Last week Jessie and I decided to grit our teeth and, once again, do one of the craziest things you can do in the thriving metropolis of Seoul: shop at Costco. “What?” you say! Costco has such large aisles and is rarely busy. FALSE. The experience of shopping at the Costco nearest to our apartment is unlike any wholesale retail store I’ve ever seen in the States. Think Black Friday crowds but without the sales. Now imagine this happening every day from the time the doors open until they close. If you go on a weekend, multiply that image by two and you’re starting to get the picture of how busy this place is.
It’s a good thing that Jessie and I like to stroll. Every time we go we remind ourselves that we’re in no hurry. That helps to keep the anxiety levels down.
From the moment we walk through the doors things get crazy. I walk over to the carts and just as I’m about to put my hand on one an old lady swoops in and grabs it. I step back quickly so that she doesn’t take out my feet as she swings the cart around without so much as a peek to see if anyone’s in her way. I look at the next cart. A man has just planted his boogery two-year old daughter in the seat and is calling halfway across the building to his wife, whom I’m assuming he left behind in an open sprint to beat me to the next one. He waits a whole 30 seconds for her to catch up before pulling the cart free from the others. By this time there is a crowd of people hovering around the one long line of carts like sharks, eying them impatiently and getting ready to dart in as soon as there’s an opening. But I have an advantage. I’m tall and have long arms. I reach out and grab the handle, backing up through the sea of people until I get to a place where I can comfortably turn around.
We enter the “members” section of the store and make our way over to the escalator. The main floor has clothing, kitchen and other household items. Not interested. We’re here for the food, which is down a level. In Korea, Costco is the cheapest place to find foreign food if you’re prepared to buy it in bulk. As we near the escalator we see a line has formed. We turn our cart and follow it, trying to find the end. It goes the whole length of the building. When we get to the rear wall, we turn into the last aisle and realize the line stretches 3/4 of the way down that side of the building as well. We get our spot in line and guard our position diligently. When the man in front of us moves even a step, our cart is on his heels in a heartbeat. Two carts ahead someone’s on his cell phone and not paying attention. A family makes a move to push into the line, but Jessie pulls out her best mean mug and thwarts their effort.
After riding the escalator down we merge onto the grocery floor, or as I like to call it, ‘The Labyrinth.’ Jessie moves freely between the deluge of bodies and carts. She scouts out items as I try to maneuver our cart around each traffic jam. Several times as I’m waiting for someone to move, a person walks in front of me and physically pushes my cart out of their way. This happens mostly around the food samples. I feel so bad for the food sample ladies. They’re in constant motion trying to fill up a tray with morsels of their products, but each sample is nabbed as soon as it leaves their hands. What’s worse, there’s always some ajima (old woman) who’s decided that it’s her right to station herself directly in front of the tray and take every sample until there’s none left. Seriously, I’ve seen this happen about a million times here. Once I watched one eat two whole oranges, piece by piece, while everyone else stood around waiting for her to leave. Needless to say, in order to get a sample I have to abandon my cart and physically box out everyone else. I knew those basketball camps would come in handy some day! Jessie comes back from a different sample line with a victorious smile on her face. She’s so excited because, for the first time, she had the presence of mind to elbow someone back when they tried to push past her. That’s my girl!
We slowly make our way back and forth through the aisles, deciding what to splurge on this time. A two-pound block of cheddar cheese: $10. Four pounds of bacon: $20. A family-size bag of tortilla chips: $7. A tub of sour cream: $6. A package of Johnsonville Polish sausages: $7. An apple pie: $12. A liter of caramel coffee syrup: $9. Prices are pretty steep, but after being gone from home for 9 months it’s definitely worth it. At these prices we reach our spending limit quickly. Then it’s time to join another line. Four checkout lines run halfway down the massive center thoroughfare of the store. I know it’ll take me about 15 minutes to reach the register so I send Jessie ahead to the food court to buy us a pizza.
The food court is usually packed tighter than a women’s restroom at a sporting event. It’s nearly impossible to get two seats next to each other without standing over a couple as they finish their food. Everyone has just come from shopping, so there are carts pushed to the walls and between tables and just about anywhere where free space can be found. I nudge my cart through the congestion to the far corner of the room and start moving in on a soon-to-be vacated table. Jessie comes back with our giant pizza. We’ll be eating it for the next two days but that’s okay because it’s the best and cheapest pizza you can get here that has heaps of real mozzarella cheese.
I do some people-watching as I eat. On either side of us the Korean customers are fully enjoying their Costco experience. I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in the past it became a popular custom for the food court customers to load a plate sky-high with free chopped onions (which are meant for the hotdogs only) and top them with gobs of mustard and ketchup. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that a family will fill the plate until the onions are toppling over the sides and then use the equivalent of half a bottle of each condiment. They stir the mixture at their tables and shovel it into their mouths like its the finest casserole. I resist the urge to gag and enjoy the rest of my pizza with my eyes closed.
We head back to the main floor and pack up our backpacks and oversized bags with the precious food. The fun isn’t over just yet. We still have to get onto a busy subway and ride half an hour to our district, then transfer to a small bus before we can walk the last 500 meters to our apartment. It’s an exhausting three or four hour trip, but once we get home we always say that it was well worth it. By the time the sun goes down we’re pigging out on chips and dip and cookies, and that goes a long way in helping us to forget our bruises and psychological trauma.
P.S. I wrote this blog post while munching on gummy bears from a 6-pound bag I found at Costco. Life is good!