IF THERE IS a heart to Seoul, it is the Lotte Department Store. It is permanently crowded, with ten floors of stuff that costs more than it should. My landlady was a VIP club member because she spent over four million won (close to US$4,000) in an average month. She once invited me to the club lounge. I’m sure she enjoyed other small differences, making her feel a little special amidst the mass of other shoppers within and the traffic jams without. There is no more representative place to bang shoulders with Korea.
It was by chance my focal point when I arrived in the country. My office was around the back and my first three weeks were spent in the adjacent Lotte Hotel. I learned to navigate – in a country where streets are not named and buildings not numbered – with reference to landmarks.
I would walk to the nearby Central Post Office to telex stories to my newspaper in the USA. Over the road, hundreds of people would line the pavement’s edge alongside the department store, where they would stare in the same direction, all of them waiting for buses. This was in pre-history, before Koreans dyed or bleached their hair and had plastic surgery, when foreigners looked really foreign and caught everyone’s eye. That bus queue full of people was staring at me. I had to walk past them all – it was a long hundred-yard squirm. Moving under such scrutiny, a chap lacks confidence that his foot will land squarely with the next step. It was a mental version of a physical sensation I’d experienced while working on an offshore oil rig where the wind was often so strong that on the helicopter deck you had to fight to stop gusts pushing your legs from under you.
The store itself presented other stresses. At opening time, hundreds of attendants would line the aisles, Japanese style, to bow to the first customers.
This was the price of beating the rush. It was like arriving at the airport after a long-haul flight to find you’d won the ten-millionth-visitor award. Sometimes, it’s not unnatural to pray for an earthquake. I learned to manage my Lotte and post office visits to minimize embarrassment.
Then it all evaporated...
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