sign of the times

After an entire Saturday spent exploring a neighborhood, shopping at Dongdaemmon for winter clothes and a rare night out with my Migook friends in Seoul, I woke up early (as always) and had to leave because (as always) being the only one awake and trying to keep busy with nothing at hand trapped in a small room having to be totally silent and not disturb anyone for hours and hours and hours (because most people after a night of revelry sleep even MORE than usual) is too much to bear – and it always happens, so I know that for my own sanity it’s best to leave, apologize later, and utilize my time better.

So I went back to Dongdaemmon because I was not yet done with my shopping mission.  In retrospect this was a mistake, because despite being wide awake, I was physically too exhausted and drained to be shopping, and as a result made some stupid and expensive purchases.

ANYWAY, realizing I hadn’t eaten in eons, I headed up to the 7th floor food court of Migliore, where I was instantly accosted by two of the most aggressive, pushy adjummas, trying to get me to patronize their food stand – and then I was lead away by another pushy adjumma, built like a bulldog, telling me THEY were same same and trying to shove HER menu into my hands.  I had to fight my way past her and out of her (literally) clutches and practically ran to the farthest corner of the food court.  I made my way past the rest of the Korean food stalls and got accosted by another aggressive (but half as much) woman who shoved a menu in my hands, and I quickly saw the kim chi bop and ordered it.  No sooner had I sat down, then she started barking at me and then realized I didn’t speak Korean, so instead she barked, “PAY NOW!”  Sure!  Anything you say!

I watched with horror as each group of customers coming up the escalator were similarly greeted (with a smile through gritted teeth and loud desperate hawking of the merits of THEIR food stand vs. the others’) having to pass by their gauntlet.  Then, to my amazement they nearly ripped one customer in two trying to each get her to go in the opposite directions.  The poor customer managed to duck out of the way as the two adjummas started screaming at each other and bitch slapping each other over trying to steal the others’ potential customer.  Another adjumma came out to start screaming in support of one of them, and then the the bulldog adjumma began screaming at them as well.

I sat there eating as quickly as possible, my stomach churning and entire body tense with adrenaline, wondering about the kind of economic desperation that would cause those women to behave in that way.  Because it wasn’t just hatred of each other – they had instead, in their eyes, the look of hungry rats in survival mode.  They were literally competing for scraps like junkyard dogs.  They were scared.  They were also scaring away any customers they could have gotten.  Meanwhile, the more low-key restaurant was doing a swift business.  But that doesn’t seem sustainable for every restaurant up there, and it’s certainly not a place I’ll ever return to, no matter how hungry and exhausted I get.

I’ve noticed other things lately too.  The fares in half the taxis have incrementally risen by 200 won.  I’m not sure if Koreans tell these cabs to go to hell, or if like me they’re just happy to have gotten one and pay.  The price of clothes, too, seems to have risen a bit.  And the spaghetti I used to order at a pizza place near me is now too expensive to warrant purchasing ever.

I remember when I first got here I asked about the economy, and everyone said it was really really bad.  They said that it used to be much much better, and that everyone was tightening their belt and being very careful with their money.  It still didn’t seem that bad to me, as everywhere I looked Koreans were buying, buying, buying, and the stores appeared to be selling a lot of stuff at great prices.  But now that I’ve been here awhile, I am starting to see the relativity of things better.

Consider how this is a country without tipping.  What kind of salary can be made if, for instance, you wash dishes at a restaurant or you sell cell phones.  In every shopping district there may be four to six cell phone stores – each with anywhere from three to six employees.  How many cell phones must be sold to pay all those employees?  In every store you go to, there seem to be twice as many salespeople as needed.  If shirts are sold for $7 US each, how many shirts must be sold simply to support all those employees?  If you sell mandu for $1.75 US, how many mandu sales must you make just to keep your shop open? When I went to visit Jeong-Ae and wanted coffee, we had to go on a quest for it because there were no coffee shops.  No coffee shops survived long in her neighborhood because nobody there could afford to spend $3 US on coffee.  Why would anyone spend $3 on coffee when you can purchase an entire meal for the same price?  If you are working at one of the small businesses, can you even afford a meal?

In stark contrast to this is the omnipresent in-your-face barrage of luxury items on t.v.  From LG’s frameless flat panel LED tv’s, to luxury cars, to cell phones that practically brush your teeth for you.  And btw, internet access on your cell phone costs $8.55 more a month, but then you are charged for every minute of usage.  Who are these people watching t.v. on the subways, and how the hell can they afford two hours of streaming t.v. every day?  Who are the people buying clothes at the Korean Rodeo Drive?  How can there possibly be sooo many people wearing authentic Levi’s at $80 US a pop?  Who are these people paying 1 million won ($855 US) for their kids to have Hagwon lessons?  (answer:  nearly everyone with a corporate job or now dual income families) and HOW?  (answer:  dad never comes home except to sleep)  But for many Koreans, that treadmill is something they can only dream of and hope for.

And so, I have decided to do my best to support small business in Korea.  Last week I was excited to discover a banchan (side-dish) deli in an alley at Pyeongchon station and vowed to go there from now on.  (this may not sound exciting, but there is SO LITTLE here in my part of this new city, that it was truly exciting)  But tonight, while shopping at E-marte I totally forgot and bought kim chi there.  Damn it!  These mega stores will be the death of everyone, and I contribute to it through my laziness and forgetfulness.

So none of this post is anything new to anyone living here.  But for those of you back in the states, I just thought I’d bring you up to speed on how my perception has changed over the past few months.  It’s all kind of warping my own sense of monetary value as well.  More on this in a different post.

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