Growing Pains: Stature isn’t about size

2013-10-29 10:00

You know that feeling when someone you meet is unexpectedly bigger than you had imagined?

For instance, you may have met online and only seen his Twitter avatar before drawing your own conclusions as to how tall, thin or otherwise he is.

Then when you finally meet (after some very munchable DMs), you discover, low and behold, he is an Andries Bekker! Or even a Khaya.

It takes you by surprise, but that passes relatively quickly. What is more confounding is when that realisation comes over time.

It once hit me when in New York after a few days. I was in a nightclub and felt I had somehow been shrunk because everyone around me was the same height or taller.

I had long grown used to towering above most people in nightclubs – looking down on them while they in turn looked down on my rambunctiousness. But the sheer size of those Americans brought me back down to earth. Here I was, an equal. Not quite as tall as my life had led me to believe.

I had the same feeling when speaking to a South Korean man, a fellow delegate on a programme I’ve been on this week. From the very first moment I came across him, he was as unassuming as I was typically South African – loud and brimming with inappropriate jokes.

He was the picture of the sort of guy I would have bullied in my school days – neat, on time and always prepared, with his homework in hand.

He was the sort of chap I now know to seek out as a friend: reflective, quiet, measured and one who only asks about, or says, deeply meaningful things. He is also half my size physically – the kind of nonthreatening man a guy would hope to wake up next to if he found himself in a jail cell for drunken driving.

But somehow his stature grew as we spoke.

He is a sober-minded chap and worries about the rising rates of unemployment in Korea. The economy isn’t growing fast enough to give every young person who leaves school a job. The ones who do get jobs get low-quality ones, he says.

It sounds eerily similar to the number one problem we have here in South Africa. Except South Korea has an aging population (which he worries about too), their unemployment maxes out at around 10% and their economy generates about three times as much wealth as ours does every year.

Think about that. It’s like the lady in marketing who earns R60?000 a month speaking like she has the same problems as you, when you earn R20?000 a month. What a nerve!

When I point this out to him, he says simply: “But we’re next to Japan. And China, we’re not big next to them.”

And then it hit me. You see, as much as the Korean economy is something for us to idolise – they have three times our GDP, the same number of people as us and not a fraction of the land or mineral resources we have – they don’t think that highly of themselves. They’re in a neighbourhood of giants.

We, on the other hand, feel like Gulliver, standing tall among some of the world’s poorest countries. And somehow we think that makes us tall.

When I looked again, I realised the Korean was actually much bigger than I was. I just couldn’t see it past his humility.

He is bigger because he works out – taking diligent notes, learning how the world’s biggest economies grow, realising that education is everything.

Meanwhile, I went about my South African ways, laughing, drinking, being a great loveable bloke and then going home thinking that my land and minerals were enough.

Damn, how I’d love to grow.

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