Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shopping (mis)adventures in Korea (Day 20 – 19 October)

My third shopping trip at E-mart is as eventful as ever.  An attempt to quickly get a few items after school turned into another two and a half hour gruelling mental exercise.  Getting to E-mart is surprisingly quick and uneventful apart from an attempt on the taxi driver’s part to make conversation with me (something about a big iron?).  Cart in hand, I confidently set out to the stationery section for a few red pens.  Looking for red pens, which I never actually found, took longer than I’d anticipated for the entire trip so a decision was made: McDonald’s for dinner (bleh!). 

Feeling slightly ill although no longer hungry, I attempt to finish my shopping as quickly as possible.  A wrong turn into a section I had never been proves to be rather enlightening as I find several things that are exactly what I would like in my apartment – many of which I have already bought less satisfactory items.  The jackpot discovery is a table, mirror, dresser and bathroom unit that are all perfect…and bulky and impossible to get home in a taxi so I have pass on them for now.  Two hours later, the only item I’m still looking for is a bath towel.  I’ve managed to find face clothes, hand towels and all the other bathroom supplies but a proper sized towel is still hiding somewhere in the store.  I dig deep within my rapidly depleting reserves of courage and attempt to ask someone for help in the limited Korean with which I have recently become comfortable. 

As I approach an employee, I can see the dread in her eyes and imagine she’s thinking something like Please not me!  A game of charades ensues with props that I thought would make the enquiry easy.  I hold up a hand towel, point to it, use a gesture and say ‘bigger’ in Korean.  She somehow understands this to mean that I’m looking for a pillow case – a big pillow case.  I check that the thing that I’m holding is actually a towel and try again.  Her next guess: a bathrobe.  A few more guesses of things like a kitchen towel (closest guess so far) and, bizarrely, a tablecloth and I think of one more approach: When I set out on this trip, I did not envisage myself miming taking a shower, looking around for towel and then ‘shaking’ myself dry like a dog in front of a growing audience of bemused onlookers in what was previously a quiet aisle in E-mart.  My humiliation is increased when, finally understanding what it is that I’m looking for, we return to where I approached her and she shows me the bath towels on the bottom shelf.  On my way to the tills, I stop only to get a bottle of wine and a cork screw.

Purchases in hand, I manage to succeed in looking like I know what I’m doing and head to the waiting taxis.  I once again show the taxi driver my address and we’re off.  The streets are fairly quiet at this stage and I’m tempted to close my eyes just for a minute if it weren’t for the fact that he is watching a Korean tv programme while driving.  I find myself anxiously watching the road while he watches his programme.  I’m so focused on the street that it takes me a few minutes to realise we have not only passed my apartment but are now heading down Airport Road and out of my neighbourhood.  A few more kilometres and there’ll be nothing but fields around us.  With a quick mental plea that this is just an innocent mistake, I beat my broken brain to try and remember the Korean for “Turn around”, “Go straight/left/right” but all I can remember is the “please” that gets tacked onto the end of these directions.  Yet another trip to E-mart has ended in my wondering if I’m going to end up in tomorrow’s news…  Thankfully, the driver seems to be picking up on my distress signals and gathers, probably from my constantly looking back in the direction we should be travelling, that he needs to turn around.  I’m suddenly grateful that I already know he can drive without looking at the road and can watch my hand signals to direct him to my apartment.  I’m barely in my apartment when I start opening a bottle of much needed wine and chocolate I both recognise and can pronounce.

Understanding Korean Items

Unpacking my purchases, I’m reminded that shopping in Korea is a bit like gambling…with someone else’s money.  No matter how carefully I try to mentally add up the total purchases, it’s never correct and discovering what I’ve purchased is a bit like spending a couple of hundred dollars on several (sometimes expensive) lucky packets.  What you buy and what you think are buying is not always the same thing, and in the exhaustion of trying to figure what some things are, there always seems to be a duplicate of at least one item.  I now have two toothbrush holders that, collectively, hold five toothbrushes.  Perhaps I should buy the bulk pack of toothbrushes and have one for different days of the week...

Korea, like most of Asia I suppose, likes ‘cutesy’ things.  At times it can be rather entertaining – like finding the Teddy Bear Picnic toilet seat – but it can also be frustrating having so many choices with no ‘grown-up’ option.  A search for a simple A4 notebook, for example, turns into a 15 minute contemplation of which thickness, size, colour and binding you would like followed by another 15 minutes deciding which picture you would like on the cover. 

Products are generally designed to be cute but, sometimes, it seems that no real consideration has been given to what the product will look like when used.  An example of this is one of the toothbrush holders I bought.    While the idea is rather practical, the final image just makes me feel so inappropriate every time I brush my teeth!  Is this the cow that all the cows (or rather bulls) envy?  My options were a pig, a blue elephant, a bear, a cow, and two mystery characters.  A nice flower, a lamp or even a tree would be more appropriate than only animals that are all destined to have toothbrushes thrust up their backsides!

Another curious feature of shopping in Korea is the propensity to sell everything in bulk whether you need a lifetime’s supply of that particular product or not.  I find myself using more of certain items than I would normally do simply because I have so much of them.  I’m convinced that even if I were to renew my contract for the next five years or more I still wouldn’t be able to use up certain things.  My latest bulk purchase was batteries.  I need two for my camera, which I always seem to leave at home anyway.  The only batteries I could find were Duracell - still promoting the Duracell bunny that keeps going and going when all the other bunnies have given up.  Does Duracell not realise the paradox of its own product?  If this is the battery that keeps on going when all the others have died, why can I only purchase it in a pack of 21? 

My final mystery purchase for the day is, I think, the white stuff  (makeolli) that looks like spoiled paint that I first learned about at NZ2’s birthday celebrations.  Whether or not I’ll be brave enough to try it is another matter entirely…

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