SEOUL — Inching toward his mid-30s and with an ill father, Mr. Kim had a problem. He had no girlfriend and no intention of getting married, but his parents insisted he find someone and settle down. As his father’s condition became worse, so did the pressure from his parents about marriage, until one day Mr. Kim found himself letting a little lie pop out: He told his parents he was seeing someone.
But the harmless lie, which was supposed to give Kim temporary freedom, suddenly turned against him. He somehow ended up promising his parents he would visit them with his fiancee.
“I tried to find someone to help me out. It had happened so suddenly, and the date was already set,” Kim said. So as most South Koreans do when in need, he turned to the internet, and it did not fail him.
Kim, who declined to give his full name for fear of his parents finding out, found a company that offered to do anything for him. With the help of that company, Kim will soon head down to the countryside with a “nice woman” in her early or mid-30s posing as his potential bride.
Companies like the one Kim stumbled across represent one of the hottest trends in the Korean service sector these days: the instead-man service.
Companies with a pool of instead-men and women offer to do odd jobs that range anywhere from food delivery to killing cockroaches. Customers pay a fee that starts at about $4 and can reach into the hundreds depending on the service.
The business emerged in one of Seoul’s more affluent districts with companies that focused mainly on delivering food for women in their 20s and 30s who couldn’t bother to leave their apartments.
But as more people acquired larger disposable incomes, and with the shift from a community-oriented society to an individualistic one, more people are choosing to pay for help instead of asking others for favors. Instead-man companies now provide almost unlimited services and customers span all ages and genders.
“People are saying these days, ‘I want to take care of the important things in life, and give myself rest when I have free time,’” said Yoon Ju-yeol, the head of Anyman, one of the top ranking instead-man companies and provider of Kim’s paid fiance.
Yoon explains that South Koreans are now at a stage where they treasure themselves much more than they did in the past and see paying for their own convenience as a self-investment.
Anyman, which used to be a delivery service, officially reopened as an instead-man company in May and has seen a near tenfold growth in cases over three months. In July alone, the company received more than 3,250 calls from customers who usually turn into regulars.
The growth is an indicator that yet another odd service catering to the needs of South Koreans, who generally like being waited on and served, is just about to bloom.
Already there were plenty of motorcycles delivering all sorts of items usually guaranteed to arrive at their destination in less than an hour. And there are more than enough “substitute drivers” offering drunk car owners rides back home in their own vehicles 24 hours a day.
But Yoon thinks these services are not enough to tend to the needs of the so-called “can’t-botherists,” who, of course, are those suffering from “can’t-botherism” (both are popular words in Korea). Hence, the arrival of the instead-man.
“This is a market that the consumers have created, and there are almost no limits to what products can be marketed and those who can supply it,” Yoon said.
He has at least 200 professional instead-men and numerous part-timers on stand-by all across the country, allowing his company to cover a vast area and still operate efficiently.
Anyman, the name indicating that its instead-men will do anything, has seen an unimaginable variety of service requests from its clients.
Asking for food delivery from a distant place that sometimes entails double the price of the food itself as a service fee is nothing unusual. Some customers in the countryside have even asked that cosmetics or purchases of famous food from Seoul be packed onto express buses and trains for pickup.
University students have asked instead-men to sit in their classes for them and even elementary school students have called in to have art supplies delivered to their school gates.
Instead-men say that some of the requests can be quite touching as well. Gruff husbands call in to have porridge and medicine sent over to their sick wives, and one woman even asked if an older instead-man could accompany her elderly father on a fishing trip for two days.
But the work is, of course, not always pleasant.
“I was once asked to fish out a dead decomposing cat from between two brick walls, and I politely declined,” said professional instead-man Cho Sang-hee.
Cho rushed out in mid-conversation to the nearest cosmetics store, after getting a call asking that four packs of false eyelashes be delivered to a beauty salon.
“I guess you could say I’ve bought almost every single item a woman would at a drug store,” Cho said, before speeding off on his motorcycle.
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