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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

News Alert: Ostensibly mundane trip to the market turns into scatologico-linguistic romp

Since my return to Korea nearly 2 months-ago, I have been searching for ways to meld my various needs, passions, idiosyncrasies, and compulsions so that I can satisfy many or all of them with less effort. One great way of doing this has been riding my bicycle around town to the various old-school markets (e.g. Ch'ilseong [seven stars], Seomun [west gate], p'yeonghwa [peace]), which:
- lets me feel good about relying a little less on gas
- gets me a bit of exercise and helps me learn the layout of the city
- lets me make purchases outdoors, thereby contributing less to the various sorts of environmental damage I believe are caused by large grocery stores
- gives me a chance to see sliced-off pig faces, large chunks of beef, skinned/eviscerated dogs, crabs laid on their backs gasping and squirming, catfish flopping on the street, and bunches of turtles sitting in plastic tubs waiting to be made into soup, all of which reminds me that eating meat is a nasty business, though easy to forget about
- lets me talk to old Korean people who are usually quite wrinkly/grizzled and also hilarious and cute and who may be either refreshingly ornery or heartwarmingly generous, but are never saccharine or sycophantic or fake or overly made-up like supermarket staff
- puts me a little bit closer to the people making the food and to the food itself. People at the market are still middlemen, but they are more likely to know where their stuff is coming from, to buy local, and to buy what's in season.
- opens me up to awesome random stuff, like...

I saw a bunch of baby potatoes, ideal for making "Jorim," a dish where you boil and soak potatoes in sugar and soy sauce. The stall owner wasn't there, so I asked the lady selling fish on the other side of the street where the potato lady was. The fish lady started screaming for her, and this little, hunchbacked, sturdy-as-hell Korean grandma hobbled down from her neighbor's fruit stall and told me that the big basket of potatoes was 5 bucks, the small was 4, but that she'd give it to me for 3. I told her I'd be happy to pay the normal price and that she didn't have to cut it for me, so she put the potatoes into the bag I had brought with me, and then, as a bonus, started shoving jujubes (real ones, not the candies - a subject for a Matnan Masticatables post for sure) into my backpack. I tried to explain that I had just bought a kilo (10 bucks' worth) of jujubes from another vendor, but she continued shoveling until every nook and cranny of my bag was filled. What a lady.

From 맛난 Masticatables

Then I stopped at a lady selling ginger. We weighed out what I wanted - 2 bucks' worth. She put it in my bag, then added another clump or two, then threw in 3 bright red chili peppers, saying something like "You're a foreigner, so you're a guest here. It's important to treat guests well." Wow! They look all worn-down from being outside in the sun and wind and cold day in and day out all year long, but they're so...nice. Amazing. [Am I referring to the ginger or the grandmothers? Your guess is as god as mine.]

Then, on the way home, I some spraypainted graffiti that made me pull over, dismount, and take some pictures. It was on a big column supporting a bridge, and it looked like this:

From 맛난 Masticatables

The writing is not actually grafitti - it's more like a PSA that says "Urination Forbidden." I'm not sure why that particular column was a trouble spot, but anyway, it got me thinking about Korean a little. The first word there - sobyeon - comes from two chinese characters:,
- "so" 소 小 meaning small; and
- "byeon" 변 便 which generally means comfort, but apparently can also mean excrement
The word for faeces, on the other hand, is "daebyeon," which comes from:
- "dae" 대 大 meaning big
- "byeon" 변 便 meaning, again, comfort
But that's not all:
- add the word for "machine, device" and you get byeon-gi 변기 便器 (squat) TOILET
- add the word for "west" and you get yangbyeon-gi 양변기 洋便器 (sitting) TOILET
- or, add the word for small and you get sobyeon-gi 소변기 小便器 URINAL
- add the word for "hidden, secret, profound" and you get byeonbi 변비 便秘 CONSTIPATION
- add the word for "place, location" and you get byeonso 변소 便所 BATHROOM
- add the word for "using" and you get yongbyeon 용변 用便 RELIEF, DISCHARGE (of the bladder)

The whole trip, from my house to the market to the sign back to my house took less than two hours (most of it was spent intentionally getting lost in the market). What a beautiful afternoon.