Thor's Korea Diary

The Second Hand Man

@29 April 2002

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Well, it finally died. The TV that is. To tell the truth, 'finally' wasn't a long time coming. It took about three months from the time a departing teacher lobbed the junk onto my doorstep to the time its fuzzy and oddly tinted images receded into a symbolic pastiche of wavy lines. I had even bought a dedicated pair of pliers to wrestle with the stalk of a channel selector -- the knob itself was AWOL -- and lovingly wiped away a strange white powder that seemed to collect on the screen each day. My hospice care didn't help. When the gods call their electronic children back into the sky, they have to go.

Being without a TV is no great entertainment loss, especially when it only talks in foreign tongues. But it can't be denied that for all the inanity of the tube, or maybe because of its inanity, television does create a kind of umbilical chord to whatever culture one happens to be parked in. Behind the makeup, the stage props and carefully selected scenarios of a country's TV mask, lurks a kind of official version of the national illusions. Since the bulk of any population mostly think what they are told to think, believe what they are told to believe, and admire what they are told to admire, knowing the flavour of these official illusions is important. You don't have to personally believe, let alone agree with, what you see to understand that zillions of people do believe and agree with the version of Korea (or wherever) which is playing as electronic wallpaper in their living rooms. It is truly a case of life imitating art.

This is a long winded way of saying that I knew the inevitability of surrender in my heart of hearts. Sooner or later I would actually go looking for another TV. Heck, I would even pay money for another TV. Not much money though. One of the tough lessons of living from contract to contract in a foreign country is that whatever won't fit in your shirt pocket should be begged, stolen or extorted, but never actually bought new. War, pestilence or an employer's frown can turn all your capital investments into very expensive excess baggage tomorrow.

For years I have heard tales of foreigners in Japan furnishing whole apartments from last year's fashions in furniture, which have just been dumped in the street by status conscious salarymen. A decade of genteel recession may have cooled this Japanese extravagance a bit. Anyway, from the moment I arrived in neighbouring Korea it was clear that a sizable number of Koreans had to swallow their pride and buy second hand. The passion for keeping up with the Kims is just as potent in Korea as keeping up with the Suzukis is in Japan. Nevertheless, there are any number of working poor. My own low-status suburb of Bansong-dong sports half a dozen second hand shops for furniture, white goods and electronic throw-aways. In strategic spots like bus stops your can see slotted boxes with weatherproof plastic flaps. These always contain copies of five or six fat giveaway papers for classified advertising. Basically, there is everything for sale, from clapped-out motor scooters to cousin Han's used wedding dress. It's a cultural milieu I find oddly familiar.

In this world there are those who live as to the lord's manner born, cheerfully indebted for millions (it seems) while they enjoy the best restaurants, swishest clothing , late model motor cars, elegant apartments and European holidays. Long ago I wryly understood this, but lacked the cheek to imitate such munificence, which seems unrelated to anyone's actual income. I have a theory that some branch of the Mafia/church/banking/funeral industry has an ancient and thriving system for disappearing these shooting stars each midsummer eve, and rebirthing them with pious hearts and a perfect credit rating .... Ah well, another of life's mysteries forever closed to the unblessed.

Personally, I was born beyond the pale, indelibly branded as a second hand man. I have happy childhood memories of combing unofficial rubbish tips in the mountain bushland west of Sydney. One day as a grubby ten year old I triumphantly presented my mother with a set of cooking pots that had been dumped with the garden cuttings by a weekend litterer. Later I graduated to my own beat up old cars, and cheap apartments furnished with a lumpy collection of cast-offs from the Wednesday auctions. In short, I have never been in debt in my life, which has left both the credit card companies and ambitious women deeply unimpressed. They know a loser when they see one.

With a background like that, hunting down a used TV should have caused no grief. When you are effectively deaf, dumb and illiterate however, life does get a bit harder. Trawling the free ad' rags for a household bargain in Bansong-dong was out of the question. Nowadays I can read the blocky hangul writing letter by letter, but the words it forms mostly don't mean a damn. I have no wheels, and telephones terrify me; (the rare phone call is always a mistake, which I have learned to fight off with incomprehensible English, rather than fielding a rush of incomprehensible Korean if I try jeonwa jalmot geosheoshiyo - wrong number). So that left the second hand shops. Now if a history of surviving used goods dealers teaches you anything in the West, it's that a sucker is born every day. Maybe it was a sad injustice to the probity of Bansong shopkeepers, but every bone in my body said that a mug foreigner (rich by definition) doing a mime show plea for old TV sets was, well, asking for trouble. No, I would have to find help. But that too turned on my own particular "foreigner profile".

The expatriate dwellers of Busan are found in a variety of subspecies, from beachcomber, to matrimonial refugee, to the deadly respectable. Luckiest archetype perhaps is the strapping fresh-faced North American lad, slumming it in Asia for a year or two before settling into a good ol' hometown business career. He is awash with the pheromones of expected success, potent with testosterone, innocent of doubt, and primed with every marker of hip fashion.. Within an hour flat of arriving in the country, this character will have some stunning Korean girl as a constant guide and companion, so that all the little things like mere language are never a problem. Then there the lepers, the alcoholics and the psychopaths - creatures of the urban jungle who for one reason or another any sane Korean will feed gingerly through the razor wire of their mental cages, and keep out of clawing distance. Myself, I fall into the Invisible Man slot, not obviously mad (I hope), but too old, shabby and ugly to be anyone's vehicle for sexual or financial ambitions. This has its upside, a kind of unharassed freedom to wander through the crowds. It does mean though that when you want to hustle for a second hand TV set, volunteers don't rush to help.

My best hope seemed to be the staffroom keepers, a couple of ever obliging students who make a part-time buck decoding the inner sanctum of peculiar foreign professors to the outside world, answering incomprehensible phone calls, and sometimes even sweeping the floor. They were polite, but somewhat nonplussed by my helplessness over so simple a project; (only "foreigners" the world over ever really understand the powerlessness that grows out of lacking a colloquial command of the local language). I did learn that, this being Korea, even second hand TV sets came in an expected range of prices.

If this were southern China , let alone India, the merchant would apply advanced brain surgery, palm reading, or even charm to penetrate your innermost weaknesses. He would then suffuse some shabby bit of merchandise with seven auras of enticement, before naming a price that would buy the last emperor's palace. You'd shrug and smile, knowing it was an ambit claim, before settling in to the enjoyable contest of beating down this price to a level that you were assured would leave the merchant's children starving in the gutter. You would leave, dazzled, bamboozled, knowingly cheated, but content that you had engaged the local colour.

But this is Korea. You ask how much. You are told, briefly and without emotion, and that's it. Take it or leave it. A hundred and fifty years ago there was only the bare bones of commerce in Korea, big time or small time. Just a weekly market for bartering, or exchanging heavy strings of an almost useless currency for some trinkets from an outcaste class of travelling hawkers. In neo-Confucian Korea, the dogma had it that trade was the lowest form of degrading activity (a line that a healthy chunk of China's seething masses never bought), not that this stopped the Joseon court from granting crucial monopolies to a favoured few. Well, nowadays of course all Koreans know that someone in the country must master trade, or even the kimchi will curdle. They get around it by allowing a handful of giant corporations to flourish though backroom collusion and government favours, while tolerating a new class of small shopkeepers who mostly get to stock their shops with the same narrow range of stuff from a few large wholesalers. The spirit of your average Korean though seems uninspired by the freewheeling profits to be won haggling over some dongle in the marketplace.

Nature has apparently arranged that in any collection of human psyches, there is a certain quota of activity devoted to lying, cheating, betraying your temporary friends and clawing for advantage. In the American dream that may find an outlet by bulldozing your hamburger stall into a national franchise chain. For, say, a Fijian village boy today, or for an ambitious lad in many a past empire, it is and was expressed by joining the military and beating your way to a generalship. For a south Asian bazaar merchant, the challenge is that of the lone hunter - never letting a customer out the door without buying some trinket. The Korean dream though, for the majority, deep down still appears to be fixated on the ancient Confucian ambition of getting your son into the bureaucracy, using any and every stratagem known. More abstractly, a typical Korean wants the reassurance of an institutional structure, whether it is the civil service, a bank, a trade union, or a weekend hiking club. Once there, all the human genius for wolfish charm and double dealing is deployed to gain power - power to dispense favours, accept bribes, wrangle advantages, flaunt status .... But buying a lousy TV set ? Nah. Just pay top dollar and stick it in your lounge room.

Eventually young Min agreed to humour me. Perhaps it was a gesture in the name of kibun, the Korean sense of a balance or harmony. When I came in to check my mail each day after mentioning the TV set, there had been an air of mild unease, like a bar of unfinished music. But having made a commitment, Min immediately cheered up and one afternoon we took a fifteen minute walk along the back of the town There an excavator teetered dangerously on a ledge of munched hillside, eating a new road out of the greenbelt. But our destination was towards upper Bansong, to a nondescript shopfront out the highway. Old refrigerators cluttered the footpath, while the fingerprinted windows revealed an interior that was really a storeroom stacked to bursting with rusty washing machines, refrigerators, air conditioners, and against one wall, a pile of dusty television sets. The owner, a slight, unobtrusive man in his thirties, put down a spanner as we entered, and quietly taking in our purpose, led the way to his TV sets.

There were three prices, he explained at once - seventy thousand won, fifty thousand and thirty thousand. Hopefully he switched on a larger, newer model. It would never have fitted in the tiny corner of my "economy apartment", a.k.a. dormitory, which can be set aside for such extravagance. I pointed high in the stack to a small, obviously older model that was slightly less decrepit than the other small TV sets. Min and the second hand man looked at each other helplessly. Foreigners were beyond comprehension. Neither of them, you could see, would be caught dead with such an object displayed in their own apartment. Still, it was brought down and dusted off.

"When do I pay him?" I whispered to Min as the man went away for something. An dull question. MIn shrugged and muttered something like "whenever..". "We had better get a taxi", I suggested. Min looked startled at my stupidity. "Oh no, he'll take us home in his truck ...". And so he did, after sitting his young daughter down with some homework. We ground along Bansong's narrow, congested streets to the college in a brand new, dark blue, double cab one ton truck. Min and I nursed the TV between us on the back seat. Working through my interpreter, the second hand man asked a few friendly questions. Now, properly acquainted as two human beings, it seemed more a gesture of friendship than service when he humped my still unpaid for TV up five flights of stairs. I graciously offered him the corpse of the old Goldstar as a trade in, and at last handed over thirty thousand won. He bowed, not meeting my eye, suddenly uncomfortable at being a mere merchant, and hurried away. The TV flickered happily with the mush that TV sets are supposed to flicker with.

The second hand man interested me. He was the nearest thing I had encountered to a genuinely independent businessman in Korea, so it was natural to wonder about his origins. "If you were writing a novel", I mused aloud to Min and Choi several days later, how would you describe the character of a typical second hand merchant?" This left them completely flummoxed. The concept of describing character with detached humour seemed a weird activity, not something you could "use". After much pushing they decided that such people were probably not good, meaning perhaps, not quite respectable. In fact, they couldn't imagine anyone going into the second hand business who wasn't a no-hoper, unable to get a better job.

"Well", I persisted, "what do you think of entrepreneurs?". This seemed a reasonable question. They were, after all, students in a vocational college and destined for some kind of business future. "Entrepreneur" turned out to be a tough concept too. Big companies have big money, so they are to be respected, and the trick is to get a job in one before you are thirty. It was unthinkable to them that they might use their skills to start a business. Small business startups were only done by losers... I briefly reviewed Korea's almost instant industrialization with funds from the Vietnam War, and suggested that future growth would have a lot to do with more adventurous business startups by individuals. They were baffled. The Confucian mindset is still potent.

I sighed, exasperated once more by the gag of language, unable to talk to people like the second hand man who really might have a story to tell. This time luck smiled. Grasping a bilingual dictionary, Choi suddenly offered to walk with me to the second hand shop for a doorstop interview. It was my turn to be startled, until I realized that for Choi this was a heaven sent opportunity to rehearse his own ambition to interpret for large companies. So we retraced the earlier walk along the back of the town, while I did furious mental research on how to pose as a drop-in journalist from a famous international magazine.

Choi is a native of Bansong whose parents had been peasant farmers before the district began to be buried under concrete, not so many years ago. With that background, it had been revealing to learn of his contempt for small business, and automatic assumption of the old Confucian gentleman's dream of life in a large bureaucracy. Our short walk seemed an excellent chance to gain a little insight into the dynamics of this still semi-isolated, quasi-urban community. The twenty story tower blocks which now house much of the population had only been here for about five years, he said. For all Bansong's apparent insularity to an outsider, he did not expect to be recognized by many people in the street, and felt there was no cohesive identity to the place. Who were the community leaders? A few politicians appeared around polling time, and were invisible at any other time. Were there informal community leaders whom people tended to turn to? He wouldn't admit to knowing any. And this new road, smashing shanties in its path, redefining the town limits, chewing up a great swathe of the mountainside, ... what was it all about? He hadn't a clue. Hmm.

Our interview subject gave no sign of surprise when we barged in, Choi importantly explaining that I was a writer and wanted to do an interview on the second hand business. When I was a kid, the arrival of someone on journalistic type business would have lead to a certain tightness in the chest, a licking of lips and a nervous twitch of embarrassment. To the TV generation though, interviewing seems to be an entirely normal thing to do, something for which they have been coached by daily observation for the whole of their conscious lives. The second hand man was sitting cross-legged on the floor, doing serious things to the back of a refrigerator with an oxy torch. He offered the barest hint of recognition, a slight smile, but seemed happy enough to give short, sensible answers to my questions while he got on with the brazing job.

He had, he said, been in this business for about four years. Why did he choose it? Well, he was a refrigeration mechanic by trade, and that was a skill which could be put to use in a business like this. What sort of people used second hand shops? The second hand man was clear about this. They were the naturally frugal, but only sometimes the poor. Some were even rich. Where did he get stuff? At auctions? Some was from auctions. A lot of it came when something broke down, so people just went out and bought a new item. Then they came to him with the cast-off. What was his best selling product? Refrigerators. What was the best suburb in Busan to have a second hand shop? Namcheon-dong, he said without hesitation, or explanation; (this is a seaside suburb with a high socioeconomic profile, not far from the CBD). How about building a chain or franchise of second hand shops. No way, he shot back with unusual vehemence. Anyway, he was certain that the government has restrictions on the spread of chain stores ... I explained the innovation of Australia's 'Cash Converters' franchise, which has borrowed from the old pawn shop system, but become hip. They have wide open self-service walkways, presenting second hand goods with all the style of new products, and often at near-new prices. It is a boom business. Choi and the second hand man both looked disdainful, probably for different reasons. Well, is the present competition tough? Oh yes, it is very tough. And what did the second hand man expect to be doing twenty years from now? For the first time he hesitated, then answered with confidence. Why, he would have a bigger second hand shop on this very spot.

What had Choi learned, I wondered, from the second hand man? Was it still a business for no-hopers, unable to get a better job? Cornered, Choi had to admit that the second hand man was really quite a nice fellow. He was, I decided myself, actually too nice a fellow to build another Hyundai out of his ramshackle shop. A tradesman who would never be out of work, he was comfortable with his oxy torch, and satisfied with a small profit from the steady stream of people who wanted a cheap replacement refrigerator. Perhaps the second hand man would not be the architect of a cyberspace Korea, but he was in his own way reassuring. He was no fool, but no pretender either. His ancestry was probably similar to Choi's, but they had made different choices. One had submitted to the social pressures of the old Confucian dream and despised manual labour. He would spend his lifetime pushing piles of paper around a desk, and compete for the stickytape shoulder badges of institutional prestige. The other, unashamed to use his hands, would remain honest, fix old refrigerators, and make a decent, independent living.


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"The Second Hand Man"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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