Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post.
One day, Garam said we would be going to the baek-hwa-jeom (백화점 ). Not only that, but it was the only thing on the agenda for the day. My heart sunk. So I’m doomed to spend my Korean vacation in some sterile, shopping hell halfway around the world from my family: the Lotte Department Store. After an elaborate breakfast of rice cakes, yogurt, and four different kinds of fruit all peeled and sliced by Mother, we piled into Father’s 15-year-old white Daewoo, with me sitting in the front for extra leg room and the two women in the back.
The Lotte Department Store was just a few kilometers from home, but we took the car to bring home any purchases. Father calmly navigated through the single-lane roads of his neighborhood while I anxiously watched the foreign traffic. We came to a five-way intersection with no lights or stop signs, and I exhaled with relief as we sailed safely to the other side. “How do you know who goes first in that situation?” I asked Garam, and she explained that whoever wants to go the most goes first. Like a game of Korean chicken, I thought.
Father’s route required making a U-turn onto a five-lane road, which felt illegal and dangerous, but the taxis and other cars on the road were doing it, which reassured me that everything was normal. The turn took us past the large, beige Lotte building and its gigantic banners of Korean celebrities. A steep onramp led into the parking structure, and at the top of the onramp we were greeted by a parking attendant wearing a bellhop-style uniform complete with a hat, tailcoat, and white gloves. He bowed profusely towards each car, blowing his whistle and directing it to turn left with a sweeping hand gesture, then bowing again in gratitude when it heeded his command. When it came to our turn, the parking attendant hesitated for a split second. Then his white gloves shot out in the opposite direction, signaling a right turn instead of a left.
“Why are we going this way?” I asked. “Because we’re em-bee-jee,” the women chimed in from the backseat. We entered an area with signs reading “MVG”, which stood for Most Valuable Guests. The cars there, almost all recent model years in white or some shade of gray, were spotless, as if fresh out from the car wash rather than off the polluted streets of Busan. Father’s Daewoo stood out from the crowd because of its age, and I liked him for it. The floor of the parking garage, similar in color and cleanliness to the cars, made extraordinarily loud squeaking noises that echoed off the walls when Father turned into a parking spot, backing into it as all the other cars had backed into theirs. At the MVG entrance stood a sleek brown podium for valet services manned by two uniformed attendants, and behind it was a little glass-enclosed area with sofas to sit in, TV to watch, and self-serve coffee to drink while you wait for your car.
Once inside the store itself, we all struggled to keep up with Mother. Her daughters nicknamed her jwee, meaning “mouse,” because of her stature and how she constantly scurried around sniffing out deals. We walked past floor-to-ceiling displays of beauty products, shelves of ginseng root and an endless array of herbal supplements, a small wine shop, and a large grocery store. That was just the bottom floor. The place was buzzing with energy because there were people everywhere. I quickly learned why Mother didn’t linger anywhere for more than milliseconds: at any hesitation, a middle-aged store ahjumma would immediately approach to give the spiel about her product. Seeing a foreigner, most just smiled and let me pass, but a few tried out some English words to get my attention. “Oh-gahn-eek!,” one woman said, pointing to an organic herbal supplement. And one of my favorites: “Goot fo men!”
We took the escalator up, passing through all the different clothing floors. On one we passed by a small table where a dapper young man sporting a suit, shiny wristwatch, and tinted glasses hawked merchandise to a flock of ahjummas. I couldn’t see what he was selling, but I looked down on the scene with fascination as we ascended higher, these older women practically climbing over each other to reach the man’s table. The escalator was the only place where Mother stood still, perhaps because it was the only place where nobody was anxious to sell her something. We reached the sixth floor, got off, and made a beeline for the MVG lounge. After using a special proximity card to pass through a sliding door, we were greeted at a desk by two friendly young women. Garam’s mother had a few words with them, and soon we were whisked off to a low table with four cushioned chairs.
The MVG lounge was about the size and smell of a large coffee shop, and its young, mostly female staff served complementary beverages and tasty little prepackaged Korean cookies to members and their guests. It was nothing like the hipster haunts I knew back in Arizona; judging from my first few days in the country, the entire concept of hipsterism seemed foreign to Koreans. The average age of the MVG clientele was probably 20 years older than Garam and myself: ahjummas occupied every nook and cranny, which made it all the more surprising when we got a table. There were no laptops out, and very few phones. Nobody seemed to be working on anything. Instead, all these well-coiffed ladies sat with good posture, sipping their complementary beverages, nibbling on their complimentary cookies, and talking, presumably about their home lives, the latest book they’d been reading, or the (astronomical) cost of maintaining their MVG status. I didn’t see any children, which reflected both advanced age of the clientele and the fact that we were there during the workday.
Mother loved coffee. She had a large cup every morning, and sometimes a cup and a half if there was any left over in the coffee machine after she finished pouring for the rest of the family. The MVG lounge was perfect for round two, and the Koreans all ordered Americanos. I was not a coffee drinker, so when the menu arrived, I skipped over the coffees and teas in favor of something at the bottom called ba-na-na joo-seu, and the ladies registered surprise at my unconventional choice. It turned out to be more of a banana smoothie than a juice, something typically ordered by Korean kids — and it was delicious. After the coffee pit stop, we descended back from the quiet confines of the MVG lounge into the Lotte labyrinth.
One section had an amazing food court. The space was white and spotless, like a manufacturing clean room floor, but with flashes of color here and there contributed by the various food items on display. The bright heat lamps and glass enclosures at each white stall enhanced the appeal of whatever they were selling. There was boong-eo-bang (red-bean-filled dough in the shape of a fish), kun goguma (roasted sweet potatoes), donkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets), deok (rice cake) and odeng (fish cake) skewers to grab and eat on the go. There were small decorative rice-based creations that looked like wedding cakes for chipmunks. There was soft-serve ice cream. Mother’s agenda only allotted enough time to visit about half of the stalls but all of them looked dedicated to satisfying children’s (or adult children’s) cravings for junk food.
All the food was Korean: no pizza, no Thai, nothing to appeal to the eclectic tastes of a diverse population like that of the United States. I saw no reason to add international diversity when everything already looked so incredibly appealing. None of the offerings in Korean junk food heaven, however, gave me the same pleasure as my first bingsoo. This would later get me in trouble, because when asked to name my favorite food at the end of the trip, I named bingsoo without hesitation — and without giving props to any of the homemade dishes prepared by Mother. Not only was bingsoo not one of the many dishes that Mother had slaved over, it wasn’t a proper dish but a dessert. We ordered two of them at a coffee shop on the Lotte Department Store’s eighth floor. They arrived in bowls so large that I was certain we would not finish them between four of us.
Bingsoo starts with a base of shaved ice. Then come the fruits: banana, strawberry, mango, and kiwi, all organized neatly around the central mound of fluffy white ice powder. Finally, a sugary red bean paste, and two large, pillowy rice cakes dusted with potato starch top it off. Sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the entire creation makes it look like an active fruit volcano. Condensed milk? Isn’t that the unhealthy stuff that… ooh, yeah, I thought as the first spoonful of sweet ice fluff hit my tongue and the dopamine receptors started firing. I began to tune out the Korean conversation, and the family, sensing the beginning of my love affair with the dessert, let me finish almost an entire bingsoo by myself. The best part was that it left me feeling satisfied, not guilty or disgusted as an equivalent volume of ice cream would have. When I returned the empty bowls to the counter, I made eye contact with the young female employee who had made the desserts, and I gave her an earnest kamsa hamnida. She nodded shyly. My mind returned to the advice I had received from my American friend back on the airplane: “You have to try the bingsoo.”
After staking out another table in the MVG lounge for the afternoon, Mother chose one or two of us at a time to assist her with each item on her agenda for that day. First, she took me and Garam to see the shoe-repair man, who had his own small marble counter in a less-popular area of the building. After Service, or “A.S.” in Korean, was an important part of the Lotte experience. Garam had worn out the heels on one of her favorite pairs of shoes, so the shoe-repair man took them and asked us to come back in an hour. An hour, I thought. That’s it? Garam and Mother were pleased with the turnaround time, and Garam lamented to Mother that it would take days or even a week to get similar service in the U.S. In another department, we went to look at an outfit for Garam that Mother had earmarked for purchase. After some fittings and discussions, Mother made her purchases with her Lotte card and we stopped for the heels on our way back to the MVG lounge.
Later, while snacking on some MVG cookies, I was chosen for a solo mission. Mother took me away to visit the men’s section and try on a suit. It was my first time alone with her, and I didn’t know what to say. As we walked, she spoke to me in measured Korean sentences, as if I could undersand what she was saying in the first place. We made an awkward pair: the giant and the jwee. When we arrived at the men’s section, I was confused because some of the brand names looked Italian, and I later learned that Korean companies had licensed the Italian brand names in order to manufacture cool, Western-sounding clothing lines for the Korean market. The same was true for some of the French brand names. The models on the backlit posters in the storefronts appeared to be B-list Western models, which saddened me. Do Koreans aspire to Western mediocrity?
Mother kept up her monologue as we navigated the maze of clothing racks. We entered a shop with a sleek logo emblazoned over the entrance, where a younger man in a form-fitting suit stood behind a small desk, looking at his phone. He immediately stepped forward and greeted Mother with a gentle bow, while I received the customary Western handshake, but with a Korean twist: his opposite arm touched his shaking arm at the elbow, as a sign of deference. The man reeked of cigarette smoke. Mother quickly scanned the racks and pulled a pair of pants for me to try on in the dressing room. The pants were clearly way too long for me, but I took them anyways as Mother and the salesman pointed me to a tiny closet in the corner of the shop.
I scrambled to take off my casual shoes and jeans. In the quiet of the dressing-room stall, my perspective suddenly reverted to that of the American tourist. Good Lord, I’m in my underwear in a tiny closet in Korea with Garam’s mother and some guy who just got back from his smoke break waiting outside, neither of whom speaks any English! What the hell am I doing? There was a pair of large, ugly dress shoes on the floor with the heel fabric missing, which I realized was intended for me. I slipped on the one-size-fits-all shoes, pulled up the pants, and walked out still feeling half-naked, with much of the thin pants fabric bunched around my ankles.
The pants were tight. I wanted to communicate that, but I hadn’t learned the Korean term for “ball-crushing” yet. I heard Mother and the salesman use the phrase sleem pee-shee a few times as they analyzed my form. When I looked at the tag, there it was — “Slim Fit” — printed in English. I could get by in Korea, I thought, all I have to do is speak English with a thick Korean accent. Mother approached me and grabbed the sides of the pants, commenting on how good they looked on me. I glanced in the mirror, and she was right; I could have passed for a B-list Western model on one of the storefront posters. Whenever Mother made a comment, the salesman chimed in, generally echoing whatever she said.
I eventually nodded my consent to make the purchase, and Mother instructed the salesman on how to tailor the length of the pants so that they would just barely cover the heels of my dress shoes without dragging on the ground. Wait, who’s in charge here? I wondered as Mother gave the man instructions. Before leaving, Mother bought a second suit in a different color. “Grandmother also wanted to buy you a suit,” she said slowly, enunciating for my benefit, “and they’re having a two-for-one sale.” My total suit inventory tripled that day, but I worried how much airspace between my thighs I would have to forfeit to fit in with Korean culture. From then on, we became regular visitors to the Lotte Department Store, and the MVG lounge became like an extension of the family’s living room. I ordered the ba-na-na joo-seu so often that it became my drink.
Nevertheless, after a while I grew restless and began fidgeting in my armchair. I never imagined I would spend so much time in a department store. I should be out there getting immersed in the Korean culture: temples, palaces, mountains… Are we just going to sit here sipping coffee all day? But in my naive tourist’s exuberance, I had failed to recognize Lotte for the full-fledged cultural experience that it was: the culmination of a country’s historic economic rise to prominence, from moat saneun nara (literally “country that can’t live”) to chal saneun nara (“country that lives well”). The MVG lounge was the boardroom, the place where well-to-do Korean ahjummas discussed high-level strategies and made decisions for their families, and thus for the future of Korea.
Either that or, as Garam put it, they were just a bunch of old bats frittering away their middle age with gossip. I’m starting to love this girl, I thought.
Previously in this series:
Now based in Silicon Valley, Stefano Young reached level-four fluency on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) test and appeared on Korean news channels such as KBS and YTN while studying the language in Los Angeles. He is especially interested in historical dramas, the dialect of Busan, and eating vast quantities of bingsoo.