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“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.

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.

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.

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...
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