Making sure you get what’s coming to youKwak No-suk is a warrior. This morning he chatters on the phone, plotting his attack. He is in command. He is a one-man rapid-deployment force whose mission is to hit scores of targets and, of course, return safely. At the age of 53, Mr. Kwak has a decade of battlefield experience. Recalling past encounters, he gives a terse description of his strategy: “Work all through the weekend until the day before the holiday.”
With the Chuseok thanksgiving day one week away, Mr. Kwak is putting in another 14-hour day, as he has done every year around this time for the last 10 years.
Considering that as a taekbae, or deliveryman, for Hyundai Logistics he has to fight his way through interminable traffic congestion and grapple with packages that could draw blood on a misstep, referring to Mr. Kwak as a warrior is not branding him with a misnomer. And then there are the small annoyances, such as pistol shots and the enemy posing as friendly forces.
With 9 a.m., the ETA (estimated time of attack), fast approaching, Mr. Kwak, working out of an office at Hyundai’s Mapo, Seoul, branch, hurriedly organizes his delivery notes and makes his last calls to Ahyeon-dong, where he will be spending the next 12 hours in a house-to-house, office-to-office struggle.
“Hello, this is Hyundai Logistics. I have the goods you ordered from Woori Shopping and will deliver them by 1 p.m. today. Will you be in?” During the targeting, he asks people for the exact location of their home and makes a mark on his map of Seoul streets, a byzantine grid of indecipherable addresses. He would not want an errant present to cause collateral joy.
Mr. Kwak, a short, thin man, rushes out the door and climbs into his small white van, which is loaded with mostly Chuseok gifts, ranging from gulbi (dried yellow corvina), sets of toiletries, rice and galbi (seasoned meat) packed in a Styrofoam box to keep it fresh.
Hyundai does not deliver items weighing more than 30 kilograms (66 pounds), animals, gift certificates or cash.
“Traditionally, fruit boxes are the most common gifts at this time of year, but because the harvest is so bad, fruit is hard to find,” Mr. Kwak says as he moves his van into strike position.
His first stop is Siliva Crystal Shop, a jewelry store, where he delivers accessories from the factory. Returning quickly to the van, Mr. Kwak places a box of Huggies diapers on a green foldable cart and trudges down an alleyway where the houses stand just about 1 meter (2.5 feet) apart. He rings a bell, delivers the diapers and runs back to the van, ready to push on. Taking out another large package, he enters a bank. “It’s bank employee uniforms,” he mutters. “They asked me to take them to the second floor, but I could not. I am a little behind schedule.” He shuffles through a stack of papers -- 70 deliveries must be made before the end of the day.
One of the rewards of his job is freeing people held hostage by the anxiety of waiting. Mr. Kwak drives the van to a street market, where he delivers doenjang, a spicy condiment, to a vegetable shop. The owner of the concern shows her gratitude with three boiled ears of corn, which Mr. Kwak accepts with a broad smile and a “thank you.”
Parking his van at intersections and on sidewalks, Mr. Kwak sweeps through the neighborhood, making direct hits on clothing shops, beauty salons, private homes, pharmacies and apartment buildings. The number of those taken prisoner by holiday joy continues to mount. If a delivery cannot be made, he tries to reach the person to whom it is addressed by mobile phone. Sometimes he leaves the package with a neighbor, who usually is helpful. Some are eager to greet him, others accept the delivery and retreat without saying a word, fearful of becoming the victim of subterfuge. “Some time ago, there were news reports of men dressed as taekbae entering homes and stealing things. People are more suspicious of us now,” Mr. Kwak says.
Under orders to make sure all items reach their destination, Mr. Kwak, pressing forward, gets into a fire fight of sorts. Driving through narrow alleyways in Ahyeon-dong’s low-income district, he stops at a crowded three-way intersection, where an argument erupts with the driver of another vehicle. “Pull over to the right and let me pass first,” Mr. Kwak shouts. The young driver shoots back: “I don’t have space, why don’t you move back first?” This infuriates Mr. Kwak, but sensing that the young man will not relent, he moves the van back a few meters and lets the car pass. Mr. Kwak grumbles, “Young people these days have absolutely no respect for elders. It’s appalling.”
Mr. Kwak arrives at a Daewoo Electronics office building and guides the van onto the sidewalk, the only parking space usually readily available in downtown Seoul. He removes several packages for delivery and disappears into the building. After 20 minutes, Mr. Kwak returns, mumbling, “Oh great, I’ve been given a handful.” The company has asked him to deliver a load of video recorders, vacuum cleaners and other electronic goods. He does not look happy about the new burden.
Mr. Kwak drives in another part of the neighborhood, navigating the narrow, hilly streets. His arms full of traditional holiday presents, such as ginseng, rice cakes, wooden dish sets and peanuts, he moves quickly between the homes and shops. At around 2 p.m., he searches for some battlefield rations, stopping at a small grocery to buy milk and doughnuts. “Rarely do I have time to grab lunch,” he says.
Old men perched on benches at the entrance of a small walkway smile at him, and he greets them warmly as he carries a heavy load on his shoulders. In one corner of the neighborhood near the Mapo police station, strikers from the independent truckers union mill about. Mr. Kwak evades them, avoiding eye contact. “Sometimes they harass us, he says, firing blank pistols because we have not joined their walkout.”
At his age, Mr. Kwak is an exception among taebak, most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. “This is physically tough work so most people stay at it only two to three years.”
His diligence, despite the grueling hours, has earned him respect. Jeong Jong-bok, manager of the Mapo branch at Hyundai Logistics, says, “Mr. Kwak is a hardworking fellow who has never caused trouble.
What’s more, he knows how to treat clients, something younger employees lack. He has a way of being patient with them.
“The big difference between last year’s and this year’s deliveries,” says Mr. Jeong, “is that Chuseok has come early this year, just after the rainy season and harvests have been horrible. There are practically no fruit package deliveries. And because the economy is so bad, we have had fewer orders overall than usual.” He says last year employees worked until 11 p.m., but this year they go home by 10 p.m.
Mr. Kwak speaks proudly of the people he has met on his routes. “I’ve delivered to President Roh Moo-hyun on several occasions when he was living in Myeongryun-dong. “Mrs. Roh knows me. I can tell you that the family often buys stuff from home shopping channels.”
Mr. Kwak says he wants to work until the official retirement age of 58, but “I don’t know if that will happen.” “It’s hard, but I live for the moment when people greet me warmly and tell me how grateful they are. Some people have a way of making me feel good.” Asked if the holiday brings a warmer reception, he says, “Chuseok does tend to make people eager to greet taekbae, but for the most part, I have not seen a lot of difference this year. Perhaps it is the economy, or perhaps we have become a less caring society as a whole.”
by Choi Jie-ho
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