I try to sneak by them, thinking that the rush of other customers will distract from my presence. But being the only honky around tends to attract attention, and anyways the staff of this grocery store exist only to watch every person passing by them like hawks. I hover over the dumpling selection for just a second too long, and suddenly one of them is upon me, existing all up in my face, chattering at a constant pace about this and that sale and about how my dumpling intake could be so much greater if I would just give in and go for the quadruple pack. I reach for one package and the woman, old and possibly kindly and in another life maybe someone who would enjoy needlepoint, refers back to her training and very nearly smacks the package out of my hand. Her face is awash in disgust as she gestures virulently back to the quadruple pack.
It is her duty. I am not being served properly unless I am being thoroughly accosted.
I still haven’t developed any good coping skills to fend off these attacks on my personal space. I used to treat my time in the grocery store as a kind of gentle saunter, a contemplative and zen walking meditation on the sustenance I might acquire for myself, but over time this image has diminished. The staff of my local grocery store are on me the second I enter their corporately defined radar, discussing with me what deals I could be getting and hectoring me about how they might help me access those deals. Do I need anything? Do I want anything? Do I have any questions, hopefully, dear God, that can be asked and answered in Korean? Will I buy this thing? How about this thing? What if we point to it, or pick it up and cradle it like a baby for your consideration? Just leave your wallet and maybe I’ll take care of it for you.
Because I am ultimately a highly contrary person, I often will simply go with whatever I wanted to pick up in the first place, despite whatever bargains might be on. I hope that this will discourage the staff from braying in my direction all the time, but it only serves to raise their ire further. They are confused—no, they are revolted that I might be cheating myself out of a deal. I am not only besmirching myself and robbing me of my own money, but I am implying that their interventions were not enough. That I have not been convinced of the righteous path. That I have not received a thorough enough badgering–that I have not received proper service.
I’m coming to realize that notions of good service are very different around the world. In Korea, at least, good service is having someone essentially be on you all the time to cater to your varied and many whims. At the grocery store I need to deke in and out of aisles to avoid the rampaging staff who are constantly trying to help me acquire greater and more food at amazing mark-down prices. In regular stores, I have a helpful stalker who sees me upon entering and basically leaps upon my back and straddles my person for the duration of the time in their store, breathing directly into my face all the while so that I might never forget their due attention. Do I need anything? If I do, I will simply need to think it hard enough, as their direct and constant proximity to my body and brain will almost certainly give them access to my wishes via osmosis or our very cellular walls fusing. In restaurants it is the same, even the relatively busy ones: waiters are always a shout away, and usually they are hovering around, besieging you with their unyielding invasions and constantly poking and prodding at various things happening on your table to make sure you know you are being served.
I am used to a more hands-off idea of good service. Waiters and staff should be present, but they should be lurking in the shadows so that I might ignore their presence and status as a human being, should I so choose. When I deign to address this serving class, it is only then that they should rush to my side to clear away my scraps or fetch me this and that other size or colour. Obsequiousness is the most desirable trait, and I expect it in exchange for my culturally mandated tip. I have been culturally raised to expect the treatment of royalty, to literally be always right.
It’s weird, then, adjusting to a different place with a totally different conception of what it means to receive good customer service. To be served well in Canada means the light touch, with a lot of beaming smiles, pleasant smalltalk, and regular, though not too regular, checks on my needs. If a waiter or a clerk is too up in my business I get antsy, and I start to feel like they are watching me for shoplifting, or judging how sloppily I ingest my meal. I treat their intrusions into my life as violating and insulting, and I become secretive and suspicious of their motives. Are they casing the joint, eyeing for where I keep my valuables, or maybe my kidneys? Are they trying to steal my identity? I don’t know, but I want them to go away.
In Korea, invasiveness is the base standard.
If you are not being served at a near constancy, you are being failed by your service people. If there is a gap in time where someone is not talking to you or offering you assistance, they might as well have just insulted your lineage and your honour. To know good service in Korea is to be constantly yammered at in a kind of comforting, blank hum. People in customer service are there to help you live your life, sometimes to live it more properly: if you are not eating things in a restaurant correctly, with the wrong condiments or in the wrong order, or gathering items that don’t maximize your needs in a store, you will be reprimanded. How can you enjoy your life if you will not allow us to make it better for you?
But coming from the one service culture and living in the next puts me on edge. I am being served well by Korean standards, so I understand why I can’t stand in an aisle for more than three seconds without someone discussing my choice of toothbrushes and how maybe I should just go ahead and buy the twelve-pack, but it doesn’t serve to make me any less anxious. I take alternate routes through the grocery store, sneaking down hidden byways and behind enormous mountains of single-serve snack pies to evade the staff, so that I might consider my cereal options at peace. In stores I put in earphones and blast them very high to keep the salespeople at bay. Whatever deep-seated yearnings I have to be seen as a confident Korean speaker vanish, and I pretend to have never heard the language before in my life. I guard the tongs and the utensils at my restaurant table with a kind of jingoistic pride, a nascent sense that the table is my own fiefdom, my nation, and that the waiter is trying to breach the borders.
But their jobs depend on their giving me good customer service. And that good customer service sometimes means being suffocated.