Several months ago I was walking through a small shopping centre in a town in Wales, UK, when I heard something that stopped me in my tracks: the song, “Kangnam Style” by South Korean pop star, Psy. Just the previous week, I had heard this same song on the other side of the globe in Seoul, South Korea, a place where one would expect to hear the song, being just a few miles away from the actual Kangnam he was singing about. But to hear it in South Wales left me astonished.
Kangnam Style, to me, represents one emerging aspect of globalization that Elliot touches on: the new individualism. That is, how individuals cope with pressures at the level of self-identity, an idea that is “centred on continual self-actualization and self-reinvention.” [i] As Elliot writes, “Today, this is nowhere more evident that in the pressure consumerism puts on us to ‘transform’ and ‘improve’ every aspect of ourselves: not just our homes and gardens but our careers, our food, our clothes, our sex lives, our faces, minds and bodies.” [ii]
One may be tempted to think of the song as nothing more than a catchy tune. However, Kangnam Style is more than that. It’s symbolic of this new individualism that Elliot talks about, revealing that new individualism is not merely a western phenomenon as Elliot claims. After all, Kangnam Style is the celebration of self-actualization and self-reinvention. Kangnam, the most affluent district in the megacity of Seoul, is both the plastic surgery mecca and education centre of the whole country. To live in Kangnam, you need to have money, and lots of it, plus a bucket of ambition. Kangnam represents these capitalist aspects of globalization at its best. No doubt a number of the women on his video got their plastic surgery from Kangnam too!
Around six years ago, while teaching at a university in Seoul, I remember talking to one female student who was about to graduate and launch into the working world. I asked her how she was preparing for job interviews, and I was surprised by her response. She informed me she was planning to have plastic surgery on her face and body a few months later and how she had already embarked on a strict diet ready for interviews. This, in her mind, was the most important factor in securing a good job: how she looked. Kangnam Style is symbolic of how many young Koreans think: the need to improve every aspect of their lives, from the inside out, in order to get ahead in life, a pressure that sadly leads many down the path of suicide.
As Elliot rightly mentions, we need to look at the very fabric of identity and personal life, in the face of globalization. Elliot’s ‘Natalie’[iii], a woman who grew up in the USA, has Taiwanese parents, UK citizenship and a boyfriend Ross who now lives in Finland, is a woman I sympathize with. However his question: To which society does she belong? is both important, yet at the same time, outdated. Natalie no longer belongs to one, specific society because her experiences have spread her life out so wide, there is no one society that she can understand or be understood by.
By way of personal example, my husband and I have lived in Southeast Asia for more than thirty years between us. Our two children, Olivia and Ben, have a Korean birth mother, a Dutch father and were educated in an American International School system. We are no ‘obvious’ looking family and our children feel it. They speak with an American accent, their dad Dutch, while I have a British accent. To add to this, we all grew up in different countries. To which society do we all belong? Our children feel the tension of their identity significantly. At Christmas time we will all gather together in our new Welsh home, a country foreign to my family, even to myself at times. Although I have returned ‘home’ to Wales, I have more than a ten-year gap with regards to its culture. Whenever I venture out into ‘local society’, I need to change the vocabulary and spelling I use so that people around me can understand me and so I don’t stick out. I encourage my welsh accent to redevelop, I dress down, and put a lot of effort into networking. And still it’s obvious that I don’t really belong. The fact is, like Natalie, my family and I no longer belong to one particular society, but we have developed understanding and skills which enable us to acclimatize to whatever society we happen to find ourselves in.
Of course this is just one important conversation in the whole dialogue of Social Theories, but I believe globalization influences many others including risk, gender and sexual issues, and conflict. We need to ask, what new societies are emerging, why they are emerging and how can we understand and shape them? While traditional society for many may remain the same, for others it has changed. Globalization is happening in many parts of the world, and there are practical consequences that need addressing. From the case of the Chinese man who sued his wife for being ugly and marrying him under false pretenses after he discovered she’d spent £62,000 on plastic surgery [iv] , to the Filipino man who spent sixteen years getting plastic surgery to look like his hero Superman [v], clearly we need to learn how to survive as global citizens by finding the means to anchor one’s identity securely, and not cave in to Kangnam Style.
[i] Anthony Elliot, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (Abingdon, Oxon. UK: Routledge, 2009), 337
[ii] Anthony Elliot, 337
[iii] Anthony Elliot, 1