In the midst of high unemployment, rising living costs and intense education, online memes condemning Korean society have spread like wildfire; one of which is ‘the spoon theory’. According to this viral concept, wealth and social status is ranked into gold (금), silver (은), bronze (동) and soil/dirt (흙).
Which Spoon Are You?
Much like the English idiom ‘born with a silver spoon’ where silver cutlery was a symbol of wealth, the gold spoon represents the wealthiest and most privileged people in Korea. The silver spoon is a relatively wealthy family with $1-2 million in assets and are the top 3% of the population. The bronze spoon represents 7.5% of the population with an annual salary of $50 -80,000. Other than saving and living frugally, life is comfortable. The dirt spoon represents the rest of the population. These are low income working class families which are unable to financially provide extra tuition or other luxuries.
How ‘Gold Spoon’ Quickly Became An Insult
Someone with a gold spoon ‘geumsoojuh’ (금수저) has inherited many benefits (mainly wealth) from their prosperous family background. The term has seeped into common vernacular as a derogatory comment, as it implies being spoilt and not hard working. This is due to the the lower classes’ growing resentment who believe that they could have been successful too if they had the same opportunities as the gold spooners. In other words, despite their hard work, Korean society only caters to the rich. Everyone wants to believe that they have worked hard for their success and wealth, so to be labelled as having a ‘gold spoon’ disregards their efforts.
Our Infuriated Young Adults
At school, society promised that every bead of sweat they produce when you are young, will prevent every tear drop when they are old. They were promised wealth, happiness, security and freedom (everything their childhood lacked), if they sacrificed everything.
But, no jobs and no money have come their way.
Young people are angry at the injustice of society and empty promises. It’s hard not to empathise with them, and it is no surprise that they would vent their frustration at the successful people who have received special treatment from family connections. Many feel doomed.
The Ugly Truth
Society is partly to blame. It is a publicly acknowledged opinion that life in Korea is easy with money, as money can solve all your problems. Wealthy children have access to expensive extracurricular tuition and can have international education. These are all very important to land a job. Powerful parents can pull strings to give their children opportunities and experiences. Admittedly, parents play an important role in the quality of modern life in Korea due to tough competition in modern society. However, it is not all the fault of society. Blaming others on one’s misery is unfortunately common.
Comparison And Self-Loathing
Striving to be better and be the best is in Korean blood. Naturally, this means dissatisfaction in one’s current position as you must, always be looking and striving for more. This outlook is useful as it fuels work ethic, however it also encourages dwelling on one’s misfortune. The idiom ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ is reflected in the Korean idiom ‘Another person’s rice cake always looks bigger‘ (‘남의 떡이 커보인다’). Envying and comparing with someone better than you is supposed to be a healthy way to fuel passion in Korean society.
Not everyone is ungrateful. Some people are extremely thankful, despite only been given a dirt spoon. As one netizen commented that they have been provided dirt by their parents to become a strong tree. While this individual is inspirational, they are in the minority. Most children born in poverty are dissatisfied.
A positive perspective on life seems to be an important factor whether one is wealthy or not. Constant competition and seeking satisfaction through comparison will not lead to happiness, instead we must teach ourselves and our children inner happiness (자기만족). But telling that to struggling youths now is impossible and futile. For now everyone must relentless struggle forward, preferably without petty insults.
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