Korean Sociological Image #11: When you REALLY need a man…

Any Man Advertisement A recent report on Korea’s delivery cum odd-job men by Jane Han of the Korea Times, who unfortunately reinforces many gender stereotypes as she explains the interesting new service:

Is ‘Substitute Man’ Modern White Knight?

For 27-year-old Lim Ji-ae, battling cockroaches in her studio apartment has been a constant nightmare. At least one or two encounters with the insect per week put her on edge. That is, until she recently hired someone to be her personal pest control agent for 5,000 won per occasion.

He arrives at her house within 10 minutes of her call, and sometimes even picks up toilet paper, toothpaste and other urgent grocery items on his way. In fact, whatever Lim needs, he does―most of the time.

WonderWoman falls for her knight in shining armour“He’s my new best friend,” says Lim, who was actually referring to a plural group of service providers, the so-called substitute men, an emerging beck-and-call squad that evolved from the common “quick delivery service,” which simply shuttled goods from point A to point B. (Image source, right: Silver Age Comics.)

But the upgraded version exceeds far beyond expectations, as substitute men do everything from delivering food, moving heavy furniture, picking up laundry and walking dogs to escorting children to and from school.

For those of you that don’t live here and may be unaware, one of the good…nay, great things about Korea is that in addition to providing cheap and healthy food, many restaurants provide delivery for no extra charge too; suffice to say, I probably did more cooking in my last year in New Zealand than in the entire 9 years I’ve lived here. So while I am unaware of how long companies offering “quick delivery services” of other goods have been around, they’re obviously a natural extension of this service culture. If you live in an urban area and check your junk mail, then you’ll probably find that there’s at least 2 or 3 available in your area.

Delivery Man AdvertismentIn fairness then, it is good that the article mentioned this context. And, as the image available on AnyMan’s website above indicates, neither company mentioned disguises the fact that they are still mainly simple delivery companies. Continuing:

As long as nothing illegal and morally wrong is involved, almost everything is possible, says Yoon Joo-yeol, who runs Any Man, a service based in southern Seoul.

“We had someone calling for toilet paper while on the toilet,” he said, “while one man called from the U.S. to have porridge and medicine delivered to his girlfriend ill in bed.”

One picky customer, who couldn’t trust local seafood restaurants, even requested a substitute man to videotape himself catch a fish in the ocean before having the fresh catch prepared as sashimi, Yoon recounted.

“There is never a dull day,” he said, adding that services typically cost anywhere from 5,000 won to 300,000 won, considering the labor intensity of the task.

Hell, nothing wrong with any of that, nor in the list of people (e.g., single households, old people, workaholics, and so on) that Anyman’s website suggests would benefit from using their services. (Life Manager’s lists are basically the same.) It would be reading far too much into things to see fault in, say, the fact that Anyman suggests it can deliver food to sick girlfriends but not boyfriends. However, like the slave man who apparently arrives at a woman’s beck and call kills bugs however, it is very tempting to do so once you read the last part of the article:

Lee Jae-hong, the owner of Life Manager, another service provider, explains that the do-it-all service is picking up quick traction nationwide from men and women of all ages, but the best business is in the Gangnam, southern Seoul, district.

He said the large single female population in the area leads to high demand for frequent services such as food delivery, grocery shopping and simple repair work.

“The competition is becoming fierce as more and more customers are learning about the service,” said Lee said, who competes with almost 15 rivals in the area.

Experienced customers like Lim says the cost is “friendly,” but advised users to be cautious and not to expose too much personal information to the substitutes.

Sigh. Where to start?

First, the article instantly reminded me of a Sociological Images post about a New Orleans business called The Occasional Wife. Because as author Lisa explains there:

The Occasional Wife

…the business relies on and reproduces the very idea of “wife.”  As the website makes clear, wives are people who (a) make your life more pleasurable by taking care of details and daily life-maintenance (such as running errands), (b) organize special events in your life (such as holidays), and (c) deal with work-intensive home-related burdens (such as moving), all in while perfectly coiffed and in high heels!

Like commenters on that post mentioned, services that rely on and reinforce a stereotypical notion of appropriate gender roles texist throughout the Western world. Indeed, the first thing I thought of when I saw that post was the New Zealand Hire a Hubby service which started a few years before I left in 2000, and which I was curious to see if it was still in business. Apparently so:

Hire A Hubby Website ScreenshotBut, secondly, I think a crucial difference is that the services of these two companies at least are premised on sharply delineated notions of “wifes” and “hubbies,” whereas with the Korean “Deliveryman 2.0,” they’re so new that social conventions on typical clients and services offered seem very much in flux. Or are they? Take the videos of typical clients and services from the Life Manager and Anyman websites for instance (apologies for the poor quality):

Tellingly, neither video promotes the company as the purveyor of the services of big burley men to hapless single females, and the former especially portrays quite a range of clients, including—shock, horror—some men. Which raises questions as to why the author chose to portray them as such.

Korean Alpha GirlsOn the other hand, there is indeed a large population of singles in the Gangnam area (see this post on Seoul demographics as for why), and I grant that there is a possibility—but only a possibility—that there is something special about single women that live in Gangnam that means that they disproportionately use such services. After all, it is the most expensive and sought-after area to live in whole country, so presumably there would be a large number of rich single women there quite used to paying others for the basic services us mere mortals have to do our ourselves.

However, the same logic would also apply to the rich single men that live in the area.

That said, it has been suggested that all the single women are not rich but rather work in the numerous bars and brothels there, which may well have a grain of truth in it; if so, among singles at least, there may well be a disproportionate number of women in that area. (The report discussed in that earlier post of mine doesn’t provide that level of detail.) Not living in Seoul myself though, I’d be grateful if Seoul-based readers can confirm if there is something to that possibility or not.

For a moment then, I thought that discomfort with the article was unjustified. Perhaps the owner of Life Manager is an angel, who just so happens to have a great deal of business catering to single females in the Gangnam area— nothing wrong with that. But still, I’m unwilling to let him or perhaps author Jane Han entirely off the hook. In particular, although I shouldn’t jump to any conclusions without seeing the original Korean transcript of the interview, the former does say:

…the large single female population in the area leads to high demand for frequent services such as food delivery, grocery shopping and simple repair work.

Ergo, needs for help with those tasks—and, apparently, killing cockroaches—are inherent to the single female, regardless of where they live. Which reminds me of last year’s report on “Alpha Girls” by The Chosun Ilbo, which depicted single women living with their parents as both incapable of and unwilling to do housework, as well as being basically selfish and useless overall; whereas a discussion with virtually any 20-something Korean can confirm that the reality is that they are expected to, can, and generally do do a disproportionate amount of housework, unlike their brothers. Of course, we have all met single women like the article describes, but just as many single men too, and similarly there was no objective reason for Jane Han to give this article the passive, useless female/knight in shining armour tone to it that she did.

Why did she then? I’ll leave that up to the reader. But as blogger Gord Sellar points out in this excellent post on Korean consumerism here, there does seem to be quite a backlash among certain groups of Korean men against single, independent women, and it would be no surprise if this was increasingly reflected in the Korean media. It’ll certainly be something to keep an eye on in the future.

(Hat tip: Roboseyo. For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here.)

5 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #11: When you REALLY need a man…

  1. From a Seoulite’s perspective (and one that lives in Gangnam to boot), I’ve yet to see / hear any of these people / motorcycles ride in my neck of the woods. While I can’t say for certain there are more woman than men in the area (the numbers seem similar when you get to the residential areas; during a weekend there are invariably more girls walking the streets looking for clothes, shoes, and restaurants. Sometimes it’s with their girlfriends; other times it’s with their boyfriend.

    One theory to consider is that the women working in Gangnam aren’t just ‘working women of the night’, they’re bankers. Businesswomen. Pharmacists. Lawyers. Teachers. Their time is valuable – and if there’s something they don’t want to do, they recognize that they can pay someone else to do it for them. Those ‘working girls’? They might not want to leave their apartment if they don’t have to. The ‘ick’ factor is another consideration – what girl who just got her nails done wants to battle cockroaches?

    Another theory is the ‘personal’ one. Women want the personal touch – maybe even someone that’s junior to them. Why don’t they arrange for food for their boyfriends? Maybe they’d rather make it themselves – at least that may be the societal expectation or the perception of what they should do.

    As for Korean men backlashing against ‘single, independent women’ – I can see how they’d feel threatened. Until recently (and continuing to be so by perhaps the older generation) a woman by herself was seen as incomplete – one needed to be married to be considered as an adult. The average Korean man, presumably following the ubiquitous Confucian beliefs, might well be opposed to dating someone who doesn’t follow the traditional gender roles. Maybe they’d like to date them based on their confidence / beauty / job, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find the girls rather coy when the time comes.

  2. Old product, new packaging.

    I own an apartment now and before that I lived in an old house in a central Seoul neighborhood full of older homes. The 집수리 people would do anything you needed, and all the ajumma and halmŏni in the neighborhood — including my mŏn halmŏni who stayed with me — knew their numbers and called them for all sorts of major and minor things. This is one way I really grew to appreciate Korean service. These ajŏshi were doing for a few thousand won what would cost as much as a hundred dollars for someone in California to just take a look at, if they deigned to come to your abode for a minor problem in the first place.

  3. Pingback: Sociological Images » What We’ve Been Up To Behind Your Back (July 2009)

  4. I think it’s really cool. Some foreign men are doing something simialar by hiring koreans/filipinos to do housecleaning/cook/etc. for them simply because they’re too busy to do it themselves. That’s a really good idea.

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