Many Seoulites don’t shop at their local shijang anymore. These old markets seem out of place in a modern mega-city. And when Seoul is covered with ‘marts’ and big supermarkets filled with shining, packaged fruit and everything is under one roof – or basement ceiling – why would you go anywhere else?
And of course, old markets are full of old people, unrefrigerated seafood and crates of produce. It’s crowded, there are sellers shouting out prices every ten seconds, and it all looks a little dirty. The shijang is where old grandmothers tend small booths full of rice cakes or buckets of kimchi; where the sellers are poor and tired and they probably struggle to make anything near a decent wage; where everything reminds you of the way Seoul used to be, and not always in a good way.
For all these reasons I understand why many Koreans prefer the big supermarket – it’s modernity, progress, convenience. You get shopping trolleys, underground parking and free samples! And the samples are pretty awesome. And the food is clean and you know the quality is good, right?
But the shijang wins for me every time. I shop at my local, the Donam Jeil Market, for all my meat, fruit and vegetable needs. For one, fruit and vegetables are fresh and significantly cheaper than in the big supermarkets, which are franchise operations run by the major jaebol and charge whatever they want. I can get a bag of nine Asian pears (in Asia they’re just called pears) for 5000 won at the local market, but at some supermarkets you pay that much for three plastic wrapped specimens of the same fruit! A big bag of lettuce is only a 1000 won, and I can get more tofu and cucumbers than a heterosexual Australian male could possibly need for mere dollars (1000 won is less than an Aussie dollar). The maths does itself and I save plenty.
The shijang can be a challenge – it’s crowded with sharp-elbowed ajumma and you’ve got to be very assertive. The market sellers are either asleep or booming prices at you, and you need to speak rudimentary Korean to work out how much things cost. You need to carry a big bag for everything, and being the only foreigner and the only customer under the age of forty surrounded by old ladies – not to mention my significant height – makes me realise how much of a spectacle I am to these people.
But it’s a lot of fun, shopping cheap, local and fresh, rubbing – sharp – elbows with the locals, getting ample practice in the Korean number system, supporting the little guys and fighting the big bad corporations all at once. And in a modern city where kimchi is imported from China and people are moving forward too fast to see the past vanishing behind, taking a visit to the local shijang is a simple, powerful act. It’s a way of joining in that old life which still thrives deep in the narrow streets, beneath the grey apartment towers and the gleaming mega-marts in this enormous and ever-changing city.