Grocery Stores, Bottlenecks, Systematic Organization, and Postality

Just got back from the grocery store. Yes, I know, Chuseok’s immediately around the corner, ready to run all of us over, but I realized I’ve never mentioned what a hell Korean grocery stores are. Your busiest Western grocery store is much less stressful and aggravating. There are a few reasons for this.

One major one is layout, especially in the Emarts I’ve been to. Most of them are laid out in such a way that, when the store is relatively empty, navigating is just a pain, but doable. However, when the shops are full, they turn chaotic, and given that the up escalator and the down escalator are side-by-side, you have to pass all the people trying to get off or onto one to get to the other.

This is aggravated by the fact that many Koreans tend not to pay attention to, or consider, the people around them while walking around or shopping. Some of them are staring at foodstuffs just like people in groceries worldwide, yes, but I’ve had plenty of experiences — or watched plenty of collisions — where people were just walking slowly and staring off absently in the distance or looking anywhere except where they were walking. Likewise, it never amazes me when the person in front of me gets off a full escalator and then just stands at the top, not moving, and I have to try wiggle past or let myself bang into him so he realizes that maybe the 150 people coming up behind us will have to get through the same space he’s turned into a bottleneck.

Now, to be fair, I am also (aurally) tuned out as much as possible when I go to Emart. I usually put on headphones: I have to, because if I go in without some kind of aural filter, I can literally feel my blood pressure rise. The noise isn’t just people talking, mind you. It isn’t the muzak, either, though that adds a layer to it. No, it’s the dozens of people yelling at the top of their lungs, sometimes through microphones, often clapping loudly too. It seems that when Korea made the leap from open-air markets to grocery stores, or “marts” as they’re called here, a great deal of the feeling of markets was retained, especially with the shouting. So over by the meat section, sometimes by other sections too, you have way too many young men hollering like mad. I don’t know, maybe some people find this adds excitement to the shopping experience, but to me, it only adds stress and annoyance.

Bottleneck is a good word, so I’ll go back to that. Sometimes, every aisle becomes a bottleneck. People walk at rates you are surprised are possible for able-bodied adults, or park their stuff and stand chatting on the phone for twenty minutes. And of course, the confusion about which side it’s appropriate to pass people on only adds to this. (Westerners usually pass on the right, since most of us drive that way. In Japan, while it’s reversed, it’s also standarized. In Korea, anything like an organized system for passing is unknown. Cars use one system, but pedestrians seem perpetually confused about which side to pass on.

Now, bottlenecks are interesting things. They’re a sign of a blockage in a system, a deficiency that limits throughput. Before some reader goes and thinks I’m indicting Korea especially, bottlenecks exist everywhere. The worst bottlenecks I’ve ever seen were in India, and I heard about worse still while I was there. But I have to say that it’s hard for me to buy that Korean infrastructure is so inferior to North American infrastructure — that Superstore (or whatever’s now the main grocery store in Saskatoon) is any less crowded, or any better designed, that the Bucheon station Emart.

Yet bottlenecks at Emart (or in Korea) are way more common here than they ever were in Superstore (or in Canada) in general. Why is this?

The cynical response of foreigners is that Koreans “don’t follow the rules.” If you’ve ever flown from some other country to Korea, you’ll have seen one example of this: the attendant announces that passengers in seats from rows 58-80 are boarding first. Immediately, a crowd of Korean travelers rushes the boarding area, only to be turned back. They hover, blocking the area from the people actually in those seats, and more often than not, they don’t line up. And remember, these are international travelers — the relative elite of the country in terms of cosmopolitanism and probably of socioeconomic class, too. (They have much less excuse than the somewhat amusing the Jeolla-bumpkin tourists who tried to butt ahead of me and shove their way to the front of the immigration line in Japan, claiming, after seeing a husband and wife side by side in the line, that “There’s two lines!”)

Yet Koreans are really a people who are into doing things the “right way.” It’s one of the things foreigners often notice early on: there’s a right way to do most everything, and Koreans are often firm about doing them that way. From seasonal variations in garments (thinking of clothing in terms of seasonal appropriateness, and often prioritizing seasonal considerations over the consideration of the specific weather of the day, for example, is a common observation) to the (relatively intricate) etiquette involved in drinking alcohol with other people, Koreans are very observant of whatever rules they have been convinced matter. And if any racists out there needed to be reminded that of course Korean society has the capacity to absorb and follow new rules, I’ll note that “long sleeves=fall-to-spring, short sleeves=summer” is a relatively new rule, and is still widely obeyed. (To a point that shocks Westerners, sometimes.)

We could say, also, “Well, they just don’t recognize all the rules we do. They don’t want rules governing grocery store behaviour.” This is interesting, and worth considering. But the thing is, as Lime pointed out to me while I bitched and complained on the way home — patient Lime, she does put up with my complaining more than I should make her do — it’s really common for Koreans to complain about how stressful a trip to the grocery store is, especially this time of year. They complain about a lot of the same things, they get the same headaches. Why, then, doesn’t a systematic call for changes in grocery store behavior occur, the way public campaigns against smoking do? Why doesn’t some grocery store owner decide to ban the shouting and rearrange the aisles to facilitate good customer flow?

This maps back onto a more general common question foreigners ask about things that Koreans really hate, but generally do nothing to change — like the way music is blasted out of shop fronts in certain parts of town, or litter on the streets, or all kinds of other things.

I don’t think I have the answer, but all of this brings to mind an exercise I did with a conversation class the other night. The exercise involved a discussion of what’s often called “pet peeves,” though I hate that term and find too many students misuse it. (I framed the discussion instead as “things people do that drive you crazy!”)

After students had compiled some lists of things mentioned during small-group discussions, the second half of the exercise involved discussing “appropriate preventatives” or devising “punishments” that “fit the crime.” That was framed in terms of, “Imagine you are king or queen for a day. What kind of ‘punishment’ would you declare the legal consequence for actions on your list?”

I gave them a few examples. One of the most common complaints was of other people falling asleep on the subway while seated next to tyhe students, and leaning on them while sleeping, for many stations at a time. The punishment I suggested was that such people would be photographed by the subway camera and be barred from sitting down while riding the subway. Since it’s harder to fall asleep and lean on people while standing, the problem is systematically solved, right?

Except my students really, seriously struggled with this. The notion of devising universal, generalized consequences for actions, or preventative measures against specific behaviours, was something that they simply could not get the hang of. Occasionally, it was because of a deeper “freedom” that they objected to the loss of, such as one guy who said, “I think people have the right to pick their nose, if they don’t wipe it on others.” (A girl in his group said, “Aha! Now I understand why your girlfriend is so unhappy these days!” It became a running joke in that group.) But more often, it was an apparent inability to get a handle on the generalizability of responses to behaviours. Some students cited personal reasons for being unable to make laws — one guy hated when people talk during movies, but refused to imagine a punishment for it, since his parents are among the people who never shut up during films and punishing his own parents was verboten. One group kept focusing on punishments such as slapping the hand of anyone smoking in their presence, or punching any man who sexually harassed them. They didn’t seem to get the difference between, “What would you do personally?” and “What nationwide punishment would you suggest?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since the night we did that exercise. It made me think about whether it’s exposure to explicit trappings of legality, of explicitly organizational system, that produces the kind of thinking that gravitates towards legalistic and systematically organized solutions for problems, as opposed to ad hoc ones. This may go some ways to explaining why bottlenecks in the subway system (on stairs, escalators, etc.) seemed so much less common in Japan, even during rush hour in Tokyo, than they are in the Seoul system. Maybe it’s not just the Keep Right signs everywhere in the subway system, but also the more general behavioral tendencies that come from a common mentality affected by long-term high-level exposure to systematic organization of people?

Anyone who thinks the free-for-all is absolutely a good thing will find me suggesting they look into the issues of traffic fatalities, the spread of AIDS in Korea (sadly, in a society so gung-ho about campaigns, none has been launched to promote AIDS awareness and safe sex practices that are normative throughout the developed world, and AIDS is therefore on the rise), the amount of private spending on education (hakwons and the English boom are also part of the free-for-all, and cost many families a significant portion of their income), political corruption, rampant disdain for intellectual property of any kind, and the insanity that is real estate here. For starters. As my Korean acquaintances point out, these things exist to some extent anywhere — anywhere they’re allowed to exist, anyway — but they’re particularly problematic here, in comparison to much of the developed world.

Anyway, I’m not done thinking about this, but this is where my thoughts are right now. Might be different in a week.

UPDATE: I should also note that I neglected to mention another passing thought, which is that I find it significant that, despite all of what I perceive as frustrating inconvenience in daily life — certainly for Koreans, as much as or more than for me — Korea is a (relatively) safer place to live than lots of places where these inconveniences gave been banished by systematic organization. This is interesting. I think if a lot of North Americans lived with the kinds of annoying frustrations that Koreans seem just to take in stride, they’d go postal on a more regular basis than they already do.

This is interesting because it suggests some other element in Korean society is doing something, perhaps quite effectively, where systematic organizational approaches may be less likely to bring results. Hmm.

9 thoughts on “Grocery Stores, Bottlenecks, Systematic Organization, and Postality

  1. I liked all the pushing and shoving. I knew if I could handle Seoul I could make it in New York or some other major Metropolitan area in the USA. I’ve always worn it like a badge of honor – it set me apart from the other JET’s in Japan.

  2. Hmmm. Badges of honor wear thin after over half a decade; maybe they wouldn’t for you, but they have for me. And really, if you look at the faces of the people walking down the street, there’s so much sullenness, so much frowning. I can’t help but imagine it has something to do with how stressful the most basic things can be here. (And by stressful I don’t mean fraking one out stress, but the more pernicious, low-level stress that goes on and on and which one barely notices or just shrugs and says, “Well, it’s not like I can do anything.” When in fact, things could be less stressful, very easily.

  3. Point taken – I wasn’t a long term resident. Japan was crowded, but they had much better radar, which made for a more pleasant urban experience.

    Still, I’ve longed for the big city experience ever since I was a twelve, and even the negatives beat positives hands down. One man’s slice of quiet, polite, suburban heaven is another man’s empty wasteland. As the french say, chacun son gout!

  4. Mark,

    Yeah, they have better radar in Japan, but also, etiquette seems somewhat more present, and it seems to me it’s because of top-down cultivation of same. Signs tell you which side to walk on, and everyone hears announcements urging them not to yell into their phones on the subway.

    I’m surely not dreaming of suburban politeness — yuck! — but just a little better radar, a little more organization and system. I’ve begun to wonder whether the local allergy to it here is related to later modernization, or to maybe some kind of backlash against the same, since I imagine Japan organized Korea in a relatively similar way while running the place. Maybe the lack of top-down is a natural reaction to having had top-down rule by foreigners for a whole generation. (Sort of like how lots of people in newly democratic Eastern Bloc countries expected “freedom” not as a freedom of activity within socially-understood constraints, but rather as a total, unconstrained freedom.)

    I hear you about the benefits of small towns not outweighing the negatives of city life… sort of. I surely don’t want to live in small towns — one point of disagreement between Lime and me is about that. But it also depends how sanely your city is set up. The standard American (and central Canadian) model of the city, where (in most places) you need a car because public transport is so ridiculously bad, is very off-putting to me. But having access to art, music, proper cinema, and a population like you who are culturally and intellectually equipped to embrace and support that milieu, that’s worth a lot. (And is something I miss living outside of my own culture, since, however good the local one is, gaining access is much harder here for an outsider.)

  5. Toronto and New York have good public transit systems, and Washington D.C., isn’t so shabby either, although Lisa isn’t that crazy about it. What was Montreal like?

  6. It was pretty good in Montreal, too, though of course if you lived anywhere affordable, it was still a hike into town. (But I had a place that was a 25-minute train ride into downtown, and both the ticket and my place were pretty cheap.)

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