You grow up your entire life thinking, no, knowing that North Koreans are some of the poorest, most malnourished, most evil bad guys in the world. Now imagine this: Friday night after work, a North Korean refugee takes me out to eat 삼겹살 with 소맥, K-BBQ with beer and soju. He doesn’t let me pay because I am younger, even after I insist. He says, “this is Korean culture.” I take out $20 and respond, “this is American culture,” to which he grabs my money, shoves it back in my hand with an additional $200 and says “you are in Korea.”
It wasn’t just him who gave me money. People I’m not even related to, people I had never met before, gave me cash for no reason. I genuinely tried to reject it, but it doesn’t work that way in Korea. As a young Korean American, I get free food and drinks. I get discounts I don’t ask for. I am absolutely not trying to gloat. I’m really not. I’m trying to explain a cultural phenomena that has helped Koreans support each other economically.
Technically, I’m an unpaid intern. That being said, I made more money in a night of drinking than I did working 20 hours as a paid intern. I've worked unpaid twice before for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and PBS NewsHour Weekend. You might think that by now I’ve moved beyond this point, but here I am, my third unpaid internship. Don’t get me wrong. I do value myself. I’ve been paid for my work before. But I’m also from Tennessee. I’m a proud volunteer. I give blood when I can. I buy cheap meals, like halal or dollar menu items, for hungry New Yorkers. I also have very little shame when it comes to mooching off of my fellow NYU classmates whose parents over-purchased their meal plans (hehe).
I’m extremely fortunate to have grown up fairly well off. My parents and grandparents blessed me with a life relatively free from the pressures of money. I write this to explain that I am lucky to have a sturdy foundation, which I realize not everyone has. My lack of incentive to make huge profit margins might bite me in the ass down the road, but hey, capitalism is changing. There are more important things to me than money. This is how I grew up. Even though financial success is not my top priority, even though I am still an unpaid intern, I have faith that the community around me will not let me fall as long as I am giving it my all. There is a reason that South Korea has become such a wealthy nation. Koreans support each other. The most valuable way to prosper as a community, is as a community.
I know, I know, Shawn. Don’t be so idealistic. Okay. So let’s be real. In 1953, Korea was dirt poor. I mean literal dirt. You remember Gangnam style? It used to be dirt. Samsung, LG, Hyundai? All dirt. America in the 1950s, on the other hand, was doing quite well. They gave quite a bit of money to South Korea, as did the United Kingdom and other Cold War capitalists.
Mathematically, there are a couple ways to understand this. One way to you can see it is as a purely additive equation, as if international finance is zero sum. Simply, when America gave money to Korea, the USA lost money while Korea gained money. Sally gives Sam ten bucks, now Sally is ten bucks short. As you can imagine, it is way more complicated than this. Both nations are far better off today than 60 years ago, despite America's “donation.”
So, the other way is to look at it like an investment. The capitalist world invested money into South Korea, and both sides made exponential gains. South Korea is now one of the richest nations in the world, and so is America. Furthermore, Americans get the added benefit of influence in the east. Oh, and Korean BBQ, K-dramas and K-pop. If American aid to Korea is thought of as an investment as opposed to a charity, then it makes more sense how the financial contributions to what was once a dirt poor nation could benefit the leader of the free world.
My point is I don’t think the problem of wealth disparity, global or national, is simply a problem of distribution. I think the bigger problem is a lack of willingness to support the worldwide community. Although America spent part of its gains on rebuilding South Korea, the trade relations between the two countries have been worth it. In this way, the international community did not let Korea fail, and it paid off.
To give a more American example of community economics, Killer Mike’s movement in Georgia to buy and bank black is supporting local people who need business. The idea is that black Americans need to make sure their money is circulating within their own communities. Just as my extended Korean family supports me, an unpaid college intern, Killer Mike is encouraging a similar support network. If you maintain your wealth within your own circles, you never really lose money. It will come back.
And it’s not like it will hurt those on top. If African Americans stop buying products from companies with white executives, it doesn’t mean the white community will suffer. That’s not the point at all. The point is that Killer Mike wants the black community to invest more in itself. This idea goes as far back as the Civil Rights Movement, even farther back to the Depression. Housewives’ Leagues in Detroit and Chicago were groups of women who would encourage their neighbors to buy only at black businesses. Is it racist? Is it survival? Or is it just being a good neighbor? Does it matter? The leagues helped get their friends and family through difficult times.
This is why I think that the American decision to deny former slaves reparations was a mistake. Our most wealthy people did not invest in its poor, and did worse by creating animosity between our country’s most influential races. Instead of capitalizing on an opportunity, a promise, that could have strengthened our nation’s foundation, the leaders of the country chose to hold onto their own wealth and position. Imagine if everyone did that. Nothing would circulate. Labor should earn pay, but more importantly, communities need to stick together.
I’m not saying people need to donate all their hard earned money. I’m saying people need to be more selective as to where it goes. Ask, “who am I supporting as I take this Uber?” Put your money in places that will give it back to you. Don’t simply give, circulate. Whether it be capitalists helping capitalists, Koreans helping Koreans, blacks helping blacks, or Americans helping Americans doesn’t matter. When I was eating with my North Korean defector friend, I felt the familial connection. I may not be paid, but I feel invested.