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The Invisible Path to Liberty

Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Last Scene

Social institutions (i.e. general mechanisms of society and patterns of behavior it supports) can trap individuals in predefined, ill-fitting modes of economic undertakings, relationships and conduct even as they establish order and preserve cherished values. In his early 19th century short stories collection Call to Arms, Chinese literary icon Lu Xun criticized the backward and “cannibalistic” practices of the oppressive, feudalistic system present in China at the time. “Hometown,” a semi-autobiographical narrative, was one of those satirical pieces that highlighted the plight of people marginalized by the system.

As the narrator, Xun, settled back at his ancestral home one desolate winter after spending the past twenty years away from it, he reminisced about a friend from his teenage days, Runtu. The son of a temporary odd-job laborer in his household, Runtu would regale him with descriptions of colorful seashells, jumping fish and fierce badger-like wild creatures at his seaside farm—stuff friends in the latter’s usual social circle did not know. As Xun noted trenchantly, while Runtu was at the seaside, he and his friends could only see the four-sided sky framed by the walls of their courtyards. With the revival of these memories, the man finally relished once more the beauty of his hometown. A surreal image of Runtu flashed across middle-aged Xun’s mind: a warrior-like pubescent charged at an exotic beast eyeing his crops with a pitchfork in a sand field while a golden orb hung above him in the deep blue sky. The beast, however, twisted its body and escaped under his legs.

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Desertocracy

Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Scene of Jang Geu-rae at Home

Life seems unfair to A-grade students who forsake sleep and leisure only to find themselves working for C-grade students who get to shine with their vision and creativity precisely because they do not bother as much with mastering rules. But life seems unfair as well to the majority of C-grade students, who far outnumber the number of business leaders and innovators society supports. From the point of their conception, they may be laden with genetic and/or cultural baggage, coupled with losing numbers in the parent lottery, that compromise cognitive capacity, stamina, maturity and even the inclination to work hard in school.

Jang Geu-rae, the protagonist in office drama Misaeng, was an A-student who chose to specialize in an economically unrewarding discipline, which made him both a beneficiary and victim of unfairness in life. Forced to abandon the study of Go in spite of his top standing and take on a full-time job after his breadwinner father’s demise, Geu-rae assumed a contract position at a large international trading firm with just a high school diploma under his belt. His under-qualification, together with the fact that he entered the firm through connections, brought him scorn and ostracism in the office. Nonetheless, his willingness to learn, ability to connect with people, stoicism and the wisdom developed through years of mastering Go eventually allowed him to pull ahead of his more “educated” peers. Unfortunately, the rigid promotion system in the firm, which prized credentials over actual performance, prevented him from becoming a permanent employee, so he had to leave the job at the end of his term. This raises the question of how a system should be designed to give people treatment they deserve .

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The Office Narrative

Misaeng (2014 Korean Drama) - Scene of Jang Geu-rae and Oh Sang-shik on the Rooftop

There are office dramas. There are office dramas like Misaeng. And then there is the social grapevine.

In a significant proportion of workplace dramas, office life serves as a vehicle for romance, comedy or both. In these subtypes of the genre, work is a secondary element that adds color to a character, indicates his/her social status and/or drives emotional conflicts. Occasionally, reality is disregarded to such a great extent that a lead character can excel in a management role even when he has no knowledge of basic economics or turns up for work only two days a week. On the flip side, there are many dramas that focus squarely on office work itself, while recognizing its tedium and moral gray areas. Nevertheless, protagonists frequently get to save the day from within a byzantine bureaucracy at the end of the tales, even if they are mistreated newbies or corporate outcasts. These are worlds of immaculate suits, pulsating energy and infinite possibilities.

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Badukisms

Misaeng Episode 3 Dream - Baduk Masters

  1. “The game goes on even after you lose a stone.”
  2. “When you lose the whole game during a make-or-break situation, you wonder what you’ve made so many moves for. Even if you have won a life-and-death battle or a tough multi-opponent fight, if you lose at the end of the journey, you will feel that those small wins have been meaningless. If, however, you win the game during a make-or-break situation, you can see a different world. You will be very grateful to the stone that sealed your victory in the situation and appreciate the value of all the moves you’ve made. The honest efforts you put in at every moment make your triumph in this kind of situation possible. Missing the moments means losing the whole and consequently, failure.”
  3. “There is no meaningless stone on the baduk board [Note: Baduk refers to the game of Go]. There is no meaningless product in a company’s portfolio. The reason a stone gets isolated or lost is because the player has failed to strategize well. The reason a product flounders is because the company has failed to see ahead or plan well. Let a trapped stone die but also use the failure to plot for gains. A failed product will fail in the end, but use it as a basis to plan for better products.”
  4. “A move is determined to a great extent by the preceding move. To understand why your opponent is making the current move, you must look at the previous move. To understand why the other party is agitated, you must check where a problem has occurred with his/her gameplay so far.”
  5. “Should I tell you why your game will not improve? You are too preoccupied with rules and previous examples. Of course, you should research and master techniques, but could a game have been passed down till now without any innovation? Break the norms. Go down an unconventional path.”
  6. “Resisting the strong temptation to jump into a risky situation and walking your own path silently is also a type of courage. It’s unwise to react immediately at the emergence of a counter-current. Going about your usual way in the face of disruption can be a form of counter-current to your opponent. Hence, keeping your cool is actually the best defense and a means of attack.”
  7. “Everyone has his/her own baduk game[, with its unique set of motivations and circumstances].”

 

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