Winners and Losers

Industrial EverettToday a middle-aged Korean woman and I learned that American culture divides people into winners and losers. Or so her ESL textbook assured us.

Americans view life as a “race for success,” the textbook authors claimed. Those who play the game well are rewarded. And those who don’t? They can feel useless and devalued, since Americans believe their destiny lies within their own control rather than allowing for, as in many other cultures, the role of luck and environment.

She adjusted her glasses. We leaned over the page and pondered the snapshot that the editors had selected to illustrate this. Two men, one black and one white, both wearing polo shirts and wristbands, leaned over a tennis net and shook hands. They could have been businessmen in a boardroom. And they smiled that peculiar American smile, impersonal and gleaming with confidence and whitened teeth.

“Mmm.” She said and nodded. She ran her mechanical pencil under the phrase, “pressures of competition.” She nodded again.

I wondered how much of it she believed.

How much of it did I believe? And is any of that really so unique to American culture? After all, Korean culture has one of the highest rates of suicide for any developed country—a fact often attributed to extreme competition.

I have to admit, I’ve always been on the Loser side of things. With a capital “L”.

Though I prefer to think of my camp as the underdogs. The Little Engine That Could. The tortoise from Aesop. The Really Cool Geek Squad of Friendly Know-It-Alls.

Something like that.

Am I a loser because I’ve opted out of the rat race? Maybe. I certainly feel that way sometimes. Guys have given me the brushoff more than once after they hear how I earn my paychecks (shelving library books and tutoring college students).

But I’ve rarely felt suicidal about it. As competitive as American society can be, it also—compared with many other nations—makes room for different definitions of success. Sure, it could do better. But if I have to be eccentric, this seems a good place for it.

So are their Losers and Winners in America? Absolutely. Classism is a huge problem. Social justice is more an ideal than a reality. And the disparities of class, income, and neighborhood—and the resulting variations in the quality of our public schools—are enormous.

Yet I hope my Korean neighbor and I can defy some of that. Or at least throw off enough of it that we can develop our own definitions of success.

But that’s probably just the American in me talking.

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