agents of consumption, have been affected by this transformation. Past scholarship on the culture of nationalism has largely focused on the ways in which institutions utilize memory and "history" to construct national identity. In a provocative departure, Laura C. Nelson challenges these assumptions with regard to South Korea, arguing that its identity has been as much tied to notions of the future as rooted in a recollection of the past. Following a backlash against consumerism in the late 1980s, the government spearheaded a program of frugality that eschewed imported goods and foreign travel in order to strengthen South Korea's national identity. Consumption -- with its focus on immediate gratification -- threatened the state's future-oriented discourse of national unity. In response to this perceived danger, Nelson asserts, the government cast women as the group whose "excessive desires" for material goods were endangering the nation.

Excerpt

I went to South Korea for the first time in 1985 as an English teacher, responding almost on a whim to a small employment ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. At that time, in my imagined geography of Asia, the Korean peninsula hung somewhere close to Vietnam—two nations severed by the violence of the global ideologies of capitalism and communism, both wrenched apart by the same horizontal north-south divides in postcolonial civil wars, both battlefields where Asian and U.S. soldiers (among others) had tried to hold (or move) “the Line.” But I believe that if someone like me—someone as ignorant as I was at that time—were now, in 1999, idly flipping through the classifieds and encountered that particular listing, that person's imaginary map would place South Korea near Japan. The fact that this image corresponds more to geographical reality than my original misconception has more to do with changes in Americans' ways of portraying and perceiving that part of the world than it does with a more geographically sophisticated American society. In the years that have passed since I sent my résumé to Sogang University in Seoul for a job teaching English, the Republic of Korea, along with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore and more recently Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, has joined the group of nations first acclaimed in the media as “Asian Tigers” following the Japanese lead to trade-based economic prowess and now pitied and feared for their weakened condition in the wake of the “Asian flu.” Even the People's Republic of China is mentioned in the popular American press first and foremost as an economic behemoth, secondarily as a human rights problem, and then, generally only as an afterthought, as a military threat. As memories of old wars cool, new trade antagonisms are remapping international space, in both reality and imagination.

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