Korea: Shopping on the Subway

There are drawbacks to living at the end of Line 1 of the Seoul Metropolitan subway system, the biggest being the time it takes to get into Seoul. It is nearly an hour to the northern outskirts and then, depending on the station, and transfers, it can easily be another hour or more.

Do you like Korean music?

There is one major benefit from living beyond the beyond, and that is the Korean phenomenon of selling all sorts of random items on the subway. This proves particularly popular at my end of Line 1 where it can be five minutes between stations so the salespeople can truly pitch their products. And it is a myriad of products, all of them affordable and many of them seeming as cheap junk to me. But they seem to sell some products. Over the (neverending) winter, cold weather gear and Christmas gifts prevailed; thin gloves, earmuffs, long johns, tights, mechanized toy puppies and (one I nearly bought) a buff that could act as a scarf or pull a drawstring tight it became a toque of sorts.

Most of these gifts cost under 5000 Won, some as cheaply as 1000 Won. The quality is rather suspect but every time someone enters the subway car I put down my pen or stop reading my book to watch the public performance.

Perfect for the boyfriend who forget to get a gift.

It reminds me very much of the old snake-oil salesmen who would travel town-to-town, set up a stage and offer miracle tonics to cure every ailment. I don’t know if they have a route or a schedule or where the sweet spots are. Nor do I know how they select their product. Part of me wants to imagine a conglomerate of Korean ajummas (all purpose term for an older married woman) plotting out timetables and product placements.

Recently I realized there is a schedule or at least an unspoken code when after a visit to Suwon, for reasons unrelated to selling stuff on the subway, I watched as a soju’ed up middle-aged ajoshi (married man) ambled into the train car, plunked himself down on a six inch pink plastic stool and started strumming on a guitar and singing songs for the train. Soon enough a salesmen reached the car and stared down the acoustic busker. Shortly thereafter he squatted beside the busker, slapped him on the shoulder with his product (lady’s tights) and whispered non-to-quietly in the musician’s ear. All the while the musician played on. Within a subway stop or two, the entire train was held for a few minutes while transport security entered the car and forced the busker off the train.

I have no idea what he's selling. He might not either.

The products change with the time of day and the year; as I’ve also seen band-aids, CDs, flashlights, hiking attire, socks (but never the super cool Korean cartoonish socks) or even a religious group looking for donations. Most things seem to be lightweight and easily portable as the entrepreneurs work their way up and down the subway cars, repeating their spiel and hoping to earn a few thousand won. I’d love to know how much they make in a day. I doubt there is a base wage. It is likely all on commission. I also have no clue if they get to pick their product or not.

Just this week I experienced an unpleasant pitch from a crazy woman. She offered me gum. I don’t chew gum. Rather than asking me if I wanted it, she put it on my knee and then turned away from me. I held it up to give it back to her but she ignored me. I do not do well with people like that. Sell your product, make the offer, if I want it I’ll buy it. Try to force some thing on me is a surefire way not to get my business. Oh, and her product somehow landed on the floor. Oops.

Completed sale! For gloves.

But in a year, I’ve only had one unpleasant street performance and far more times than not have been entertained by the oddity and diversity of products being pitched on a moving subway.


One thought on “Korea: Shopping on the Subway

  1. That seems like such an annoyance to encounter on the train. I would rather read a book or people watch. I hate sales pitches, if I need it I will go buy it. The gum lady would have entirely pissed me off. But then again maybe she was desperate with kids too feed! One never knows.

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