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On June 25, I did a reading in New York City for an event titled “Generation XYZ.” What appears below is the essay that I delivered. You can watch the video of the reading here.

When April asked me to comment on how Generation X culture changed my life, I was sort of stumped. Because it’s not so much how it changed my life, but how it was my life. These TV shows and music and movies that almost seem quaint now – I grew up with them. Generation X is me, and I’m Generation X. How could I possibly delve into something that is so tightly integrated into who I am?

So like a good Gen-Xer, I procrastinated. I watched television. Lots of television. Bad television. Reality television. Eventually I made myself read the “Generation X” page on Wikipedia, thinking it might give me some insight into this suddenly impossible question, and actually, it did. My parents never had enough money to buy me a set of encyclopedias, so when I was a kid, to do research, I had to go to the library to look up stuff. Doesn’t it make sense that the Internet blossomed during our watch, the era of slacking? The Internet is the holy grail of indolence. Wanna read the newspaper? Don’t move. Sit in your comfy chair and click on The New York Times. Need to plan your summer vacation? Don’t move. Sit in your comfy chair and click on Expedia (dot com!). Think you might have a brain tumor? Before you go all crazy and get up out of your chair and pick up that heavy phone, why not click on webMD?

Okay. So I had my epiphany, and I felt good. I felt like, “Yeah, I’m done with this assignment.” But here’s the thing, the other part about being a Gen-Xer. Because with great slackertude comes great guilt. We’re not the Greatest Generation, we didn’t have World War II. Didn’t have Vietnam or Woodstock like the Boomers. I mean even the Lost Generation has us beat with their accomplishments, and they were, you know, lost. We really should be doing more. So I considered, ruminated, cogitated, and even pontificated – which all really means I watched more television – and then I had it.

How cool would it be if I were to rewrite the lyrics of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but instead of starting from 1949 like he did, I’d start from 1981, the beginning of the Generation X years? Yeah! I was pumped. Except there were two things in my way. One, I’ve never written a song before. And the other?

Now with a name like Sung, you’d think that I’d be familiar with the act of singing. Also, I’m Korean, which is actually another word for Karaoke, so really, there’s no excuse. But the truth is, I’ve never sung in public – but that’s all about to change tonight.

Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn / Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman
J-J Jackson / I can’t believe he’s dead
The Facts of Life, My So-Called Life / Homicide: Life on the Street
There were many TV shows / with “life” in the title

Bright Lights, Big City / Less Than Zero
I read the McInerney / and skimmed the other one
When you read a book that’s written / entirely in the second person
It’s kinda freaky ‘cause the author’s / talking about you

New Order is my band / I can name the famed quartet
Barney Sumner, Peter Hook / and the Other Two
Pet Shop Boys I also like / Echo and the Bunnymen
REM / Nirvana / why am I so furious?

I’m a Generation X-er
I’m a slacker / so I write these kinds of songs
I’m a Generation X-er
I want my Mtv / and I guess I want it now

[note: if you want to hear my “singing”]

I also wanted to get this line in the song: Homer Simpson / and the Huxtables. But that would mean writing another whole stanza, so that’s all I wrote. And you know, after writing those “lyrics,” I realized that the original song is pretty damn lazy. I mean all Billy Joel did was just spout off names and places and titles and things. So in way, this song typifies our generation to a T, and I figured I could only elevate that very laziness through the great art of quitting.

I just want to say one more thing about Generation X. We must be doing something right, because the next two generations, Y and Z, have embraced and followed our naming scheme (though this might just be a passing down of our slackertude). I do wonder about what comes next, though. Would it be Generation AA? If you’ve ever used Microsoft Excel, if you go beyond column Z, that’s the next one. AA, AB, AC, so on and so forth. And here’s something else I learned about Excel – the very last column you can have on a spreadsheet is IV. It’s the 256th column. When you’re on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, you’ll thank me.

Anyway, now I’ll read two super-short bits from my novel that refer to some Gen-X TV gems. My novel takes place in the early 80s, and half of the book is told from the point of view of David Kim, the twelve-year-old narrator.

We were both fond of the sitcom Three’s Company, mainly due to John Ritter’s physical comedy. It reminded us of the variety shows we used to watch in Korea, where the humor of the body dominated over the humor of the word. Actors were always falling down, slipping on something, though never on banana peels because bananas were very expensive and slipping on one would hardly be funny.

This was very true when I was in Korea. Bananas were like gold. Anyway, the second excerpt:

If only I could jump into television and join the Drummonds – I could fit right in as the Korean orphan boy who saves Arnold’s life when he’s surrounded by a gang of nogoodniks in the heart of Koreatown. There I would be, named Chu or Ping, karate-chopping the hell out of the thugs and having Arnold say his catchphrase: “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Chu?”

And for my final piece, I’ll read a flash fiction story titled “Confessions of My Wart, Which Is on My Right Foot, Second Toe.” If I can find a tenuous link between this story and tonight’s theme, it is this: this wart was with me throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. Ergo, it, too, is a part of Generation X.

A YouTube video of the flash fiction reading can be found here.

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SUNG J. WOO is a writer living in New Jersey. Some of his short stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney's, KoreAm Journal, and The New York Times. His debut novel, Everything Asian (April 2009), has been praised by the Christian Science Monitor and received a starred review from Kirkus.

One response to “How Generation X Changed My Life”

  1. Sung J. Woo says:

    Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
    2009-07-10 13:57:40

    Sung,

    I love you and your writing. Warts and all.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-11 03:48:05

    Thanks, Irene. I’m happy to say that the wart is indeed gone!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
    2009-07-10 16:30:44

    How come you get to start with 2, Sung?
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-11 04:42:58

    Because two is the loneliest number since the number one…
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
    2009-07-10 20:46:43

    I love your song! I’ve been trying to sing it out, but I couldn’t master Billy Joel’s and alas, I’m not having much luck with yours either… I recently wrote a similiar post on Gen X. There must be something in the air….
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-11 04:43:55

    Hi Zara,

    You can actually listen to my half-assed attempt to see if you can sing as badly as I can:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEDmZ-VOrDY
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by Simon Smithson |Edit This
    2009-07-11 00:34:46

    “The Internet is the holy grail of indolence.”

    Ha! Nice.

    Maybe Generation IV will be the guys who don’t even turn to the internet for stimulus, just plug super-potent antidepressants straight into the vein.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-11 04:48:16

    It’s like the Matrix, except Morpheus would be holding Cymbalta in one hand and Zoloft in the other.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Robin Slick |Edit This
    2009-07-11 05:39:24

    Nah, they’ll still be hooked up to the internet but someone will find a way to make it vibrate and penetrate if you catch my drift.

    Great piece. I don’t envy you the X thing. Naturally my generation was best, though I’m having a hard time dealing with the fact that it’s no longer considered cool.

    Fuck ‘em. I still am.

    xo
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
    2009-07-11 03:43:38

    Our generation gets a bum rap because we followed the Baby Boomers, who talk about themselves so damned much. Also, the BBs name the generations, not us. (I discuss this at length in my book)

    But chew on this:

    Baby Boomer presidents: Clinton, Bush II
    Gen X presidents: Obama

    We win.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-11 05:02:47

    The Boomers are the 800-lb gorilla, no question. But we’ve got some heft, too. I always thought we’re the tech generation — both of the Google guys are GenXers.
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
    2009-07-11 11:29:55

    Had the Internet not happened, ours would certainly have been the poorest generation since the Lost, no question.

    There’s a great book called GENERATIONS by Strauss & Howe that talks about this kind of thing in depth…a mind-blow of a read.
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Reply here

    Comment by Robin Slick |Edit This
    2009-07-11 05:40:14

    Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Robin Slick |Edit This
    2009-07-11 05:41:28

    Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh was directed to Greg Olear over his statement “But chew on this…”
    (Comments wont nest below this level)
    Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
    2009-07-11 11:28:31

    LOL, Robin.

    Reply here

    Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
    2009-07-11 18:19:58

    The parameters of any given generation are so ill-defined. I’m not quite sure where I fit. I mean, I loved both “Homicide” and “My So-Called Life” but Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis were definitely at a remove.

    I suppose that I’m part of Generation Y. But I still remember- at age 9- watching reruns of “Thirtysomething” and identifying wholeheartedly with Melissa Mayron.

    (Can’t wait to read “Everything Asian”!)
    Reply to this comment
    Comment by Sung J. Woo |Edit This
    2009-07-12 04:17:51

    Thirtysomething! My sisters were huge fans of that show. Me, not so much — it always seemed a bit more grown up than me at the time.

    The other thing about discussing generations is realizing how quickly time is passing. Watching Thirtysomething in reruns when you were 9…in comparison to you, that makes me…old!
    Reply to this comment

    Comment by David S. Wills |Edit This
    2009-07-12 04:08:32

    Good stuff!

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