Sometimes it takes a trip to a fish market for you to realize, Toto, we’re not even remotely in the States anymore. Such was the case on Saturday when, after spending the morning at work, I received a Facebook message from Rob asking if I wanted to go out exploring. Despite the fact that I was already back in bed, despite the bags under my eyes, despite the precious nap I planned to enjoy… Of course I said Hell to the yes! Where are we going?
To the largest fish market in Seoul, he replied in text.
Curiosity piqued, clothes back on, Cool! I’ll meet you at the corner in ten minutes. It’s gorgeous outside! I’m glad I won’t feel guilty about this wasted day tomorrow, and I’m craving a chance to use my camera.
Don’t wear flip flops, he cautions. Lydia found that out the hard way.
We meet on the corner as planned and head to the subway station. I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think as we head through the turnstiles and both naturally turn the same direction at the bottom of the stairs. (Often I’m stuck staring at my phone every time I’m faced with two options. Tell me, oh SmartDevice, which direction do I want to go? What should I do with my life? What shoes should I wear today? I’m glad Siri isn’t available (i4) or this could get out of control. Has anyone made a crystal ball app?) To my frustration, once we’re on the car I’m lost again, having to check every other stop to make sure we haven’t missed our transfer. Good thing Rob knows where we are going.
Ready for a small world moment? Last June, Laura’s British friend Ayesha came to visit us in Seattle. They taught together in Seoul the year before, and at the end of her contract Ayesha decided to do an American tour. Over the weekend we took the BOLT bus down to Portland and then drove to eastern Oregon for the annual Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally. Laura’s father, Eric Folkestad, is the main organizer for the rally every year, and it was the perfect ‘American!’ event to show our visitor. The weekend in Baker City was so much fun—beer and bikes and country music—and of course after about ten hours in the car together plus a weekend of hanging out with bikers, Ayesha (fondly referred to as A-Bomb) and I became friends. Ok, small world moment. Not only does Ayesha now teach at the same school as me in Seoul (no prior planning), but our co-teacher and friend Rob is from Baker City, OR. He knows all the restaurants and bars we went to, and tells us stories about the town when it’s not filled with an influx of biker dudes. He has also lived in Portland for a few years, and it’s nice to have someone from your same part of the world to share region-specific jokes with.
Rob and I take the subway over the Han, the big river that runs through the heart of Seoul. It’s wonderful to come up from the depths and be traveling above ground. I can even see out the window over the head of the Korean girl in front of me. It is a beautiful day. Cold and crisp; the sun reflecting off buildings tricks your mind into thinking it might be warm. We get off at our stop, climb the stairs to the walking bridge, and stare over the tracks at the city. We’re still a bit away, but you can tell that thousands of pounds of fish are nearby. Not in a nose-scrunching way, more like your brain is telling you the sea is nearby even though it’s not in sight.
Across the walking bridge, we start the descent into the Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. After a flight of wide steps we come out on the second floor balcony. At eye level with ceiling lights and beams, the expanse of the place takes a moment to sink in. Literally as far as the eye can see are stalls, each similar to the last, vendors hawking the day’s catch to hundreds of passerby. I’m glad of the way we came in; with an initial bird’s eye view I am able to take in the scene, assess the dimensions of the place. It’s the kind of market you want to at least see on a map before you dive in head first. I collect my bearings, sling my camera around my neck, and we’re off!
At the main floor I immediately regret my choice of shoes. I had opted for some tennies over my hiking boots, letting my newfound sense of Korean fashion dictate my wardrobe. Mi-stake. Too late I feel the damp and roll up the hem of my jeans, fish juice from the ground having already seeped in. I suck it up (the feeling, not the fish juice), just tell myself I’ll wash my clothes as soon as I get home and on the subway just blame the smell on the old guy next to me. Thank you Merrell for making machine-washable shoes!
My camera is out and it’s all I can do to not just live behind the lens. The colors, the smell, the sounds of a thousand voices buying and selling fish, the textures of dozens of species of sea life all scream to be recorded. For the first time in Korea I play the unabashed tourist. I can’t help it. This place is amazing! Rob informs me that Anthony Bourdain came here in his South Korea episode, and I see why. While potentially overwhelming, it is a foodie’s paradise. I make Rob stop at the stall selling tuna, literally grabbing the back of his shirt to halt him before he loses me in the crowd. I’ve never seen anything like this, except in my dreams. Old woman vendor, cross-sections of tuna the size of your torso, women yelling to have their order taken, piles of tuna steaks being trimmed to order and size. I gluttonously picture myself sinking my face into a mound of tuna sashimi. It kind of reminds me of the last scene in Scarface when he just lowers his face to the white mountain. That’s what I want. But with tuna. Unfortunately, I still have a few days until my first payday, so no tuna-coke dreams will be fulfilled today. That’s okay, though. I add it to my list
Once through the first line of stalls, we come out into the open at the entrance to a produce market. Looking for a bit of a break, we wander out into the sun. Rob mentions there is a strange alleyway market off to the left, and he stays in the open to smoke while I descend into what looks like a hobo tunnel market. Don’t take pictures, he warns me. A man chased us down last time.
The dark shapes crouched along the tunnel wall are indeed people, and in fact mostly old women. You see many elderly women running the small food stalls here, both in markets and in street food carts. In a society where the elderly are cared for by the young, if you don’t have offspring you simply continue to work, or if your family struggles to make ends meet, there really is no such thing as retirement. The women crouch along the wall, covered in hats and blankets, scrubbing vegetables or shucking beans into plastic pots. Their knuckles are swollen with rheumatoid arthritis, but their movements have the surety that comes from a lifetime of perfecting a skill. In awe, I walk among them and try not to stare. When I do gather the courage to ask for a picture, the woman frowns and shakes her head. For some reason, I feel a sense of superstition in her answer, although I can’t quite explain it. Less curt than wary.
I was filled with an immediate sense of respect… for her, for her way of life, for her beliefs. While incredibly different from me, our shared humanity was tangible in a brief interaction. And I suppose we are both doing what we need to in order to survive.
She may have denied a photo, but her pickles didn’t.