SEOUL, South Korea – An hour before dawn, Kang Hee-jeong was already hovering over her battery-powered mobile refrigerator, going through the streets in Chongdam-dong, a district in southern Seoul.
He parked his fridge and darted between apartment and office buildings, doors and doors from door to desk, as if he were other family members or co-workers, easily creating entry codes.
But to her loyal customers, Ms. Kang is simply referred to as a “Yakult Anjumma”.
Dressed in beige uniform and quick to smile and greet, Yakult Anjuma has been a fixture in South Korea for decades. They sell from a refrigerated cart – a sweet-drinkable yogurt invented in Japan in the 1930s. In many Korean communities, they have evolved from door-to-door saleswomen to surrogate mothers, daughters and aunts.
Ajumma is a Korean word often used fondly to describe middle-aged women with children.
“I provide yogurt, but also happiness and energy,” said Ms. Kang, a Yakult Anjuma since 2012, who knows her customers’ orders at heart. “People, especially the elderly, feel good seeing a cheerful and hardworking woman, and some of them eventually start buying from me.”
Ms. Kang was flagged off by a neighbor who bought yogurt but also gave her some rice cakes. An old watchman greeted him warmly and offered him a cup of chili coffee in the morning.
Liquor store owner Lee Hye-sook said, “She always arrives on time with her smile and greetings.” “I buy yogurt from him and he helps me feel good in the morning. This is a good deal for both of us. “
Yakult Anjuma has a long history in Korea.
In the early 1970s, the government provided agricultural subsidies to boost the country’s livestock industry. The growing cow business created a surplus of milk because Koreans had little appetite for dairy products at the time. So Korea Yakult, in a joint venture with Yakult Honsha of Japan, offers a sweet probiotic drink made from fermented milk, advertising the health benefits of “yusangyun” or lactic acid bacteria, a part of health food long before probiotics became available. has been made .
Yakult Honsha was already using a women’s network for home delivery in Japan, and the company’s Korean counterpart considered. In 1971, a few dozen women became the country’s first Yakul Anjumas in search of jobs to meet their household income.
The work was difficult. Missing cold storage for fresh drinks, women had to pull carts full of ice to sell yakult.
And buyers did not come easily. At first, the women were accused of selling “germs”.
The company launched an aggressive “good-for-gut health” advertising campaign. Now there are magnificent buildings in the city and apartment buildings, factories and parliament along the hillside.
South Korea has about 11,000 Yakult Anjuma, the country’s largest female-only, home-delivery sales network. Half of them can be seen cruising around Seoul, riding their sleek mobile refrigerator called CoCos, for “cold and cold”.
Yakult Anjumas is credited with helping establish the flavor of South Korea’s dairy, and is so ubiquitous that he has become a minor pop culture celebrity. His image has given rise to a song, and K-pop stars have also tried to work for a day.
Jeon Deuk-soon, 49, started working in Bongcheon-dong, 17 years ago as Yakult Anjumma in a district in southwest Seoul. It has since been defeated by a hilly neighborhood dotted with car repair shops and sewing factories.
Ms. Geon first landed her yakult in a push-free trolley filled with ice blocks to keep her drink cool. When an alley is too narrow or steep, or when she has to face the steps, she carries an untouched cooler bag over her shoulder.
“Imagine how I felt when I faced a three-block stretch of climbing,” Ms. Jean said. “But I have always been steady, walking my streets whether it flows, snowfall or rain.”
In 2015, there was stiff competition in the market as a proliferation of refrigerated trucks and convenience stores, Korea Yakult introduced Kuko. The vehicle, which looks like a cross between a Segway and a golf cart, has helped rejuvenate sales by allowing women to zoom up to five miles an hour on busy roads. Its 220-liter fridge has cheese, cold-calves, fresh eggs and meat, and even meal kits.
Yakolt Anjuma is part of the wave of women who joined the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s. Often these women have a strong desire to finance the education of their children to elevate their family status.
They found work as street vendors, restaurant workers or whatever jobs were available outside their homes. In doing so, they were sometimes aggressive – willing, for example, to wander their way through crowds to find seats on the bus or metro after a tiring day of work.
Ajumma was following traditional gender roles, which led to the expectation that women would be shy and focus primarily on domestic work. And so he was nicknamed “a third sex”.
Today’s Yakult Anjum are mostly in their 40s. They work in the same neighborhood for their entire career, staying on average 12.5 years in a job. The job is popular among women who raise children who are attracted to flexible hours and commission-based pay.
“When I started my gig, I had my after-school daughter tag on my rounds on Saturday, when she didn’t go to school,” Chris said.
In Jongcheon-dong, Ms. Jeon said that she started work after her husband failed the bottled water business and that it took no more than a week at a time. She said that selling her income helped her raise two sons.
Over time, most Yakult Anjuma get nourished for more than their small grocery store on wheels.
Late-night neighborhood women called her to help with child care and school bus pickup. He has been known to run errands and watch pets. And he is particularly appreciated by his old customers.
“Old customers stop me to share all kinds of personal stories on the go,” Ms. Kang said. “I get impatient because I still have my route to cover. But I remember my mother and listen to her, sometimes cry with her. In this modern world, they lack to talk to anyone.
Adult children living in distant cities sometimes arrange for Yakult Anjum to check on their old parents and report back after their delivery. In community events coordinated with local governments, Yakult Anjuma brings free milk and yogurt and checks out 30,000 seniors, often living in semi-subterranean urban homes.
Such intimacy is a part of keeping the profession thriving in South Korea for half a century.
“I have raised six stepchildren and I don’t even know where they live now,” said 91-year-old Yang Hai-in, who is one of Ms. Jean’s clients. Ms. Jean comes to see him every day, Ms. Yang said. During a recent visit, the two shook hands.
“She is like a daughter to me.”