A recent article in a Korean newspaper (중앙일보) covered the story of Yul Kwon, the winner of Survivor: Cook Islands and currently working in the FCC. It’s a brief interview of how he came to become successful, from his high school years (during which he campaigned for his dying friend diagnosed with leukemia) to his current position as the Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. I’ve always liked the guy and admire his achievements, the most notable being his victory at Cook Islands and shattering the Asian stereotype prevalent in the States (he says himself his major goal in Cook Islands was to show kids that Koreans can also become effective leaders).
But the article’s structure and its strong implication that success equals prestige/fame/achievements (not necessarily a false equation but one often too drilled into South Koreans) is rather cringe-inducing. A line of his acievements–“Stanford, Yale, McKinsey/Google, Obama camp, FCC…”–is a give-away of what the article is really going to focus on. The first half includes Kwon’s advice to students in Korea which comprises of cliches such as “Work and study hard,” “Learn leadership skills,” “Make a good mentor,” and “Evaluate your achievements.” I can imagine the reporter, with a worshipping glint in his eyes, asking him how aspiring Korean students can become like him. I’m not sure whether Kwon is fluent in Korean but assuming he spoke in English, there must have been some changes in nuance and tone as the interview went through translation. What kids really need to know about, shadowed by a daunting list of Kwon’s achievements, is placed at the end of the article.
This is something I’d like to come back to in the near future. It’s a rather unhealthy, I think, obsession that’s palpable in Korea, particularly in prosperous areas like Gangnam where individuality dies in the face of a rigid system of meritocracy. I lived there for about 3 years and, trust me, it’s not a place where you want to spend your childhood.