It was 1983 when Costco first came into my life. The timing couldn’t have been better. After all, I was a rambunctious twelve year old living in a largish family of American consumers and, like it or not, was becoming self-actualized as one myself. I was finally old enough to where a shopping trip didn’t require a toy section or a bank of quarter-fed video games. I could now truly appreciate the orgiastic wonder of the experience, and Costco offered it up like a drug.
I remember that first trip into the warehouse, walking alongside my mother as she commandeered a shopping cart large enough to transport raw ore. We lumbered with the rest of the happy herd–past the smiling, red white and blue nametagged attendants who politely checked for the requisite membership cards—into an airplane hangar of a building that smelled of hotdog water and cleaning solvents. Extra-strength forklifts beeped by and ground their lift gears and the overhead fluorescent lights seemed large enough to illuminate football stadiums. I was snakecharmed—overwhelmed and gobsmacked by the cornucopia of products splayed out and stacked before me in nothing but colossal portions. This is what America had come to. Reagan was indeed delivering the goods! Gone were the days of “a chicken in every pot.” Now we had hunks of cheddar the size of cinder blocks and transparent industrial bags stuffed to the ripping point with Cap’n Crunch cereal and the chickens were now steroidal pituitary cases roasted on metal spits by the hundreds. Fuck the pot. It was all so huge; you couldn’t purchase anything that wasn’t packaged for a family of six. Naturally—as the menu planner and cook for a crew of that exact number–my mother fell in love with the place, and trips to Costco became a bi-monthly ordeal in our family, an outing I was loath to miss out on.
My family was one of the early ones. I can claim, with every degree of hipsteresque confidence that we were into Costco before it was cool. Our collective mouth was wrapped firmly around that teat well before it got hip; other families were slower to leap aboard the train and as a result my household’s popularity among my friends grew mightily. The Tharp family larders were often overloaded with the booty from the latest mission to the Megastore; my friends and I raided them without a thought. My parents were also notoriously welcoming in that regard. The food was for eating and the gates open to all comers. This came as an especial relief to my friend Scott, whose stern and flinty old man was known to count the cookies in the cupboard, lest that one be consumed without prior authorization. My parents’ lassez-faire policy to food monitoring may have cost them a few bucks, but it didn’t cost me friends, for nothing increase’s one’s twelve-year-old sleepover currency like a pallet of softball-sized blueberry muffins, free for the taking.
One thing I’ve always liked about Costco is that it’s always seemed to be a happy place. This air of satisfaction is genuine. Sure, there is something obscene about the volumes of products—especially food—moved on a daily basis, but the warehouses are bright and clean and most of the workers generally seem to want to be there. There’s an air of competence and at least basic contentment, though the food court has got to be a taxing gig (more on that later). Costco has none of the deadening, soul-decaying depression that’s offered up daily in places such as Walmart. This is probably due to the fact that Costco is a notoriously good company to work for. They pay their workers a living wage with full benefits: The average worker at Costco is paid $45,000 a year, as opposed to just over $17,000 as Sam’s Club, Costco’s Walmart-run competitor. And the CEO is only paid 500,000 a year, though he takes in four times that in bonuses and perks. At over 2 million bucks, that’s not bad, but we all know that this is peanuts in the corporate world; it doesn’t even approach the 35 million dollar annual cash grab that makes up the CEO of Walmart’s basic pay package. But hold on here: How can a company that pays so much to its workers return a dividend? Well, it turns out that such enlightened policies also make for good business. In 2012, Costco posted nearly HALF A BILLION DOLLARS ($459 million) in profits. Is it any wonder turnover is so low? Moreover, is it any wonder that I’m not compelled to hang myself every time I walk through the door?
As I grew into my 20’s, my relationship with Costco cooled. I was living on my own and could no longer rely on the largess of mom’s overflowing kitchen. My own was disgracefully bare during most of this decade. This was mainly due to poverty, later exacerbated by a liberal intake of chemical experience enhancers that magically did away with the need to eat altogether. An emaciated, broke, strung-out artist is no friend of the Costco warehouse.
But like an old friend or family member, I finally came back around, reconnecting with Coscto during my three-year stint in Los Angeles. I had come to embrace a more-or-less regular civilian life during this time, albeit the miserable version of it. I lived in a large house with some friends and theater colleagues and trips to the Megastore were made to keep the kitchen happy, since we couldn’t afford a lot of eating out, save the odd plate of Thai food, and of course, cut-rate Mexican. My most vivid memory of this time was a visit by our friend C.S. Lee, who had fistfuls of cash after several months spent slaving at his parents’ Chinese restaurant in the arctic confines of Bethel, Alaska. Charlie, as we called him, was like a soldier on leave, and went crazy during our trip to the warehouse, dropping several hundred bucks with carefree abandon for just a one-week stay (we were stocked for a month after he left). It was then that I was turned on to Costco’s booze section: we left the store with half-gallons of Jamesons whisky and Absolute vodka and were pretty much drunk for the following week (I was, you know, between jobs at the time). I had just been a Coscto food guy up that point, and was now exposed to its enchanting section of intoxicants. Bulk liquor? Uh, okay.
When I came to Busan in 2004, there was no Costco. There were a few in Korea, but the nearest was in the city of Daegu, an hour north by car, which qualified as well out of my orbit. Some car-possessing friends would make periodic runs, and I put in a few orders, but these were few and far between. Most the time I just didn’t bother. I was pretty down with Korean food at the time and didn’t have the desperate appetite for Western products that some of my compatriots were so wholly consumed by. Why do you even want so much cheese? You’re in Korea, asshole. I remember secretly judging these friends who became obsessed with Western-food products. Most of them were either fat or well on their way, and while no rail myself, I prided my relatively (emphasis on the ‘relatively’) blubber-free frame on the fact that I ate like a local and didn’t need to cook cream pasta at home twice-a-week or find uses for a two-kilo packet of ground Australian beef. I was glad for the most part to be far away from Costco, which had now morphed into a symbol of American overindulgence and obesity. Sure, I’d hit it up for some products during my annual visits to the States, but I just didn’t need it in Korea. There was a reason I’d moved an ocean away.
And then it happened: They opened a Costco right here in Busan. Ten minutes from my house.
Needless to say I became a convert and quickly sang the praises of the Megastore. Finally, a taste of home! Tortillas! Seven grain wheat bread! Whole hams! Affordable cat food and cat sand! (Otherwise inexplicably expensive in this country) And yes, cheese: Cheddar! Swiss! Jack! Meunster! Provalone! Havarti! Mozzarella! Brie! Camembert! Feta! Finally, I could make a real sandwich. The ingredients were there. I jumped for joy in a celebration of Western stodge. I had gone reverse-native.
Costco in Korea pretty much the same as Costco in America. It has the same look, smell, general feel, with a few exceptions: First are the products: While many are the same, Korean Costco obviously carries most of things that Koreans want or require. Need four kilograms of pressed fish paste? Done. An institutional can full of nothing but sweet red bean paste? Load the fuck up. Need an octopus? They got a whole colony of the critters. Low on dried kelp? Well Korean Costco will set you up with all your seaweed needs… by the crate.
The other notable difference is the crowds. Now Costco in America is a well-attended affair, and there are always throngs of people getting their glutton on, but Korea, of course, takes it to another level, especially on the weekends, when the place becomes positively mobbed. There’s no street parking at a Korean Costco. A multi-level garage is constructed above the main warehouse, with an Orwellian escalator slithering the shoppers down onto the main level. I don’t drive a car so I always arrive through the front door and look up at the menacing cavalcade of shoppers descending from the car-choked heavens on the building’s silver, metal tongue. Like most all supermarket escalators in Korea, it’s flat-surfaced and magnetized, locking the wheels of the gargantuan carts to the bottom in an attempt at safety. This is a good thing, I’m sure, since despite the fact that Koreans deal with crowds pretty much every time they leave the house, they certainly don’t deal well with crowds.
Korean culture is strange: It’s infused with a rigid set of social mores and manners. The whole language is draped around this framework with informal, polite, formal, and even honorific forms employed, all depending on who you’re talking to. It can be quite regimented, resulting in a system of incredible politeness that shapes the backbone of their culture. However, this rigid etiquette generally only extends to family, friends, co-workers, and people you’re doing business with. Koreans are often incredibly rude to strangers, since strangers occupy no place on the totem pole. They’re right out. This manifests itself on the road, where little consideration is given to other drivers (let alone pedestrians: walkers beware!) and in public crowd settings, where people jostle, push, and cut you off with their overburdened shopping cart at Costco. Just getting around can be an exercise in hand-to-hand combat, with little or no thought given to people outside of the “group,” (read: family, friends). Almost worse is the obliviousness to the needs of others manifested by the folks who just stand in the middle of a crowded artery, interminably surveying the selection of vitamin supplements, rice cakes, or chatting on their cell phones. Others just abandon their cart in the middle of traffic while personally taking off on a mission to find that overlooked item, creating a logjam in the moaning river of shoppers.
The last major difference between the Korean and American Costco shopping experience is the food court. Like that of America, Costco in Korea offers super cheap fast food via a counter-service area just beyond the Maginot Line of cashiers. There are three different kinds of pizza (whole pies or by-the-monstrous slice), turkey and provolone pressed sandwiches, clam chowder, chicken and apple salad, “bakes” (oven-baked bread stuffed with meat and cheese: bulgogi and chicken are the main choices), lattes and mochas, and the Crown Jewel of the Costco food court: The Hotdog Set.
The Hotdog Set is a big ass American hotdog, steamed, I think, and delivered in a warm bun, with an optional packet of green pickle relish (I hate the stuff and always decline), and an empty soda cup, to be filled up at the customers discretion. Refills are, of course, free. The customers take the hot dog and drink cup to a soda and free condiment station. The soda side is just a line of spouts for various flavors of pop, along with an ice-dispenser. The condiment side contains both mustard and ketchup squirters, along with two metal cylinders with cranks attached. These clever mechanisms deliver finely-chopped onions, ostensibly to sprinkle atop your hotdog. As many readers will no doubt attest, it is here where things take a huge turn for the Korean.
Some Koreans do indeed turn the crank and compliment their hotdog with a flurry of delicious onion bits. Others—and this isn’t some small percentage, but rather a huge, visible majority—pile the onions onto their plate, infuse the pile with ketchup and mustard, and eat the onions as a dish in and of itself. And I’m not talking some small lump of onions. Most of the Korean customers crank the poor cylinder’s arm with a grinding determination to get as much as possible before the awaiting onion coveters (and there are always many) have had enough and loudly complain or just elbow their way in. This free-for-all is as chaotic as it sounds, but results in each customer sitting down to an Everestian mound of onions and digging in without a hint of shame. Often the greedier customers (mainly older, hardscrabble women) ask for a piece of foil from the food pick-up counter and then go on to fill the foil to capacity–resulting in a bulging metal onion sack resembling a wrapped-up burrito–that they then slip into their bags and take home. Shameless, shit.
The rape of the onions always bothers me. No matter how many times I visit the Megastore, I just can’t seem to get over it. Every time I witness the spectacle I sigh, roll my eyes, tsk-tsk and shake my head at the naked opportunism of the Korean customers, hoping that just maybe one of them will register my disapproval. Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take whole highway. After all, I often get the Hotdog Set and never take more than I need. My onion consumption is modest. I respect and even admire the fact that Costco–that good, enlightened, dare-I-say generous company–respects and trusts its customers so much that it provides onions as condiments, gratis. And this can’t be cheap. Just a few months ago there was a huge spike in onion prices in Korea. I was suddenly paying more than double at the local street market for just a few yellow onions. Surely this must have hit Costco Korea in the ol’ nuts, but not even then did I see access to the onion cylinders hindered in the very least.
Why do Koreans so unabashedly take advantage of Costco’s onion largess? Most observers, including me, believe that it’s because they’re free. Korea, not so long ago, was a very poor country, and real hunger lingers in both the people’s collective memory. Those old enough to have experienced it seem to be the most dedicated faction of the onion grabbers. The idea is this: Someone or something is giving away free food? Then take all you can! Get it while the gettin’s good!
Other people suggest that Koreans are so used to eating side-dishes with all of their meals that onions just assume that role at the Costco food court. Even a slice of combination pizza requires SOME sort of side. And most Korean restaurants will gladly fill your side dishes for free, so Koreans don’t even think twice about filling their own at Costco.
Or it could be that Koreans just really like onions.
As I mentioned earlier, even at a young age–while certainly dazzled by the sheer array of things to get–I developed a lingering awareness of the obscene overabundance of the Megastore. This has developed into a keener knowledge that all of this hard, bulk consumption just can’t be right, but it doesn’t stop me from hitting the warehouse frequently. It has tempered my shopping habits, though. I deliberately try to keep things in hand. This strange, sickening sense of guilt, combined with the fact that I own no automobile, results in me just using Costco to procure the few things I need at that time. I always have the lightest load, often not even requiring the burden unloading assistance of the cart. I usually just duck in for a roast chicken (best deal in Korea), a bottle of wine, or maybe a loaf of bread. Basic, stuff; nothing extravagant (okay, a sashimi platter on occasion). I am proud of my purchases, of my restraint. And Koreans take a great interest in what we foreigners buy, making no bones about examining the contents of our carts. This, I’m sure, is mostly driven out of curiosity. Costco offers up more Western products than any other venue in the nation, hence the understandable nosiness: Just what is the white man buying? He probably knows what good. Maybe we should try it out..
Like Koreans, I also take note of what my fellow foreigners are buying, and upon seeing a chubby white couple with a cart jammed full of cheesecake, pasta, bacon, bins of chocolate-chip cookies, and vats of mayonnaise, I am often filled a warm smugness. It’s an ugly impulse, I know. I’m not proud and make no explanation, but figured I’d lay it bare right here: I take in their haul and I judge them, assuming that they’re living in Korea and eating the same fatty crap that they did back in Illinois or Ontario. When the Koreans look at the portly couples’ three hundred dollar diabetic haul vs. my bottle of Chardonnay and jar of organic salsa, I can meet their gaze and, with just a look, say: Don’t blame me. I’m not like them. I’m just here for a treat. (Despite it being my third visit that week.)
As anyone who has gotten this far can surmise, I pretty much only buy food at Costco, despite the fact that they do sell household items, clothing, electronics, bags, watches wallets, and jewelry. And with regard to latter, Costco Korea has taken a turn for the upscale. There is a jewelry case in the Busan Costco hawking some serious rocks. The most expensive diamond ring is priced at 294,900,000 won. That’s $255,000. That’s right: Costco is selling a quarter million dollar diamond ring just feet away from stacked bags of dried dog food. Does anyone really shop for serious gems at Costco? Are they bulk diamonds? Are the savings that great? Do they seriously think anyone is going to buy the rock, or is the company just waving around its ostentatious, luxury dick?
I imagine that one day the diamond will sell. I picture a fabulously rich, middle-aged Korean man shopping with his wife late at night. He’ll have been out to dinner with business colleagues and a bit soju’d up. He’ll see his wife foam and coo over the ring, and in a drunken impulse he’ll say “fuck it” and put the thing on his platinum card, resulting in much hoopla and fanfare among the employees, not to mention his fellow customers. The manager will come out of his office, repeatedly bow, shake the man’s hand, and they’ll pose for a photo. The man will then kiss his beaming wife, go to the food court, buy two Hotdog Sets, and then proceed to go to town on the onions.