Speak softly and carry a Big Mac

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Speak softly and carry a Big Mac

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Scene one: It’s 2.p.m. on a usual weekday at a McDonald’s in Gwanhun-dong, central Seoul. Right after frugal office workers have finished their 3,000 won ($3) set lunches, senior citizens begin coming into the restaurant one by one.
Scene two: By 3 p.m. grey-haired senior citizens have filled the restaurant. Six grandmas are chatting delightfully over ice cream. Grandpas dressed like gentlemen are gobbling up fried chicken with their bare hands. A group of youngsters who just walked in look uncomfortable, doubting if they are really in a fast food restaurant.
Scene three: At 4 p.m. the restaurant is still packed with senior citizens, unlike other joints that empty out after lunch. At other fast food places, youngsters feel welcome and the elderly feel timid. But not here. The elderly take their seats grandly, and the young order to go.

Wait a minute! Is this the McDonald’s we know? There’s something odd about this place.

Old ladies are coming in pairs, but the restaurant is already full. Not a single empty seat! What a pain! But suddenly a white knight appears: Kim Sang-hak, 78, the oldest employee at the restaurant, known as “mother” by her co-workers. She notices the ladies standing awkwardly without a table, and rushes to their aid. Her eyes shine when she sees two young students chatting over empty trays.
Ms. Kim clears the plates, asking “Did you finish?” As the elderly woman cleans off the table at this self-service restaurant, the youngsters feel uncomfortable and leave. The old ladies take the seat. Ms. Kim winks to them as if to say, “mission accomplished.”
For the younger customers, such a “mission” is unpleasant. Some shout back to the manager, “I won’t come back!” For McDonald’s itself, Ms. Kim’s strategy might not be good for the youthful image of the restaurant. But Ms. Kim says, “The young have a lot more places to go anyhow. It doesn’t necessarily have to be here.”
Ms. Kim has worked at this restaurant for two years. She is just another part-timer earning a few thousand won (a few dollars) an hour, but the atmosphere is totally different when she is on duty compared to when she’s absent. Fast food restaurants are convenient but typically lack humanity. However, this McDonald’s branch flows over with humanity thanks to her. Regardless of age or nationality, Ms. Kim is kind to all customers, and her goodwill shines particularly bright when senior citizens or Japanese tourists come by.
Senior citizens don’t have many places to go even if they have enough money, because many proprietors feel that they ruin the atmosphere. But at this McDonald’s, they get a warm reception for just a few thousand won. For the senior citizens, this restaurant is like an oasis in a desert that they normally can’t buy with money. It’s natural that Ms. Kim even has fans. She gets gifts like earrings or scarves from patrons.
In fact, there were some elderly customers even before Ms. Kim started working here. But they felt almost despised. The shop manager didn’t like them because they spent the whole day with just a cup of coffee. At around 11 a.m., young cashiers had to go into the eating area and argue with elderly customers to get them out of the restaurant. But such scenes have disappeared. Instead, Ms. Kim is polite to seniors and lets them know when they should avoid the place.
“When younger customers flock in, I tell the seniors politely, ‘after eating a delicious lunch [outside], come back after two’,” Ms. Kim said. She’s soft but clear. Now, the seniors typically leave just before lunchtime by themselves.
Probably that’s why the customers’ ages differ depending on the time of day. From the opening to 9 a.m. and from noon to 2 p.m., office workers flock in, making the restaurant into a whirlwind of youth, as one would expect of a fast food restaurant. In the interim, it’s packed with senior citizens. After 6 p.m. the young office workers are back. Thanks to Ms. Kim, the restaurant has a peaceful way of shifting between old and new.
“You can’t ignore the elderly. They all had a good time too when they were young,” Ms. Kim said.
The existence of Ms. Kim seems to reflect McDonald’s careful consideration for senior citizens. But it wasn’t a company plan. Ms. Kim found the part-time job at McDonald’s Asem branch in Samseong-dong, southern Seoul, through a welfare center four years ago. When she applied for the job, McDonald’s told her, “We can’t take a responsibility if you fall and get hurt,” and asked for approval from her children. But Ms. Kim does whatever she wants, so her five children agreed to take responsibility if she caused an accident. She only moved to the Gwanhun branch near her home two years ago.
“What’s the use of doing nothing? When I went to the welfare center after taking care of six grandchildren, they offered me a job cleaning a building or taking care of patients. But then I found this part time job at McDonald’s, although it pays less,” said Ms. Kim. She’s not from a poor family ― her son-in-law is a lawyer and one of her daughters is a university professor. But she just didn’t want to get an allowance from her children.
“Of course I don’t earn much. But I like this job because I can be with many people,” said Ms. Kim. “I helped my husband run a drug store for 20 years in Daegu. After we came to Seoul, we ran a Korean restaurant for 10 years in Insa-dong, central Seoul. It’s nothing for me to stand up all day.” McDonald’s is just a service business, Ms. Kim added. “I’ve been serving customers my whole life.”
It seems uneasy for Ms. Kim, who has lived a relatively comfortable life, to work at a fast food restaurant dealing with young customers. But Ms. Kim said, “I should make some sacrifices.”
“Many senior citizens are looking for a job, but they don’t get one because of their pride,” Ms. Kim added. “To get a job, you have to sacrifice yourself and be considerate to others,” she added. “I learned more after doing so.”


by Ahn Hai-ri

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