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Economic Disparity

By Joh Hyeon-ah
Columbia University

I especially loved my $15 camel muffler. Not knowing that it was an imitation of the $200 Burberry original, I had cherished it. Having never seen Burberry, Cartier, and Dior boutiques before, my middle school friends and I romped along shabby street stalls, as if we were gorgeous ladies strutting down 5th Avenue. Our own Central Park was actually a stinky garden of pear orchards near windowless housing projects.

With these friends I giggled over Austin Powers, chattered about Pokemon, and roared at N'sync's every gesture. Everything was hilarious- but still, there was something missing. When the news broke that Iraq was blazing from missile attacks, I thrust newspapers at my friends, blurting out, is this the only way? Without a word, they stared at me not only with their eyes glazed over but with a sly hint that I was being a snob. Their indifference to missiles was more unbearable than the missiles themselves. Feeling out of place during their empty chitchats, I sought for my own refuge by apply to one of Korea's most prestigious high schools.

At Daewon high school, I felt like a cowgirl in New York. Discussing Anton Chekhov's light touches, Parisian hedonists in La Traviata, and the nuclear crisis in North Korea with new friends, I tasted new delights. However, their enthusiasm for culture became overwhelming when it came to obsessions with Chanel perfumes, Armani watches, or Hudson jeans. Once again, I felt I didn't belong. When my high school friends asked me my favorite sushi bar, I could only smile back awkwardly, as recurring thoughts of my middle school friends hardened my throat. My heart became heavy, as I remembered how my middle school friends couldn't imagine going to such exquisite places.

Ridiculous! A high-pitched voice cracked, as the government announced its new policy to stabilize inflating real estate values and ease economic disparity. My high school friend was shrieking that the policy would lower her house's price. Couldn't she, though, living in Korea's Beverly Hills, spare a bit for others? While she indulged in the company of Korea's high society at Dior fashion shows, there were kids- my middle school friends- who had to work for their tuition. From then on, the memory of their blushing faces when I happened to see them selling sandwiches on the streets, lingered in my mind. As I retraced my middle school years, these recollection, coupled with my blaming them for not reading the classics and newspapers, haunted me. I had been wrong. Although I knew that the reality of their lives compelled them more to work than to study, I had unfairly expected them to have broader interests. I then realized that I was unfairly judging my friends at Daewon, as well. How could they, never having experienced the plight of the less fortunate, sympathize with my middle school friends, when even I had now just come to this realization?

I had been certain that my friends?academic laziness and materialism had driven me away from them, compelling me to fit in no where. While in fact, I had been the one pushing them away. I had looked down on them, dismissing their apathy to cultural enrichments and economic hardships as simply ?shallow.?I realize now that economic disparity had limited them from appreciating and sympathizing with the lives on other sides, while I had been given the opportunity to see and experience both worlds. Awakened by this understanding, I can now laugh wholeheartedly with my middle school friends, debate passionately with my high school friends, feel comfortable in both worlds, and hope to one day bridge the two together.

Joh Hyeon-ah  Columbia University

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