Closing thoughts on Korea

I’m writing this several days after coming home, so some of my thoughts have faded, but I did jot a few topics down while I was on the plane. Not sure how they’ll pan out as I write about them. Let’s see.

The first thing is related to the comments on the Korean culture and economy I made toward the end of my last post. As an econ major, I heard all the time from my professors and textbooks that spending was the way for an economy to grow. GDP is a measure of a nation’s output, and output is the value of all the goods and services in the economy. If people buy stuff, firms make more goods to meet that demand. If people buy a lot of stuff, then firms sell a lot of goods and do better, hiring more employees and paying them more, meaning they now have more money to spend on more stuff, and so on. A recession (a decrease in GDP)  is just the opposite. People don’t buy, firms cut back on production and then fire people and cut paychecks, leading to lower incomes, which means people buy even less. During recessions, the government says that the way out is to spend more. The whole point of the recent stimulus program was to stimulate spending.

All this to say, it seems strange to me that a good, healthy economy supposedly requires an increasing rate of consumption. It seems strange that Christians would call such a healthy economy “blessed.” When there is a large middle class and more people own their own homes and have two or three cars in their driveways, Christians would call this “blessed.” But the only way for people to be able to achieve this prosperity is the consumption (consumerism?) of the rest of the nation. Only because so many people just have to have computers has the price for them gone down over the years and now so many people have laptops and netbooks. Because everyone is trying to keep up with the Joneses, now you have college students driving BMWs and Benzes, checking the stock market on their iPhones, taking thousands of pictures with their digital cameras (or DSLRs), clutching their (multiple) Coach or Louis Vuitton handbags, and wearing Hugo Boss suits.

A truly Christian nation (impossible but hypothetically speaking), I feel, wouldn’t be a “healthy” economy by the world’s standards. No Christian would (and no Christian should) spend and consume to the excess that today’s American urbanite does. But how happy such a nation would be! In Seoul, we stayed in Lotte Hotel in downtown, one of the best and most expensive hotels in the city. As this would most likely be my grandfather’s last trip to Korea (he’s 92 years old), we found it worth it to pay the premium to have the best accommodations, though our family (and church) finances are tight. One thing my father told me during our trip is that we need to learn to be content with both wealth and poverty, of having much and having little, of things expensive and things cheap. We remembered the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11-13: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” There is nothing wrong with reaping the benefits of having greedy consumers as neighbors–being able to afford nice clothes or an upscale dinner. But I hope that we would not indulge like the world does. To do so would take away from the glory God deserves, the God who enabled us to enjoy such “blessing.”

I enjoyed so much the hospitality of my grandfather’s brother’s family (my first cousins once removed [my father’s cousins] and my second cousins…5-chons and 6-chons!), especially the hospitality of some of the women. Even though my Korean sucked and I couldn’t communicate with my aunts and older girl cousins well, they were so warm and welcoming. Even when I was full or tired or it was late at night, they offered me fruits and ice cream and breakfast and orange juice and soda and offered to wash my laundry. So used to doing everything myself, it all made me feel so…loved. These little acts of service brought such joy to my heart. There’s something about a woman’s warmth, her voice, her expressions, and her gentleness that makes her so different. Different in a desirable way. Different in a way that makes me so thankful God made man and woman in His image. To have such a loving wife would make me so happy.

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