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John Stanmeyer.
The young are going against what parents, prime ministers and economic planners want.

Free to Dream
For Asia's twentysomethings, the search for happiness is paramount

Sohn Hyun Joo sits patiently as her mother praises her to an eligible bachelor in a downtown Seoul restaurant. An interior designer who wants to attend New York's Pratt School of Design, Sohn is the youngest of four daughters — and at 26, the only one still unmarried. Custom requires her to say nothing as her mother enacts the Korean tradition of choongmae, or arranged marriage. When the older woman leaves the restaurant with the man's mother, Sohn breaks her silence. "I must apologize," she tells her dinner companion, a 32-year-old civil engineer. "I have a career. Marriage is the last thing I want now. I came here because I could not say no to my mother. I hope you understand." The man lights a cigarette in disbelief. Before their date has begun, it is over. She may not be saying it out, but for Sohn, as for many young people across Asia, single — and successful — is exactly what she prefers to be just now. Even if that gives her parents a coronary.

Tradition? Give me a break. Duty? Pleeaze. For Asians in their mid-twenties, whether in Seoul or Singapore, Beijing or Bombay, social expectations come second to their personal search for happiness. Faced with a life choice, the first question that comes to mind is neither "What would my family want?" nor "What would be best for society?" but probably "What's in it for me?" And if getting that goes against what mothers, prime ministers or economic planners think is best, that's just too bad. "What I want most is to do what I want to do," says Li Jianguo, 25, an assistant engineer at a state factory in China. "I don't worry too much about what society thinks."

It might seem this is how the young have always felt. But not that long ago, 25 would be the age when a young man might expect to go to war, to fight for a colonial regime or against it, or settle down and have a family. And 25 would have been when a young woman should be a dutiful wife and mother, queen of the home but not much outside it. The belief that life means limitless choice is a luxury of the 21st century. It is what today's youth inherited from their grandparents' struggle against foreign masters and their parents' work in building the Asian economic miracle. Indeed, hard put even to imagine an Asia ruled by foreigners or doomed to poverty, today's youth are free to chase their dreams.

For the moment, those dreams largely mean material happiness and creature comforts, rather than children or community. Says Diane Ho, a 26-year-old Singapore bank executive: "For most of my friends, a good career and wealth would top their lists." Adds Llwellyn Marsh, a 24-year-old theater producer in Kuala Lumpur: "It's 'me, me' — chasing money, car, credit card, handphone, girlfriend, Armani suit."

Nowhere is this generation's desire to get rich as striking as in China. When Deng Xiaoping announced in the early 1980s that "to get rich is glorious," he issued a rallying cry to Chinese youth as alluring as the refrain of any pop ballad. Yangfan Chen, 29, left a $24,000-a-year investment banking job to pursue an MBA at Peking University. "I want to start my own company or get promoted," he explains. "My dream is to be richer. It's better to be powerful than to be nice."

Matthias Ley for Asiaweek.

Before you call twentysomethings selfish, think a minute. The fact that getting ahead drives young Asians does not mean they have no values. It's just that their beliefs are colored by their quest for self-advancement. Take nationalism. It may have been drummed into their heads in schools, but once out of the classroom, they have found that global mobility works better. "I want to give 100% to my profession," says Kartikeya Sharma, a 25-year-old journalist in New Delhi. "I can take chances, move places, even go abroad chasing a job and not feel guilty about it." Singapore banker Ho wonders if her government's bid to inculcate national values has missed her generation. "We have been conditioned to think that the only thing that matters is economic success," she says. "If we can't find it here, the mobile ones will just move elsewhere."

Many of China's brightest 25-year-olds are overseas studying for degrees, preferably U.S. ones, which they believe will earn them respect and success. Unlike their predecessors in the 1950s and 60s, who ended up settling abroad, most are returning. Yet their reason is not national pride. "We come back because there are economic opportunities," says Paul Zheng, a 28-year-old Yale graduate and Internet entrepreneur in Beijing. "And if there aren't, we would go elsewhere."

But what about things like freedom? Or fairness? When it comes to ideals, young Asians are split. There are those who believe society can't be changed. "There is no need to get concerned about equal opportunity because there is no equality in society," says Chantana Uresuan, a 25-year-old Bangkok secretary. Fiery Agramon, 24, points out that for a young person in Manila, making ends meet is hard enough. Taking on the world is just extra work. Says the youth organizer: "The thinking of many is not to fight this system, but just go along with the flow."

Yet other twentysomethings rail against corruption, injustice and narrow-mindedness. Some do so for ideals. "What I want is for people to get back their dignity and peace," says Jakarta activist Budiman Sudjatmiko, 28, who leads the small, left-leaning People's Democratic Party. "I want to let them know a good life is not identical with money and glamor." But others' motives are openly self-centered — for social evils prevent the young from reaping the fruits of their hard work. Ask Nattawut Tiyanon, a 22-year-old electrical engineering graduate of Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. Just six months into his startup, a 10-man company importing switching circuits and fiber optics, he has run smack into the reality of Thailand's graft-ridden business culture. "You must pay under the table to survive," he complains. "I want the authorities to get rid of corruption. I need fairness, like in foreign countries."

Young idealists are up against a lot. First, their elders. "We want freedom to express ourselves and pursue our goals," says Khairy Jamaluddin, 25, special officer to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. "The problem is the older generation, which sees these demands as revolutionary. But the civil society and human-rights agendas are here to stay."

Their elders might counter that youth already have much to celebrate: advances in gender equality, for example, that have allowed young women to dream as ambitiously as young men. "For me, there is no glass ceiling," says Sungin Cho, 27, a public relations manager at Samsung. "I can reach as high as I can, with the right qualifications." Even in China, the pursuit of wealth has allowed youth a surprising degree of space. Too busy trying to manage change — and confident that making money, not brewing revolution, has become people's chief goal — Chinese authorities no longer care what the young say in their flash bars or shiny cinemas. "There's no freedom to publish your political views," says Yan Dong, 26, a kindergarten teacher. "But as long as you don't publish them, you can have whatever crazy views you want."

Technology has also made life easier for Asia's twentysomethings. Many were born not long before Apple launched its first PC (in 1976) and when Atari introduced the first mass-market home videogame system, the 2600 VCS (1977). They are too young to remember the wars in Indochina, but old enough to have enjoyed the Sony Walkman (1979). By their late teens, the Internet was offering entertainment, information and business opportunities on top of those already available from computers, satellite TV and wireless communication. "With technological improvements, we can access a wider range of information, which gives us greater freedom and choice," says Shiba Satoko, a 24-year-old schoolteacher's assistant in Tokyo. "I'm doing what I want to do, in a way my parents would never have imagined at my age."

Technology has linked the young with the world. Indian TV producer Deepak Chaturvedi, 25, distributes his films via websites. "I feel there's a global audience waiting for young filmmakers like me," he says. "We're aware of the potential overseas." Notes 25-year-old Lambert Chong, who works at a Taipei music company: "Music is international, and we're producing DVDs and VCDs that will reach people everywhere." Travel and study abroad have also taught the young that borders should not be limits to opportunities. Actress Jessica Chau Ching, 28, came to Hong Kong ten years ago from Suzhou, China. "I feel I'm Chinese but belong to nowhere," she says.

Even in famously insular Japan, travel is producing a far more worldly generation. Many in their mid-20s travel to other parts of the region, largely because such trips suit their budgets more than shopping in New York or wine-tasting in Paris. Morita Koichi, a 20-year-old art student in Yokohama, visited Malaysia as a volunteer. He now scans papers for news about Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations. "I may not be keen about geopolitical and regional troubles and trends if I had not had a chance to visit other Asian countries," he says. "Such personal interests come not from textbooks or schools, but from actual experiences." Some young Asians even consider themselves citizens of the world. "It's more fun to think that way," says Ohara Makoto, a 20-year-old Tokyo computer technology student. "It means more freedom and opportunities."

Today's young are the children of change — and that affects their thinking. After all, taking care of oneself is the easiest response when everything — society, environment, culture, economy, even language — is constantly evolving. "I don't think about the future. People are fickle, plus whatever you plan goes down the drain in the end," says Hong Kong actress Chau. The Asian financial crisis has only reinforced that lesson. "My top concern is career success," says recent Bangkok college graduate Khajornpat Sompapim, 23. "With the economy so bad, just getting a job is key."

Their parents might wonder what kind of Asia these twentysomethings will inhabit. With their lack of attachment to any specific place and their devotion to money and fame, could Asia's youth abandon all that previous generations have built? The answer depends partly on the older generation. If they work toward building societies that grant opportunities to their youth, giving them the hope that staying home and developing the region will lead to the success they crave, then today's leaders will be laying the foundations for the future Asia. But that is about as much as they can do. The future is not theirs to determine anyway. It belongs to the young.

— With bureau reporting

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