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∙ Current position: Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher, Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki
∙ Ph.D. dissertation Neighborhood Shopkeepers in Contemporary South Korea: Household, Work, and Locality available online (E-Thesis publications a the University of Helsinki). For printed copies, please contact me by e-mail.
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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Some neighborhood shopkeeping

As I moved to our place a few years ago I needed to find a new place to get a haircut. I knew there would be a lot of barber and hairdressing shops "on the other side of the Long Bridge", in the traditionally working-class area just a short walk or one tram stop away from where the downtown part of the university are located, our institution included. I wandered around the neighborhood wondering which haircutting place of all the Korean-like multitude of establishments would be suitable. A couple of places where I dropped in were occupied, which seems to have been fortunate, as the place where my baby hair (Cheon wônjang's characterization) ended up getting cut turned out to be such an interesting place for an anthro who's been researching similar establishments in Korea.
It has been interesting to notice that in addition to me at least thinking that there's some of the personal interaction and "neighborhood sense" in that place that I witnessed in Korea, also the barbershop woman talks of the place in the same sense. How all get along well, how the atmosphere between shopkeepers is good etc. The woman is in many senses similar to her colleagues in Korea: assertive, self-confident, talkative - working on someone's hair is a "talking business" (malhanûn changsa) par exellence. Perhaps mostly due to the nature of hairdressing and barbering, making changes on one's outer appearance and being on a physical contact, it cannot but based on steady custom. (Not only shop proprietors rely on steady customers, but customers rely on steady proprietors.) In the case of Ritva's place, I was actually lucky to have been accepted as a customer; she told that she sees right away - with her 40 years' experience - if she can do the hair of a person well. If not, she sends him to another place. That's what a person who owns the shop space and has a steady base of customers can do; work 30 hours a week and be on a vacation for more than a month (or was it two?) a year... Last time I was having a haircut I mentioned about a bag shop around the corner which was having a closing sale. She told me about the keeper man close to 80 years of age. "Yes, I buy bags often from that place, last time two... The lining of one bag got torn, and a bag repair guy visiting the shop fixed it for 5 euros, can you believe? A 20-euro job elsewhere."

So I went and bought a trolley from the bag shop, and talked with the old man. With my Korean experience it's always good to raise a discussion, and these people are also interested to hear. "I'm already 15 years past the retirement age."
- So how long have you been keeping this shop?
- Look at the greyness of my hair, and how little there is left of it, and try to make a guess.
- Well, since the early 50s?
- From spring 1940, after the Winter War ended, and we left Viipuri with nothing, and even that was too much. [Trying to render the self-ironic way the refugees from areas ceded to Soviets as a consequence of the war talk about how they had to leave their homes almost empty-handed.]
Perhaps more about him later.

So I bought a trolley bag and went to show it to Ritva in the barber shop, just for the sake of greeting, on my way to the neighboring Asian food shop. She complimented my purchase, but funniest thing was that the customer turned to me and complimented as well: "what a fine bag you've bought". Elsewhere this kind of commenting would have not been expected, but me dropping in like that told the customer that I'm a steady customer (tan'gol) as well, so he talked as if he knew me.

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