By R.M. Adamson
Click here for Part 1.
The women here at the bin dae ddeok stall are kidding around with a scrawny, withered old guy whose faded and torn clothes make him look like he fell off one of the trucks that brings produce into the city from farms. He’s okay with the bantering, though, and I think he really got up from his chair inside the shop to see what’s up with the waygook fellow (me) sitting on the bench out front. Even though we’re less than a 20-minute walk from the Shinchon-Hongdae hub that is such a favorite nightlife area for foreigners, they’ve probably never seen someone who looks like me sitting down to drink a beer in their midst.
It’s a late afternoon weekday, the sky clouded and offering possibilities of rain but holding back on it so far and the temperature is just warm enough to make the beer taste a little bit better. We’re near the main entrance of one of the more decrepit open-air marketplaces in Seoul, this one called Ahyeon Shijang.
I recall my first visit to one of these open-air markets in South America, back when I lived in Paraguay for a short time as an exchange student in high school. It was a place of tiny stalls and discordant and unexpected sounds, not unlike this place I’m at now except bigger, everyone shouting and running and calling, where the illiterate and poverty-stricken among the residents of Asuncion were busy selling just about anything and everything they could sell. Things I’d never seen before. Things that looked like food but might not be. Mechanical and household appliances I’d have to guess at the uses for and likely be wrong. A busy place, full of busy business and constant movement, concrete below, half-constructed walls with exposed wiring. Stuff everywhere, and all of it for sale.
And I remember feeling literally hypnotized, dazed and confused—it might have been the first time in my remembered life standing in a crowd of people and having no tools with which to decipher what they were communicating. A lot the words were not even Spanish, which I did know a bit of, but rather the indigenous pre-Columbian language, guarani, which is still used there among the poorest of the poor, and in snatches by the educated and wealthy to speak to their servants. Corn and flour, we have it here, and meat, both raw and cooked, come and look, we can make a deal, if you want it.
Flash forward to many years later and half a world away, and I’m gawking my way through the big “traditional” market in Daegu, with many of the same emotions and impressions going on inside me. If anything, the alienness of it all enthralled me even more, and though by then I’d had a few more decades of walking around on the planet I still felt pretty FOB as regards to Asia. I was teaching businessmen back then, and living in a comfortable motel around the corner from a T.G.I. Friday’s, and this was the first time it was brought home to me what a very foreign place this country is.
It was also the first time I ever glimpsed a carcass of canine flesh, dressed and ready to be sold, cooked and consumed. That was disturbing, and still somewhat so several years later when I saw the same thing again at Yeoungdungpo Shijang. On that occasion, the vendor shook her head firmly when I lifted my camera, but I went elsewhere, and couldn’t resist taking a picture of some severed pig heads, and once I got started with that, I couldn’t stop – piles of dead fish, vegetables, whole sow carcasses hung up in rows, narrow passageways of stone walls and corrugated tin, thick stalks of what looked like aloe all lined up in a row, dried red peppers jumbled together in a bag, a woven circular straw mat resembling a Jungian mandala archetype, and oh yeah, those severed pig heads again – one room had 20 or 30 of them, and a guy was using a blowtorch to burn the tiny hairs from them.
A youngish-looking man in his late 20s or 30s has joined me, choosing a bench perpendicular to mine and sitting just far enough away that the impulse toward conversation feels like an option, but not a requirement. The serving women are kidding around with him in much the same way they had earlier with the thin old man. One of them leans over to me, says, “He is handsome ajosshi,” using the word that refers to a married man (or a man old enough he ought to be married). She says it like it’s a private name they have for him, and then giggles at the limited extent of her English. He’s got an easy smile and his friendly demeanor makes me wish I could say more than the few basic words I know.
The people here are friendly to each other, and to me, and I get the impression that perhaps they might see each other most days of the week, and don’t mind it. It appears that they are comfortable here, and I even get the feeling they would accept me among them completely if I made a habit of dropping by a few times more. In fact, it feels a little like being out in the country. You won’t find this kind of atmosphere at the food court at COEX Mall out in Gangnam, or at I-Park, next to Yongsan Station.
It’s not one of the beautiful parts of the city, though, and forces are conspiring to remove it. I won’t mourn it much myself, but it’s probably right to feel some measure of regret when something passes away that had held a place in the world for some length of time.
The market in my own neighborhood is somewhat different from the one in Ahyeon-dong. From what I hear, a few years ago, around the time of the World Cup games back in ’02, the city government wanted to tear down Mangwon Shijang entirely, make these areas that are near the new stadium look all sweet and nice for the foreign people who’d be coming around for the soccer games. America and most other western countries don’t have anything much like this—flea markets might come close, but they aren’t really that. Back then, developers aimed at replacing the old marketplace with bright and shiny apartment high-rises with views of the Han River from the upper floors.
Of course, a lot of Koreans today view the old-style market areas with disdain, and sometimes even embarrassment, like some kind of unaccountable atavism from the short time ago in the past when this was a Third World country. These modern types will instead stand in line with shopping carts at Costco or have their items electronically scanned at Shinsegae or Lotte Mart so they can pay with the shiny credit card they got from Hyundai Capital that was advertised on television by that charming Guus Hiddinck fella who coached the Korean soccer team so well back in ’02.
Apparently, when the plans to demolish Mangwon Market were released, there was some hue, and then there was a bit of cry, mostly from neighborhood groups objecting to the poorest citizens being pushed out by the wealthiest ones. It’s called gentrification, and no one’s found a cure for it yet. And it’s not remarkably different from what has been called The Walmart Effect back where I come from.
The compromise they came up was a paradoxical one – instead of knocking it down, they expanded it, calling the new section World Cup Shijang, and added a parking substructure and imposed some sanitation measures, and included exactly one 20-story apartment building with a sparkling grocery store at its base. The market itself displays a far cleaner aspect than many of the other market areas around the city, and I trust the food I buy there. Fish sellers put sheets of cellophane over their stuff to keep bugs off, for instance, and most of the butchers will cut meat for you, but they also sell it pre-cut in Styrofoam trays and wrapped in plastic, just like at E-Mart. Dog carcasses are nowhere to be found, and thank Buddha for that, though they can be seen, openly displayed, in some other similar markets around the city. One or two mass-market franchise shops have inserted themselves among the fruit sellers and fishmongers, and I tend to think of it as a hybrid creature placed midway between the old-style marketplaces and modern mall.
That place is a brisk 7-minute walk from my front door, and part of the renovation included the installation of some rudimentary diamond-screens at either end. They’re usually used as advertising space, but during the recent soccer season, games involving the Korean team were shown on them via live feed from Johannesburg. People gathered out on the pavement in moderately large numbers to watch, and I didn’t need to tune in to the sports network to know when the Reds scored because the yells and chanting were carried to me through my open window.
It’s quite different from this tinier area in Ahyeon-dong that contains the little shop valiantly swept and cleaned and illuminated with a formica smile by the lady in the red apron, dishing out her bin dae ddeok and dispensing makkeoli to geriatric veterans and affable ajosshis.
It’s often said that the conflict created by the spread of modernity involves the loss of community life, and this might well be true. In this century, though, community happens in more aetheric venues besides face-to-face on a busy sidewalk—our friends are found on Facebook and Twitter, we text our sweethearts on our smartphones while out drinking, we blog, and we Skype at each other across oceans and continents. It’s not uncommon today to have hundreds of “contacts” that we “network” with, some of whom we might even consider close friends, yet might perhaps have never actually met in the flesh. Indeed, the day may come soon when the people we meet and speak with every day will be considered the least important of all the ones we interact with. The word “community” contains a concept that is itself malleable and subject to alteration even as much as the actual streets, landmarks and neighborhoods we inhabit.
Ahyeon Shijang is a dinosaur, of course, and one of my adult students who is active in such matters tells me that it is scheduled for the bulldozers within the next few years. I will be surprised to see it still there if I take the same walk half a decade from now, or even less. The plan, I’m told, is that every retail area like it will likewise disappear, eventually. Already, that area is surrounded on three sides by 20-story apartment blocks and 30-floor office buildings with Starbucks-clone cafes and Family Marts doing sentry duty in the lobbies. When it happens, the wealthy will move in and those who are here – poor in funds and poorer in options, uneducated and unattractive – will be sent someplace else. I do not foresee violent street demonstrations taking place over this little corner in a big ugly city, as happened last year in Yongsan.
A Korean friend told me recently that every time a place like this falls to the wrecking ball, something is lost. Sure, that’s probably true. However, the conversation took place while we were making a leisurely stroll to buy whole-bean coffee and fresh cream at the HomePlus megamart at World Cup Stadium. We were voting with our feet, literally.
If it represents a past era of Korean life, so let it fade, since there is little to be done, in any case. The past it shows us probably has nothing we want today, little we will need for the future, and it’s not a time in history anyone wants to go back to. The world gets smaller, and what we will allow to persist must justify itself, improve itself, and adapt.
I finish my beer, and one of the laughing young serving-women peers over my shoulder at the LCD screen on my camera, seeming to approve of one or two of the shots I took of them at work. I ask the proprietress to put my leftovers in a bag for me to take home and she does so, along with a few pieces more, “service-uh.” The food is good, but not quite enough so to justify a second glass of brew. The smiling young ajjoshi gives me a nod as I’m leaving, but I won’t stay and I doubt I’ll see him again.
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R.M. Adamson (a.k.a. “The Bobster”) was raised in the Wine Country of Northern California, a place which, by many forms of reckoning, is not all that far from paradise on Earth. He’s aware that Seoul is one of the ugliest, dirtiest, smelliest, most crowded and possibly unhealthiest places in the world, but he likes it here anyway. Go figure.