By Park Moo-jong
I was curious as to why the Moscovites were in such long lines with assorted bags in their hands. (I had a rare chance for a South Korean as a journalist to visit the Soviet Union before the normalization of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Moscow in December that year).
The guide said it was "survival of the fittest." He explained, "The long queues mean that the stores are selling daily necessities, and the people form queues without even knowing what goods are being sold."
The next day, I found a two-story building besieged by youngsters braving the cold. It was the city's first Russian franchised of the U.S.' McDonald's. The scene was quite similar to that in Seoul when residents encircled the first Korean franchise of the American burger joint that opened in Apgujeong in 1988.
Just two weeks ago on May 3, a brand new coffee shop in Seoul was the talk of the town, making headlines in almost all news outlets, and with social media being flooded with photos of and articles about it. It was the opening day of the first Korean Blue Bottle Coffee shop from California, considered a major player in the so-called "third wave of coffee as an artisanal food."
Before its opening at 8 a.m., more than 300 people had lined up in advance, some having been there all night, to be the first to try the coffee. Over 1,000 people were reported to have lined up for approximately three to five hours (according to a Korea Times report).
The people were waiting such a long time just to sip a cup of coffee, with many of them "heavily armed" with masks against fine dust. Were they waiting for something worth waiting for?
Of course, anything worth having in life is worth waiting for. To do the same thing in the same place, people should do it in an organized manner. That's why we think that waiting in queues is essential; otherwise, the place would turn into a mess, especially in crowded areas.
When it comes to standing in long queues for something, many Koreans can recall the scenes of thousands of people forming long lines in front of Seoul Railroad Station to buy tickets for their hometowns and get-togethers with their families and friends during the Chuseok and Lunar New Year holidays.
It may seems boring and a waste of time to wait in queues. However, it saves time because everyone eventually does what they want to at their turn, without wasting time pushing against other people such as those in front of the railroad station as happened in the past.
Such scenes of "survival of the fittest" have entered history after online reservations became the norm starting in the early 1990s. Today standing in long lines for hours to do something is quite different from the past.
The so-called "certification of having been there" has become a popular motive for people to wait in long lines just for a cup of coffee or a bowl of "naengmyeon" (North Korean style cold noodles). Uploading photos of themselves standing in lines on Instagram or YouTube has become the vogue.
For instance, posts on Instagram with the hashtag #BlueBottle numbered more than 160,000 as of Wednesday, and YouTube was also flooded with similar content. Standing in line has itself become a "play" and content.
I do not have the slightest idea of talking down the overall trend; but do have a slight idea of talking down the trend of standing in a queue to sip a cup of coffee ― no matter what the brand is ― for five hours.
It is hard to understand how "employed" workers can wait to be seated for such a long time in front of famous restaurants for lunch. Of course, the long lines are a sign of the times. The character of consumption rapidly changes to an experience of value from that of need.
People may feel happy about the scarcity by standing in long lines for what they want to do. People, particularly young ones, may feel fortunate in having the time and money to enjoy what they want to do by waiting their turn in long lines.
The Korea Times report ends: "As for the taste of the coffee, well, no one would want to waste hours in line to get a cup of coffee from Blue Bottle. It wasn't worth the fuss."
Park Moo-jong (email@example.com) is a standing adviser of The Korea Times. He served as the president-publisher of the nation's first English daily newspaper from 2004 to 2014 after working as a reporter since 1974.