LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE CRITIQUE

In the Cold Embrace of the Convenience Store

The convenience store has served as the backdrop to narratives by many writers. As the title suggests, Kim Ae-ran’s short story “I Go to the Convenience Store” considers the relationship between convenience stores and the people who frequent them. Through the medium of the convenience store, so reflective of the times we live in, this story explores the indifferent anonymity of places from which individual identity is absent.

Kim Ae-ran made her literary debut by winning the first Daesan Literary Award for College Students, newly established in 2002, for her short story “No Knocking in This House.” Born in 1980, Kim Ae-ran was 22 years old at the time, becoming the forerunner heralding the arrival onto the literary scene of a wave of writers born in the 1980s. The group of young feminist writers who make up a clear stream in the Korean literary community today were mainly born in the mid- to late 1980s, and so are only five or six years younger than Kim Ae-ran, but there is something of a generation gap between them. Kim’s early debut is a factor in this, but she is also a writer who came to impressive maturity at a young age.
“I Go to the Convenience Store” was first published in the year Kim Ae-ran made her debut and is included in her first short story collection “Run, Daddy, Run,” published in 2005. Unlike the winning novel of last year’s Akutagawa Prize, “Convenience Store People” by Japanese author Sayaka Murata, whose protagonist is a single woman who had worked at 24-hour convenience stores for 18 years, Kim’s short story observes this space through the eyes of a female university student who frequents convenience stores as a customer. While Sayaka Murata’s work looks at the convenience store from inside, Kim Ae-ran’s looks in from the outside. The story opens with a frank statement summarizing the importance of convenience stores to the life of the protagonist: “I go to the convenience store. At most a few times a day, at least about once a week, I go to the convenience store. And of course, in between whiles, I always end up needing something.”
To put it another way, the protagonist is singing the praises of the convenience store and its indispensable place in her life. These sentences appear again at the end of the story, but with one slight change: “And of course,” becomes “And strangely enough.” This change arises from a transformation in the protagonist’s awareness of the convenience store. Indeed I would say that the main body of the story serves to explain the process of this transformation.
The convenience store appeared one day “like a legend the origin of which was lost in the mists of time” and became a cornerstone of modern life. From the protagonist’s point of view, the striking thing about convenience stores is that those who run and frequent them “cannot recognize each other.” The guarantee of anonymity is a huge characteristic of modern urban life, and this is seen by the protagonist as something positive. In general, the workers in convenience stores do not pry into the private lives of those who come and go there, and that distance is felt as being magnanimous. Anonymity can be positive or negative, depending on the circumstances, and for now the protagonist thinks of it as positive. But it becomes apparent in the course of the story that this is not always the case.
In the residential area near a university where the protagonist lives there are three convenience stores. In the first store, the owner is overly friendly to his customers: he asks his customers inquisitive questions about their private lives and behaves as though he knows them. The protagonist, who is put off and made uncomfortable by such forwardness, stops frequenting his store. You could say that this was the protagonist’s punishment for betraying her expectation of anonymity. The street food stall where the protagonist often bought late-night snacks also becomes the subject of a boycott for similar reasons.
As for the second convenience store, what turned the protagonist against this one was a small fuss involving the purchase of condoms, which from the position of the store owner could seem a little unfair. Anyway, with that, the protagonist becomes a regular at the last remaining convenience store, Q-Mart. Just as the protagonist expects from a convenience store, the young male clerk there does not say a single word that isn’t completely necessary. That’s not to say he’s unfriendly. To the point of being almost mechanical, he always greets the customers. As far as the protagonist knows, “Q-Mart was a world of ‘Welcome’ and ‘Thank you.’”

But before long the protagonist realizes that she was mistaken. Because inevitably she is giving away pieces of information about herself and her private life as she frequents the store. On the basis of the items she buys, the young man working at the store can find out or at least guess her tastes in food, her living arrangements, her family relations and her hometown, and even the regularity of her periods. This discovery could be taken as something completely trivial, but it is an interesting situation that serves as a turning point, a sharp bend in the flow of the story.
When the protagonist realizes that complete anonymity in the convenience store is actually impossible, that, intentionally or not, a certain level of one’s private life or personal information is inevitably exposed, the anonymity surrounding the relationship between the convenience store worker and the customer-protagonist is turned on its head.

The protagonist thinks, “He doesn’t ask what I’m studying. I want to tell him,” then confesses “I became curious about the young man who doesn’t say anything during the one minute and thirty seconds it takes to heat a pack of rice in the microwave, or the twenty seconds it takes to warm a carton of Seoul Milk,” and in the end, decides “I don’t know a single thing about you.” Is it that the female university student protagonist has become interested in the young store clerk sexually? No, it would be more precise to say that she wants to settle the imbalance of information, and address the one-sidedness of the relationship. With the situation having been turned on its head like this, the story then moves towards the incident that seems to mark its climax.
On Christmas night, when the streets are empty with everyone celebrating in the city center, the protagonist finds herself in a situation where she has to entrust something to someone for safekeeping. After much deliberation, the person she thinks of is the young man at the convenience store. He was one of the few people in the neighborhood she saw regularly. But how mistaken she was to think that the man would actually know her! The protagonist, who had espoused the anonymity of the convenience store and “punished” the owners of convenience stores who didn’t keep the promise of such anonymity, is now ensnared by it.
As mentioned earlier, the end of the story deploys the opening sentences again but with a subtle difference. In order to get to these sentences, a number of episodes reflecting the thematic consciousness of the story, and the protagonist’s thoughts on them, are laid out for the reader. In the space between “And of course” and “And strangely enough,” simple-looking phrases to link sentences, there is a change in awareness of all that surrounds anonymity. In a cool and nonchalant tone, the protagonist speaks directly to the reader:
“If you happen to go to the convenience store, take a good look around you. When the woman beside you buys water in the convenience store, it’s for taking pills, and when the man behind you buys razor blades at the convenience store, they’re for slitting his wrists, when the boy in front of you buys toilet paper, it’s for wiping his sick old mother’s behind. At least you never know. You can call this to mind sometimes, or not; it’s all the same.”

Choi Jae-bong Reporter, The Hankyoreh

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