I was talking with a friend of mine about the class system. Coming from the United Kingdom, he could immediately tell which class a person belonged by listening to his or her accent. The UK class system, according to him, actually has nothing to do with money or ability or anything a person achieved in his life. It is embedded in how he commands his language—almost an inherited trait.
In Taiwan, where we both live as happy expatriates, or in Japan, my passport country, class systems might exist but they are not that obvious. Unfairness always persists as in any human society, but personally I never felt discrimination originating from a class system in either country.
Yet in recent years, I do feel that a new type of class has been emerging here in East Asia—and probably in the rest of the world too. It has two layers, which I call the “open” and the “closed.” The “open” class has access to the world outside its native country/society/community. The “closed” class does not, or does not want to. I call it the Inter/Inner class system. Either you have access to the world (thus inter-national/community/society) or do not (thus staying “inner”).
The Inter/Inner class system shares similarities with the UK class system: It is immediately recognizable through the speech and one side always feel superior against the other (Inter > Inner). There is a notable difference though: You can cross the class barrier (= switch from Inner to Inter) relatively easily. In many cases, all you have to do is to live in another country for an extended period of time. Another friend of mine wrote that in the UK, the late Margaret Thatcher who was born as a middle class even took trainings to acquire an “upper class” accent but never received the acknowledgement she desired (and deserved) from the elite club, despite her unprecedented achievements. Surely joining the “Inter” club is far easier than that.
I think of my childhood friends, now in their prime age building their career/family/self. (Yes, the last one is me.) I can communicate easily with a few of them, but probably give up communicating with the others at all except for small talks. It has nothing to do with our interest, career, or family orientation. It is about being an individual before being a member of a community.
In the Japanese language, where one always needs to shift his identity according to the given context (son/father/teacher/student/boss/subordinate…), the “Inter” tribe uses a strange version of the language: context-free. I, as an “Inter,” always address myself as “I.” I do not pull myself down or up just because I am younger or older than the other, for example. That is how the existence of the modern class becomes immediately obvious to both parties.
And even though I take pride in the fact that I try to treat everybody equally, I cannot hide my feeling that the “Inner” tribe is backward and oppressing. The “Inner” tribe senses that too. Many of them also want to move to the other side but cannot because of economic/social/language reasons. Admiration and resentment have both been piling up, and the chasm just keeps growing deeper as globalization continues to sweep the world.
Eventually the class system will be obsolete—and I arrogantly but honestly believe that everybody will join the “Inter” crowd. But the process will contain rough patches here and there, and my only wish is that we do not end up creating another large-scale war along the way.