“Soybean Paste Girls” as a Barometer of, or Catalyst of, Consumerization of Korean Society?

I have a cold, so I’m keeping this relatively brief; hopefully it will also be relatively coherent.

I was thinking in EMart the other day. (E-Mart, for those who aren’t in Korea, is the big grocery chain here.)

Lime and I had just been in a restaurant, and the food had some to the table, well, er, unacceptably cold. I complained, and the server’s first reaction was to tell me, “No, it’s supposed to be a little cold.”

To which I responded, “Uh, no, it’s not.” With an implied, Yes, it’s Western food, and yes, I do know what the hell I’m talking about, young man.

The guy tried to make good, after trying to sideline my complaint, as he did. But there followed an amusingly silly series of gaffes at the restaurant. People “cleaned up the table” but only halfway, nobody took our order for over 20 minutes though the place wasn’t especially busy. And the killer was what Lime said about the guy’s first gambit when I pointed out my food was cold: she said, “You know, I think he probably only took the complaint seriously because you’re a Westerner. If it were me, alone, he probably wouldn’t have brought me a new plate of hot food.”

And, well, chances are that someone like Lime — a relatively young Korean woman — might not have known better. After all, the family at the table beside ours, when they got their tiny, single-serving bowl of soup, put it in the middle of the table and shared it just as one would a Korean side soup. They cut up the single-serving dishes and put them in the middle of the table for everyone to share, and even Lime found it weird. Actually, she found it more comment-worthy than I did! (I just said, “Let ’em eat it how they want, as long as they let me eat how I want, right, hon?”)

Now, I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m just describing what I saw. (I’m at the point now where this kind of thing doesn’t annoy me anymore because if it did, I’d be angry during many a meal.) But it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to try to run a Western-style restaurant when likely nobody on staff has ever experienced what being a customer in a decent Western restaurant is like.

I began to reflect on some of the other things I’ve been considering lately. For example… the fact that overall, “consumer society” in general is a relatively new thing in Korea. The emergence of consumer society, and the consumer society experience, happened in the West so long ago that to a Westerner, it seems like a natural phenomenon. Of course the customer is always right. It’s good for business!

Um, not here.

Candid Strangers
Being the customer and being wrong takes its toll after a few years.

Well, that exists to some degree in Korea, but not a large degree. I’ve had people yell at me after they screwed something up — such as the old man who, in the course of doing repairs on one of my saxophones, messed it up worse. “What did you do to it?” I asked, and he shouted at me until I left his shop, screwed up saxophone in hand. “Do you have the new CD by…” often gets a cursory glance into the computer database, and then a, “No.” When I worked in a music store, the immediate follow-up was, “Can I order you a copy?” but I’ve never been asked that once, and when I ask whether someone can order a copy for me, the answer is invariably negative. And while sometimes I’m sure requests are just refused because dealing with someone who only kind of speaks Korean is a pain in the butt, I also suspect I get treated better than a lot of Koreans would in the same situation. (Like how I got hot food when Lime wouldn’t have.)

I know, I know, most Koreans would just order it online. Online shopping is so huge here, in fact, that its growth may well have retarded the development of a recognizably modern consumer social experience. (That is, codes valuing the customer and exploiting familiar strategies to ensure return visits.) Personally, I think one reason most Koreans would do this is because the online shopping experience — devoid of individual people as it is — is much more pleasant than trying to get someone working in a shop to do anything for you! So maybe it’s a kind of mutually reinforcing dichotomy.

So what all that made me reflect on was a lecture by B.R. Myers that I missed, a few years ago, for which the main argument was that North Korean propaganda read, pretty much, “like a fascist’s guess of what communist propaganda should look like.” That’s a fascinating thought, if you consider it for a moment. If you’ve ever ordered any kind of Western food in a Korean restaurant — gotten a chopped steak instead of what the menu says, “Steak,” or a had fried chicken here — I’m used to how the bird is cut up now, but it still seems weird and even inconvenient to me where those cuts are placed, compared to what I grew up with — then you’ll get some sense of the difficulty of importing an essentially foreign ideological system into a society. What you get with North Korean communism is a plate of nachos covered in ketchup, honey mustard, and mayonnaise, with melted pizza cheese on top, and a side dish of ketchup plus a side or two of pickles. That is, nothing like what Western communists would call communism.

Soviet-Style True Value
A True Value shop in Seattle. They had way better pseudo-commie art, but this was all I managed to shoot.

I wonder if maybe something similar happened in the South? I don’t know about in terms of capitalism — I mean, capitalism can appear in many, many forms, right? though I’m curious what commenter Junsok Yang thinks, based on this comment — but in terms of what Korean society has been turning itself into over the last twenty or thirty years: a consumerist culture.

After all, though consumerism seems, to those of us who grew up in a wholly consumerist society, to be a natural emergence, just there. It’s not the case. In fact, consumerist society in the West, from what I’ve been reading, emerged just a couple of centuries ago, contemporaneous to — you guessed it! — the Gin Craze in England! (I’ll have more to say about this when I have enough time to get to Gin Lane and Soju-Ro once more.)

It seems to me, more often than not, that what you get in a shop or restaurant (or market) in Korea is a kind of weird emulation of a modern consumer society experience, but the emulation seems often to be performed by people who don’t really know firsthand what they’re emulating; so, like the chicken, the cuts are placed in oddly different places. Some organizations seem to emulate it better than others, and some seem not to get it at all.

The interesting thing to look at is the emergent young women’s consumer society. I’ve been trawling about online, trying to piece together the story of the Soybean Paste Girl archetype (or, dwenjang nyeo, as she’s called in Korean), and what I’ve found is that almost all of the criticism of this young woman is focused on her female-consumerism. That is: when she buys a coffee from Starbucks for W4,000 (usually about $4, though the won is doing badly these days) coffee, she gets criticized, but when a young man of the same age consumes two bottles of eminently acceptable (read: Korean) soju, nobody thinks to criticize it. The soju, that’s normal, but the Starbucks… that’s all foreign, all “expensive,” and more disturbingly, it’s “girly.” Girls can go there and have fun without men. (Which is doubly threatening to young men who frustratedly already see such women as “out of their league.”) As in, you see women in Starbucks with women, you see women in Starbucks with men. You almost never see men in Starbucks with men. Starbucks, like Gucci and Prada and Luis Vuitton before it, and like Outback and other “Western” restaurants since, are distinctly of appeal to women.

Bucheon Station Starbucks
Here's a random shot of a guy who seems to be alone at Starbucks: the exception that proves the rule.

It may well be that it’s the emerging sector of consumer society catering to single young women that leads the trend in this respect. Whether it will spread further is somewhat more of a big question in the sky.

Not that we can count on those young women to understand what customer service looks like outside Korea — not just in the West but in places like Hong Kong, or the modern shopping districts in Bangkok and Taipei and Tokyo — but one can be sure that a number of them will demand at least as good as what they see on the American TV shows that they so famously love to watch. (Like Sex and the City.) And since the companies that will be seeking to fill those needs are specifically foreign, and eager to maintain the same standards as in the West — Starbucks and Outback both take complaints on their websites, and also take good service-related compliments seriously too — it’s arguable that at least in the food and coffeeshop businesses, continued influx of seemingly foreign consumerist expectations is foreseeable.

For everything else, though, I think it’s safe to say, look online. Which makes me wonder what will happen to brick-and-mortar shops in Korea forty years from now. Doubtless some will survive — grocery stores, restaurants, and other places where people want to see things, heft them in their hands, try them on: clothing, to a degree, or cell phones. But one imagines the one advantage that such places in the West have — the positive consumer experience — may be so lacking even in a couple of decades that online shopping will have overtaken almost everything else.

Whatever you say, Miss...
Whatever you say, Miss...

14 thoughts on ““Soybean Paste Girls” as a Barometer of, or Catalyst of, Consumerization of Korean Society?

  1. Great thoughts as always, man.

    Korean society is being pulled taffee-like in so many directions, and one trend is the overall decrease in face-to-face interactions, something that used to be the lifeblood of group-centered, Confucianistic Korean society. PC-bahng culture, home computers, and online shopping might be seen, especially by older Koreans, as eroding the social bedrock.

    To be fair, we deal with somewhat similar issues in the West, but I appreciate your look at how these tidal forces are playing out in Korea.


  2. To address an early point in your essay, some places in the West are moving away from “the customer is always right.” In fact, I seem to be reading a lot these days about how the customer is not always right. The most obvious example to come to mind is David Chang of Momofuku in NYC. I suppose it could be argued that Chang and those like him cater to a special breed of people, and that with the advent of people like Gordon Ramsey it has suddenly become cool to get yelled at, but whatever the case, I believe the age of the customer being eternally and unequivocally right might be coming to an end. For now, at least.

  3. Thanks, guys,

    Kevin: yeah, definitely there’s something of the same phenomenon going on in the West. (Also, I wonder how true it was of Korea’s ostensibly Confucian past. I kind of wonder how much of that isn’t after-the-fact romanticization. Which brings me back to Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition.) It seems this process is going on all over, and tech does have something to do with it.

    Someone — in Mark Dery’s anthology of essays Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, I think — went so far as to accuse us of a growing epidemic of “interactive autism,” and though that was probably more in response to answering machines and email, that’s probably even more applicable now.

    But I think it’s probably even more dire in Korea because my growing sense — something I want to explore in terms of that Gin Craze series I keep never having time to work on — is that the West had a long period of transition where we had a public life unmediated by (advanced) telecommunications. We had time to develop a face-to-face consumer culture complete with etiquette, values, anxieties, rituals, and so on. Shopping in independent little shops in the US, from my experience, is more of an “experience”; the place has a vibe, the interactions are characteristic of that store, and it self-presents itself as an “experience.” Sometimes too much for my taste, or too ardently or manipulatively, or whatever, but still. Shopping in a little independent shop in Korea is, well — one little clothing shop and the one next to it, or the one down the road, are essentially interchangeable experiences, right down to you hearing the same music blasting from the speaker in front of each. (There are exceptions in certain districts, but those *are* exceptions.)

    I suspect maybe it’s that “character” and the conception of offline shopping more as a total experience that is keeping small indie bookshops and music stores and clothing places going to whatever degree they still are in the US.

    Which brings me to Charles’s comment: I think you’re right, Charles, and I think it’s for a good reason: the customer isn’t always right. From many years in retail during undergrad, I can agree wholeheartedly. But it’s rare that customers are willing to be shouted at by just anyone. I’ll be shouted at, maybe, by David Chang, but some random guy who screwed up my saxophone?

    Maybe this comes down to me mixing my characteristics. I think “the customer is always right” really works something like the food taboos in Orthodox Judaism — it’s an extreme principle set up to safeguard a more basic principle, which is, “Happy/Sated customers are likelier to provide repeat business.” Even if you disagree with a customer, you are less likely to call him an idiot or try kick him out of the store for talking down to you.

    I’d guess that with people like Chang and Ramsey (of whom I’ve never heard before your comment), it’s less an erosion of the basic idea that treating customers like crap is bad, than it is a kind of response to the watered-down crappiness you get when you literally observe (ie. pretend to believe) the idea that the customer is always “right.”

    That, and of course two other things: being yelled at by someone who knows what he or she is doing — a pro — could display his or her seriousness about the business at hand — chefs yell because food is important, etc. — a meme that’s been floating around for a long time. I can see a kind of sense in having an elite chef tell off someone for slathering ketchup or reaching for the salt shaker before tasting exquisitely prepared food.

    The other thing is that a certain unyielding attitude on the part of one’s hosts almost creates an exclusiveness, which is, as well, a dimension of “consumer experience.” Again, being hollered at by the random fella in the hole-in-the-wall shop doesn’t create that sense, but I can imagine it playing a part in a fancy restaurant in New York. (Or Apgujung.)

    But yeah, you know, I’m personally quite comfortable with the idea that the customer is not always right… if the host knows better. I certainly don’t know enough to tell someone how to cut sushi, for example. But that’s a very different scenario than some 20 year old kid trying to tell me that my steak or my pan-fried fish is “supposed” to be cold.

  4. the gendered patterns of consumption bit is interesting…what you said about the men feeling uneasy about women and their starbucks makes me think of something I read in this book (Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris) which said something about spinster clustering and how the guilds and town fathers were made uneasy by women forming households on their own, without being under the control of a male relative or (to a lesser extent) representative of the government or church (this is I suspect where you get the Magdalen houses in Ireland much later as well I suspect) and not just the idea of women meeting with women or women spending money but young women especially, quite possibly in this new interstitial state between childhood (controlled by parents) and adulthood (controlled by patrilocal in-laws) . . . that the Starbucks itself calls attention to the creation of this new young adulthood or whatever one might call it; not just the idea of women spending their own money on a foreign product, but the creation of a new state of being for women in general, as something other than married, widowed, or to-be-married. Of course you don’t see so much of the creation of that state until early in the modern era with the manufactories over here, arguably before the gin shops and after the beginning of the end for the guilds, which had already started shutting widows out….

    Very tried, but hoping that made some sense.

  5. I would have commented earlier, but I’ve been really busy lately. (and I have a make-up class in twenty minutes), so the comment is going to be short again. :)

    I think the general opinion is that consumer service is better now than it was compared to 1950s-1980s. Consumer service really rose in the 1990s as more markets were opened up to imports, and services became a very important competition factor for Korean retailers and manufacturers. (Maybe Lime should ask her parents or grandparents about how difficult it was to get a defective TV set fixed or changed in 1970s).

    Concerning emerging “consumer” culture, the “accepted” interpretation of Korean culture is that it has only recently became a consumerist culture, because until about 1990, Koreans saved a lot, and Korean consumer goods market was relatively closed, so Koreans did not have a lot to spend, and manufacturers did not need to pander to consumers. This mindset persists today. When policymakers and economists in America talk about increasing economic growth, they talk about increasing consumption; in Korea, the policymakers and economists emphasize increasing investment and exports (and cutting down consumption to increase savings to channel more investment). This view, however, is changing in the last five years or so.

    About female consumerism, I think you make some good points; and in many ways it may be due to changing culture and emergence of women. Traditionally men getting drunk like frat boys have been culturally acceptable (for at least last 100 years, probably longer); and women’s place was in the home – not going out drinking (coffee or soju). Also, until about 1990, most women depended on men (husband or father) for spending money, so if they consumed “wastefully”, people frowned on them. (Since women were spending other people’s money). I think Such views remain for both men and women even today. Many men (especially older men) do not like women spending money because of the traditional view of women, and the (probably mistaken) assumption that these women are spending money earned by their husbands or fathers; and many women (young and old, though obviously not all women) expect men to treat them and pay for everything because of that older traditional mind set. (I don’t know for sure, but I think younger men resent these type of women because women now generally have easier time getting first jobs than men, and women don’t have to spend nearly two years wasting time in the Army).

  6. I go to Starbucks frequently (usually in Texas, as I live in the middle of it), and always get tea, because my body doesn’t handle coffee well at all.

    I’m curious as to what sort of tea you can get in a Starbucks in Korea, now.

  7. I’m curious as to what sort of tea you can get in a Starbucks in Korea, now.

    The sort of swill they should be red-faced about calling tea.

    The Queen would be aghast!

  8. Ti-Amo, a chain of coffee shop you might know have one location here in Two Thousand City. I have often sat there, the only man, and wondered about why I am the only man.

    Interestingly, over the last few months more men have been coming in, but almost always with their girlfriends. Once or twice now I have seen groups of guys sit there, actually having coffee, but it is so strange that they are the first things you notice when you enter.

    Maybe the growing number of men who don’t drink alcohol will slowly start drifting to the coffee shops?

  9. Right, finally I have some time!


    Yes, that makes sense about the Medieval parallels to this pattern. Probably this is a pattern we can find in all major civilizations. At some point I really do want to try get around to a comparison of the Soybean Paste Girl and some literary character like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew and, comparing the Korean ajumma figure to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Maybe there’s a better set of characters to match, I don’t know, but something along those lines.

    The women’s households reminds me of a couple of things, but mostly about the government’s handling of family registers. I think it’s changed in the last few years, but it used to be that a woman was always on her family’s register, which posed a problem to Korean women who married foreign men. (I think the Korean women can now have their own family paperwork under their name, though according to this comment by Ranting Englishman on a somewhat unrelated post, it’s still hard to get a foreign man’s name into the system, even if the half-Korean child is his legitimate child and he is married to the mother!)

    This also ties in with a pretty interesting book I read about lovesickness in the middle ages that suggested the epidemic of love sickness among rich men was the aristocratic equivalent of witch-hunting among the poor. In both cases, you have men complaining of the supernatural hold that specific women had over them, which seems, in essence, tied to the dilemma that ceaselessly troubles men: women are so much “trouble” for us, but we really can’t live without ’em. This dependency seems to breed a desire for control among many, and to bubble up into social structures that allow men a measure of this kind of coveted control over women in general.

    I think you’re right about this anxiety tying in with a new interstitial state, though that has existed for a long time, I suspect. The difference is that the interstice is now acted out in public, and that it has become a demographic, with potential social and cultural effects. The sight of seeing young women together isn’t threatening in itself, but seeing young women having a grand old time without need for boys around — that’s scary to a lot of young men, I think. And when it’s relatively new… hence the vituperation of Starbucks.


    Thanks, the background you wrote helps! I think you’re right about the way a lot of this comes from older mindsets colliding with very modern change. In a sense, this is why I think an emergent female consumerism seems to be the tie, partly because it’s more visible as a “thing” than older forms of consumption that might not be so apparent as such.

    (Like I said, a night out with soju may not cost more than two coffees — especially when you include the anju side dishes — but the former has a long history, and the latter is “new.”

    As for job-getting, that’s interesting. I noticed that it was mostly female students getting jobs, but then, in my department it’s mostly female students, so I thought nothing of it. As for the time-wastage in the army… yes. But interestingly, I’ve never seen any guy who was, well, let’s say, “bright,” who made extensive use of the term. It was always the seemingly less-intelligent guys who talked about soybean paste girls.

    (I say “seemingly” because I think as much as I like to think I can see past communication difficulties, one must always be willing to doubt one’s judgment a little. When I speak Korea, for example, I sound like an idiot, so…)


    William’s exaggerating a touch, but yeah, most of the tea here is green tea-ish stuff. In a place like Starbucks or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf I think you can get stuff like Earl Grey or English Breakfast, as well as various sorts of chai, which has enjoyed a vogue here in the past few years. But I think you still need to do to a specialty tea shop or foreign foodstuffs market to get the good brands of Western-styled teas. And things that seem to have come into vogue in Canada, at least, like Rooibos, I haven’t seen much around here. But then, I haven’t been looking too carefully.

    I’ll also add that bean coffee is sort-of available in supermarkets, or Starbucks, but that people who are really into coffee buy
    it online, fresh-roasted, from places like this. (Which is sales point on Gmarket for the the service we use: 로스터스빈 — Roaster’s Bean.) I kind of wish this place wasn’t so far, though.

    Finally, as for tea stuff in Korea, they do some interesting things with green tea. By which I mean interesting in a good way. Green tea latte, green tea ice cream, green tea cakes… soem of them are pretty damned good!

    William —

    Heh. Maybe it’s un-Canadian of me, but to hell with the queen’s opinion — I like making the old lady aghast! Maybe I should serve her green tea latte if I ever meet her? I did once place God Save the Queen for her son and, I think, Lady Di, back in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, if memory serves correctly. :)

    I don’t know the chain, but yeah, I know the experience. I actually don’t frequent coffeeshops anymore — Iksan was where I did that. Jeonju had only one, across town, and in Bucheon I find them so crowded and noisy that I get more work done elsewhere. Even at home! The only way I can stand coffeeshops is with earphones in.

    Maybe coffee is coming into vogue among men who prefer not to have to drink as much? I took a class out last semester and said we could go for a beer or coffee, whichever they preferred. Even the guys seemed happy with the idea of coffee and not beer. Another possibility is that it might be the obvious social drink for men who, for religious reasons, abstain. (I have met some guys who were hardcore Presbyterian and for that reason drank no alcohol. Though, come to think of it, they were maybe the only guys I’ve known who never drink.)

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