MallratsIt's mid-morning on a recent Saturday and Koh Seung-ji and Park Jin-soon, both 19, are standing in Millennium Plaza, an outdoor entrance to the COEX Mall in southern Seoul. The two are about to enter the place where they have spent a good chunk of their youth, almost as many hours as they have spent in their homes.
Koh is dressed in baggy jeans, a ragged sweatshirt that says "Alphanumeric" and blue sneakers three sizes too large.
"I usually buy my clothes at Gura, a board shop in Itaewon," he says helpfully. "These gold earrings? I got them in Hyundai Department Store, right over there."
Park has on an American military camouflage jacket that he bought on the black market in front of the U.S. Air Force base in Osan. He had looked for a camouflage jacket around Yongsan, but found the prices too expensive. He went to Osan by bus and bought one for 15,000 won ($11.50). But a couple of years ago, he found out his jacket was a fake.
"Who cares," he says. "I'll get a new one soon."
Koh and Park have been hanging out at the COEX for the two years that the mall has been open. Each day after school they go there, and all day on most weekends. But now they face a crisis: Both teens will soon be leaving for universities outside Seoul. Koh has been accepted at Hoseo University in Chungcheong province. Park is going to Busan University. Neither school is near a mall anywhere near as large as the COEX.
"It's going to be hard," says Koh.
"A horror," agrees Park.
Not surprisingly, if either Koh or Park had studied harder at Seoul's Yangjae High School, from which they both graduated in December, if they had prepared better for the college entrance exam instead of traveling each day to the COEX, they might soon be starting classes with their friends at a university in Seoul.
But the pair doesn't worry too much about that. This is the lifestyle they chose. They're mallrats.
The Convention and Exhibition Mall in Samseong-dong has more than 200 stores, including 65 restaurants. The sprawling one-floor shopping center is big enough to hold at least two football stadiums and still have room left over. It's a mallrat's paradise and, even better, it's less than 30 minutes by bus from Koh's and Park's homes in Yangjae-dong.
Although the COEX's main structures - the COEX Inter-Continental hotel and a four-story convention center - were intended to attract foreign businessmen during the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 2000, many of the customers these days are like Koh and Park: Kids who like to hang out. The restaurants and shops in the COEX Mall usually open at 10 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. The mall itself is open 24 hours.
On this Saturday the two mallrats make their first stop in the COEX. As usual, it's Dunkin' Donuts.
"My friends call me 'Dunkin' Koh' because, not only do I always come to this store, but I used to buy more to take to school," Koh said.
This day the pair buys two chocolate doughnuts each and two cups of black coffee before grabbing a table. As they eat, the talk, as it often does, involves girls. Or rather, a lack of girls. Both Koh and Park are unattached. Park has never had a girlfriend.
"When I was in high school," Park says, studying one of his doughnuts, "I used to like cute girls. But now I like sexy women who have long straight hair and wear short skirts."
When Koh was in high school, he used to occasionally chat online with girls. Late at night, whenever he didn't feel like studying - which was most nights - he turned on his computer and surfed until he located a chat room. When he finally found a girl who seemed halfway interested in him, he managed to coax her to have dinner with him the next day at a Pizza Hut in - where else? - the COEX Mall.
The couple went together for two months - or rather, spent two months together inside the COEX's movie theaters, fast food eateries and coffee shops.
For Koh, the memories are bittersweet.
"The mall is where we had our first date and it's also where we broke up. At the food court. At first she liked being at the COEX. But then she wanted to study all the time for the university examination. She didn't want to come here anymore. She was more of a quiet girl who always worried about her future, whereas I didn't really care about that stuff. All we had in common was the mall. That was it. I didn't even like her physical appearance. She had a lot of freckles and was short."
Soon it is time to move on, to the mall's Lake Food Court, where Koh got dumped. The COEX food court is a take-out area of snack shops that include Sbarro Pizza, KFC, Melly's Spaghetti, Hardee's and Korean Sushi, and it offers plenty of seats. Koh and Park drop themselves in the center of the food court. They're not going to be eating or drinking anything. They're here to watch girls.
"My budget doesn't allow me to do much anyway," Park said watching two teens in raincoats walk by. Park gets 70,000 won a week allowance from his parents. All of it goes to the COEX and to a pack of Marlboros a day.
During high school, Koh received 50,000 won a week allowance. The mall and cigarettes ate his allowance as well.
Park says that when he comes to the mall with his parents, they often go to a spiffy restaurant called Bizbaz on the first floor of the COEX Center, alongside the mall.
"I don't like Bizbaz," he says. "The food there doesn't stuff my stomach."
It is almost 5 p.m. by now and the mallrats decide to watch a movie at the COEX's 17-screen Megabox complex. They can't get into the Megabox, however, because all tickets for the early evening shows have been sold.
"Maybe we shouldn't have sat so long in the food court," says Park.
Koh isn't listening. "The most impressive movie I saw with my girlfriend in this place was 'Shrek,'" he says. "Not because it was interesting, but because I kissed her for the first time when the lights were turned off." His voice trails off, then: "She betrayed me."
The two decide to head to Mega Web Station, a PC room near the movie complex. The PC room has more than 200 computers available and charges 2,000 won per hour. Koh sits down to play Starcraft, while Park surfs the Internet for hip-hop music sites.
When they attended high school, Koh and Park wore well-pressed school uniforms: gray pants and dark-blue sport coats. They kept their hair short. After school, they would coat their hair with gel. The Mall Look. Koh has recently gone to a sort of self-styled Afro. Park laughs at his friend's hairdo. "It's awful," he says. Park's attempt at a movie-star hairstyle isn't going much better He's been trying to resemble the actor Jeong Woo-seung. But most days he wears a cap.
High school regulations in Korea are strict. If you miss too many classes, you will have trouble graduating. For this reason, Koh didn't have time to earn money during his high school years.
After graduation, he took a clerk's job at a 7-Eleven convenience store near his home. In January, he worked for a month from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. and earned 800,000 won. At 8 a.m. he went home, slept until 3 p.m., then headed to the COEX.
Park didn't always accompany him, so often Koh would go solo. When he ran out of money or couldn't find any other mallrats to hang with, he would go to the PC room until he had to go back to work at 10 p.m.
"A lot of people said it wasn't a good idea to work when everybody else is asleep," says Koh. "But I personally liked it because I could enjoy the mall to the fullest."
It's 8 p.m. Koh and Park head out of the mall, take a deep breath of nonmall air and wait for bus No. 11-3, which will take them home.
"I was not an exemplary student at school," Koh offers. "The teachers would call up my parents every time when I got caught smoking in the school bathroom."
Many of the pair's fellow students who failed to enter a Seoul university are going to repeat their college entrance exam for another chance. Not Koh, not Park. They don't think studying another year for the examination will improve their lives.
"I'll join the army after finishing my freshman year," Park says. "After serving the two mandatory years, I'll think of transferring to a university in Seoul, although I have no definite plans for the moment. I guess I am too young to worry about that now."
"I don't know what I'll do," Koh says. "Maybe being away from the COEX will let me think more about my future."
by Lee Sang-joon