My friends and I were shopping in Jeju City towards the end of an evening when someone suggested we go see Jeju’s Dongmun Market. Our map took us down a dimly-lit street that seemed to lead nowhere before we turned a corner and were surprised by a blaze of light and color heralding the entrance to the market. People bustled from all directions and we watched for a moment in awe before plunging in headfirst, sidestepping families, couples, and groups of friends as they ate and talked and laughed with each other. An Asian night market is one of my favorite places in the world, and I was very excited to see what would be different about a market on Jeju.
The first thing I noticed was the color orange. You could see it everywhere: on signs, on t-shirts, and especially in the hands of market patrons. Whole fruits, cut fruits, and fresh-squeezed juices advertised Jeju oranges; both mandarin oranges and their cousin the hallabong, a Jeju specialty that we just had to try for ourselves before the night was through. One of my friends bought a glass of Jeju orange juice, and being too lazy to get my wallet out I had to try a sip of hers; before I knew it I had drunk half the cup. The vibrancy of the flavors and colors of the fruit reflected the people moving all around me.
After finding something delicious to eat from one of the many food vendors I settled down on some steps to watch people, sitting gingerly as the ordeal we went through to summit Hallasan the day before made itself known in my sore muscles. To my right I noticed a girl working at a stall selling hana yaki, a kind of fried fish pancake with lots of delicious sauces on it. Whenever someone would purchase a pancake, before giving them their food she would clip a hair ornament to them; bright red hearts bouncing around on springs were clipped to the heads and lapels of young and old, male and female alike. Her eyes smiled over her face mask as she chatted and laughed with each person, giving them a small gift and a moment of her time as they waited for their food to be cooked.
It is small moments like these that add up to make Korea what it is. A cutesy hair ornament and a smile in the midst of a bustling night market aren’t much by themselves, but kindness and human connection combined with a zeal for life (and a propensity for survival) are integral parts of the Korean people. As I sipped my friend’s orange juice and contemplated the example of a young woman working at a night market, I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather have been than right where I was on Jeju.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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