It’s always nice to see lip service being paid to humility and quiet confidence in East Asian countries, a region known for its obsession with status and putting up a front.
I’m referring to the fuss Taiwan’s media has been making lately over First Daughter Lesley Ma’s cargo pants, unmade-up face and unremarkable lifestyle as well as the fuss China made over Ambassador Gary Locke’s knapsack-toting, Starbucks-coupon-clipping, cheap-hotel-booking ways.
Of course it’s easy to be low-key and unpretentious when you’re the Harvard-grad daughter of the President with a hot model hubby or the former US Commerce Secretary and two-term governor of Microsoft’s home state — and everyone knows it. Not to take anything away from Ma and Locke, who both seem like genuinely secure individuals. But even the most level-headed civilians with no impressive credentials publicly overlayed over each of their public moments have a legitimate need to consider whether looking like a down-on-luck hitchhiker will help achieve our respective social and professional agenda.
My point isn’t to take anything away from the famous who studiously avoid pretension and fronting — probably the only sane course for people in their shoes. I’m merely noting the lavishness of the praise for the likes of Ma and Locke as a gauge of the prevailing social climate; it suggests growing resentment and even scorn for the advantaged who feel a need to play up that advantage. As I see it, that’s a first big step toward leaving behind the obsession with status that keep countries like Taiwan and China knocking up against the glass ceiling that separates the wannabes from the truly cool.
This isn’t to say there aren’t many Taiwanese or Chinese who are as secure in their skins as anyone in less status-obsessed societies, merely to suggest that even today way too many Taiwanese, Chinese, Koreans and other East Asians are stuck in the world’s wannabe zone. Blame it on generations of poverty and suffering under oppressive regimes. Or watching too many Hollywood movies and TV shows that manage to glamorize even the most trite and mundane aspects of American life in Cinevision and Dolby Sound.
Probably the best gauge of a society’s sense of security isn’t that its rich and famous try to act low key in public; it’s that the media don’t make a fuss about their perfectly normal desire to play down their status. I’m sure there was a time when the offspring of a US president who dressed and worked like a regular jane or joe were praised for their common touch or humility or what have you. But that day is long gone. Quite to the contrary, the US tabloid media are far more likely to poke fun at celebs who go overboard by sashaying around au frump or au bum than to fawn over them for picking up pickles at the supermarket.
Okay, unless you’ve just won the Best Director Oscar or something for a blockbuster movie and skipped the Oscar parties to grab burgers at a drive-in down the street. Now that’s truly cool!