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Scott Ostler

Sometimes It's Best to Bow Out Quickly

September 23, 1988|Scott Ostler

SEOUL — An Olympic moment:

I am trapped in a huge department store, surrounded by thousands of young women who may or may not be real, who seem to be trying to bow and sing me to death. I am not sure I can make it to the exit. I am trying not to panic or show fear.

I have come here to browse, having heard that this giant Hyundai department store, a mile from the main Olympic Stadium, is a wondrous place.

The gleaming basement truly is stupendous, 2 acres of Korean food arranged in beautiful displays, on grocery shelves and in walk-up restaurant windows.

A man stands at a box of live crabs and holds one out for my inspection. The crab slashes at me with a huge pincher.

Mysteries. At one display, dried fish are arranged ladder-rung-like on hanging ropes, for what purpose I have no idea, for 150,000 won (about $200) per stringer.

There is a corner for "Just Born Food." If they do not sell an item immediately, no doubt it is sent to a day-old shop to be sold as "Born Again Food."

Most mysterious of all, I notice that there are many, many sales clerks standing by to assist the shopper. I mean many . More sales clerks than shoppers. Behind the counter of one tiny walk-up food stand there are eight women, who barely have room to breathe.

I make my way to the escalator and ride up into the eight-floor maze of the beautiful, upscale store, unaware that I am ascending into trouble.

On every floor there are few customers but many, many, many female sales clerks. Each saleswoman wears the Hyundai uniform--white blouse, blue vest, blue skirt, black patent-leather shoes, white anklets. They all seem to be the same age, maybe 20, give or take a month.

Each clerk is trim, neatly groomed and standing alertly at her post. None of them are popping gum, slouching or yawning. Many bow as I pass and say, " Yoboseyo " (hello).

I stop to look at a rack of shirts and within 4 seconds a woman is at my side, politely holding the shirt for my inspection, a Korean Vanna White.

In another department I buy a commemorative coin set for a friend back home. The clerk seems amused yet pleased at my tasteful purchase. I move to the toy department and buy a toy car for my son. The woman shows me how the car works, zooming it politely across the counter-top.

She cannot find the toy's original box. "Sorry," she says with feeling. When I am made to wait more than 5 seconds for my change, she says "Sorry." She, like the previous clerk, smiles and seems slightly amused, as if I had just told a charming story. Maybe it was the way I said, "I will take that one, please."

Five minutes later, the same toy clerk rushes up to me in another department and hands me a box for the little car. "Sorry," she says, bowing.

I stop to look at a display of women's blouses. "Ten percent off," the clerk says politely. As I have no money left, I ask if the items will still be on sale tomorrow.

She weighs my question for a moment, then says, "OK."

Now I am beginning to sense danger. There are fewer customers and seemingly more sales clerks. They stand along the aisles now and bow as I walk past.

I have become accustomed to bowing and to courtesy. At the Olympic Village I saw a driver nearly run over a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The pedestrian had to leap out of the way, his life spared by inches.

The car screeched to a halt. Assailant-driver and near-victim, both South Koreans, faced one another, staring for long moments, neither of them moving. Finally the pedestrian bowed deeply from the waist and walked away.

Now I notice that the pace of saleswomen bowing is beginning to quicken. I try to return each bow, but it is becoming difficult.

Each aisle has become two solid rows of clerks, bowing and yobosejo- ing. I am beginning to feel like an Army general inspecting the troops. The politeness is overwhelming. I sense I should be doing something, perhaps handing out small gifts.

Instead of "hello," I catch myself mumbling, "Thank you, thank you," like a bad impersonation of Elvis.

Browsing is now out of the question. I wouldn't want 12 women to fight over the right to hold up a necktie. I feel like Rob Lowe at Macy's.

Reinforcements seemed to have been called in. Women on both sides of the aisle bow as I pass, like parallel rows of toppling dominoes. Trying to return all the bows, left and right, I find myself walking bent over at the waist like Groucho Marx.

In the clear? No. I spot another woman out of the corner of my eye. I turn quickly and bow. It is a mannequin. I am becoming dizzy.

I am wishing I had dressed better. Why didn't I wear a clean shirt? Why didn't I wear a cummerbund and a sword?

Now I notice there are no other customers on the floor. Goodness, maybe the place has closed and the clerks are too polite to tell me. Maybe the store closed an hour ago, but they are prepared to let this tattered and dazed American shop all night long.

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