The crush of a Saturday afternoon in the subway of Seoul follows me even as I step off the train at Hohyeon Station, pulled along with the crowd to one of two exits leading the the market. And I do mean The Market.
Namdaemun Market is the largest outdoor market in the city, and most likely the largest in the entire Republic of Korea. It’s so large that the vendors spill out of the main streets of the market and into the subway station, so I am already in the market from the moment the crowd begins to pull me forward.
The smell is a mixture of alive and vibrant fruits and the slightly dead smelling roasted Bbun-dae-gi (caterpillars) roasting behind nearly every cart. The buildings are closer, the quarters even closer…I find myself stumbling into people left and right, but not apologizing. It’s a big effort in Korean, plus this is the big city. People are used to the odd ill-timed foot stomp.
I came to the market on a whim when the plans I’d made for the afternoon fell through, with the vague intention of finding a bead shop so that I could continue my amateur jewelry. I miss the feeling of silver wire between my fingers…the satisfaction at seeing an earring take shape. I wander through the market aimlessly, wondering at the stacks and stacks of scarves from China, knock-off watches and sunglasses, and piles of pigs’ feet. The latter looks disgusting and smells delicious, but the deterrent of the massive wall of the language barrier keeps me from ordering. I’ve learned a lot of Korean in three months, but “Please make sure that’s heated to an internal temperature of 80 C” is not part of my lexicon.
The market is hot. It’s crowded. There is a terrifying clown gesturing at a children’s clothing store.
Motorcycles power through the crowds and down the streets, and wheelbarrows piled high with yellow trash bags (for food only, and particularly rancid) seem to nearly topple over on me every time they push past, their weight shouldered by young men who apologize and beg forgiveness in a litany of “실례합니다, 제가 합격을 허용하십시오.”
It’s real Korea, down and dirty. Beautiful and vibrant. I’ve always loved the dirtiest and most chaotic parts of countries, from Napoli in Italia to Barrio Brasil in Santiago, Chile to the winding back roads of Perù. Namdaemun is the incarnation of that beautiful chaos. It occurs to me that I actually feel like I’m in Asia, for the first time.
As I wander back to the subway, wallet only slightly lighter from buying socks with KPop stars on them and emblazoned with “I LOVE YOU” in English, I stop by the pineapple stand. For 천 원 (~$1), I order a slice on a stick, the juice dribbling down my chin as a I walk into the endless subway. I pause to admire a few cheap skirts and try to keep the juice from the fruit from hitting any part of them, the searing eyes of the woman running the shop on my every move.
She walks over, muttering “No, no, no…” as she take the skirts and rearranges them just so. She gestures herself wider with her arms, puffing out her cheeks in a caricature of a chipmunk. Despite my healthy snack, she obviously is telling me I’m too fat for these clothes.
“Pig sizes over there!” she snaps, the P and B awash in an unintentional pun she’ll never catch. I laugh, finish my pineapple while humoring her by casting a glance at the “pig sizes.” I’ve just been ajumma’d. It’s time to disappear with what little grace one can after such humor back into the anonymity of the crush, the plasticity of the big city.