In Korea, there’s F-Mart and D-Mart, L-Mart and G-Mart, and the current top dog of the X-Mart retailers, E-Mart. They are all much of a muchness, and are a microcosmic case study, I suppose, of the Korean predilection (and skill, it must be said) in taking someone else’s idea (in this case, a household goods retailer, K-mart (of course)), reshaping it for the Korean market, and barfing it out again, adding only the most cursory Groucho-glasses-and-nose disguise.

Yesterday we went to the nearby E-Mart to do some shopping, pick up some beer, and generally engage in the Retail Ritual. The Retail Ritual calms me, these days, if it’s in one of these huge ultramodern, brightly lit stores. Odd, for an old hippiepunk like me, who has little good to say about our marketing-driven civilization.
That said, I loathe shopping for anything other than food, so I guess I can still fly my freak flag proudly. And although stores like Walmart and Costco are a scourge on the landscape back in North America, sucking the life out of smalltown centres, feeding low-wage, no-security, permanent part-time slavery, homogenizing the already desperately whitebread-and-mayonnaise landscape even further….that’s not so much the case here. The box stores sit in the middle of already existing major shopping areas, beside subway stops, and have the opposite effect, if anything, revitalizing cruddy areas and triggering some urban renewal. These stores also tend to employ women under better conditions and for better wages than they might otherwise receive in this sexist nightmare of a nation. But more on that later.
So the wife and I were trundling around with our cart, happily sampling and grazing and knocking small children down (well, I was the one knocking them down, and the wife was the one scolding me – she pretends to understand my aversion to the little bastards, but I don’t think she really does), when one of those spine-chillingly weird Korea moments happened, that nobody else much seems to notice or comment on, a situation which sometimes leads me to theorize that I’m living an extended hallucination in a goo-filled pod somewhere, fed imagery to pacify me by some higher machine intelligence which is extracting my life energy to run pachinko machines or some f–king thing.
[Note to self : try not to injure children, at least when SK’s looking.]
Some facts first that will help explain, I hope, my flash of The Weird.
In Korea, like Japan, walking into a shop or restaurant will usually result in a hail of welcomes and other ritualized greetings from the employees. I hate these, but I must admit they make me feel all shiny and special too. I am a good consumer, and I really am welcome here, and I should buy something to celebrate that, I say to myself, before I realize their cunning ploy and adopt the anti-salesperson scowl that is my customary demeanor while in-store.
In Korea, it’s (and excuse the romanization, but I’m going for clarity of pronunciation more than the current textbook romanization) ‘uh-suh-ohseyo,’ which more or less translates to ‘welcome, and please buy lots of our crap!’ On departure, particularly if you have in fact purchased some crap, it’s ‘kahmsahmnida‘ or ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, both of which mean ‘thank you, and crap again’ more or less.
The other necessary fact to know is that upmarket department store chains like Hyundai or Lotte and also these more middle-class retails outlets like E-Mart and Walmart and Carrefour (and so on) all employ way, way too many people. Behind a typical watch-counter at Lotte, for example, you might see 6 to 8 men (always men, behind the watch counter, for some reason) loitering about, trying desperately to look busy, beseeching you with their eyes to please come and look at a watch or two, just for a f–king minute you rich bastard, come on …and then swarming up like Keystone-Kops-as-filmed-by-David-Lynch when someone does.
It’s good, in some ways, that so many are employed when they might otherwise not be, but you can be sure that the only way such a situation can be justified is by paying extremely low wages. The idea behind these clusters of clerks is that such heavy concentrations of service-people enhance the feeling — that wealthier Koreans, including the growing middle class, seem to just love — of being catered to by hordes of low-born types, grovelling before the shopper’s imperial whims. See also : Dynasty, Chosun.
Walking around the aisles of the supermarket sections of these stores is a hazard course of (usually) miniskirt-clad (invariably) young female product demonstrators, who want to give you a sample of coffee, or help you choose that perfect shampoo, and (usually) older (invariably) females in the fresh-food areas, cooking up some pork or slicing up some veggies, and inviting you to chow down, using the (invariably) plastic green toothpicks.
(What’s the female equivalent of ‘avuncular’? Damned if I know, but that’s what these fresh-food ladies are. Ajummacular, perhaps.)
The younger ones, the ones that staff the toiletries and dry-good aisles, are just plain goooood-lookin’, though, and pretty obviously hired on that basis, and apparently instructed to bend over, but demurely, whenever possible. Which makes astonishingly little sense, even ignoring the sex-discriminatory aspects, as the vast majority of shoppers are middle-aged women, who are unlikely to be seduced by the milky thighs of these miniskirted productistas.
Anyway. Any given row in the supermarket sections of these chains will house anywhere from a minimum to two to a maximum of six women, some of whom are apparently hired just to stand there and smile at people.
So back to the trundling and the shopping and the running-over of children. As we were rolling down the ramyeon aisle, the sixth or seventh repetition of the ecstatically faux-happy, 50’s-style E-Mart Song was coming to an orgasmic close, and there was a slight crackle over the PA, and a voice.
A female voice, one that was absolutely perfect in its unctuous, saccharine, mind-colonizing tone, oozing into your ears, grabbing whatever handholds it could find and whispering, irresistably : everything’s going to be all right, there there, just lay your weary head on my soft, perfumed bosom….
Anyway, this voice sweetly but firmly intoned ‘uh-suh-ohseyo.’ And every single woman employee in the place turned from whatever they were doing, as one, faced in the same direction, and repeated ‘uh-suh-ohseyo’ while bowing deeply, to nobody in particular. The voice paused a few seconds, then said ‘kohmuhpsoomnida‘, and once again, every single woman, matching the weirdly unnatural, woman-as-service-automaton voice, chanted ‘kohmuhpsoomnida.
This repeated perhaps four or five times, and you could hear the chorus of voices throughout the store. Nobody else even batted an eyelid, but I was just transfixed, with chills literally running up my spine. The Weird.
I know what the rationale behind it was, and understand that many Koreans really think that sort of stuff is spiffy, and are drawn to shop somewhere that shows that kind of rigorous employee-indoctrination methodology, but it was still deeply, excitingly Weird.
Of course, I forgot about it 5 minutes later, while buying beer, which was, after all, my secret mission for the day.


Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Great description! Your story reminded me of shopping in Moscow in summer of ’90 – not in an ‘oh how similar’ way…more in a ‘that would never happen in Moscow in summer of ’90’ way. There, you’d walk into Bread Store No. 5 and immediately be actively ignored by at least three, giant, cranky, hostile babushkas with abnormally-colored hair. After suffering through the three-line purchasing process (line 1: choose bread, line 2: pay hostile woman with abacus for bread, line 3: go pick up bread), instead of thanking your for your business, there would be a round of coordinated glaring until you left the shop. Ah. Good times.

  2. Man, your description of the cute little Korean girls assisting at the god-awful Mega stores gives me some ideas. Maybe there is hope for these retail giants that suck the life out of small towns. Employ dozens of scantily clad women, serving grapes off their breasts, run their fingers through my hair to test the texture for the proper shampoo, try on tight T-shirts and little mini skirts to model for possible gifts for my wife. With goals like this, there is still hope for small town USA!

  3. Not sure if turning smalltown downtowns into red-light districts would save the patient by killing it or not (lap dances at the barbershop? – hell, why not? they do it in Korea!), but I like the cut of your jib, sir.

  4. Here in Beijing, where labor is ludicrously cheap, supermarket aisles are so crowded with uniformed employees that it is often impossible to pass through, let alone buy anything. Now, running a narrow gauntlet of mini-skirted beauties would certainly be OK in my book, but they tend to employ frumpy middle-aged ladies with bad teeth here.
    Unfortunately, while a large market may have over 200 people milling around the sales floor, there only seems to be one or two employees who have been actually trained to operate the cash register on hand at any given time. The Chinese still haven’t really figured out retailing.
    In the ground floor of my old apartment building is a large Chinese fast food restaurant, serving noodles, dumplings and such. Of course, they have a massive, red-uniformed staff.
    Taking the worker-automaton concept one step further, they would literally march around the parking lot in military formations with the manager barking orders and giving motivational speeches before the place opened for breakfast.

  5. “unlikely to be seduced by the milky thighs of these miniskirted productistas”?
    Glad to see you are back in full form. Those sound like the words of the master, HST.
    Welcome back.

  6. Those sound like the words of the master, HST.
    Higher praise I could not ask. I thank you, sir, with balls and bells and pale yellow wedges of rare cheese.
    My next OJ and Soju, I dedicate to you.

  7. Thank you for an intensely satisfying read.

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