Six Rules to Shop by When Shopping Under an Umbrella
Michael Fraiman met the Apple Man and later, Racist Cucumber Lady. His life was forever changed as he embarked into the world of street shopping. He has returned with advice to those of you wanting to leave the confines of the mega marts and get down to where the real action is.
BUSAN, South Korea -- Nearly every morning, an old Korean man sits on a white plastic stool near the southbound Bomnaegol bus stop and sells apples. Business suits hurry by while he sits patiently, in his tackle vest and fleece, occasionally pounding his thighs as older Koreans do, to keep the blood pumping. I call him the “Apple Man”, because when I first noticed him his cart was filled with apples, of which he sells seven for 3,000 won.
My first purchase from the Apple Man was entirely unremarkable until I got home and took that first bite, realizing how literally life-changingly good it was, and how all seven of those red, unwaxed beauties cost nearly half the price of what I'd found in most supermarkets.
Buying fruit off the street – or fish, or ironing boards, or whatever – can be a daunting experience for a myriad of reasons. But it’s worth it. A head of broccoli should cost 1,000 won, not 2,500; a bunch of bananas is 3,000; a giant radish is 1,000 – and the food’s often fresher to boot.
On that note, here's some stuff I've figured out based on my naive experiences dealing with wizened Koreans in aprons:
1. Don’t be intimidated. Remember: you’re dealing with human beings. Asking the price of something is as easy as slurring out your best “Eeh-goh, ohl-mah-yeh-yo?” Vendors will often show you with their fingers since they assume you don’t speak Korean. If you think 3,000 won is too much for cabbage (it is), or the cabbage is browning (it might be), just walk away and find another vendor. No one will chase after you (not a guarantee), and you'll find someone else selling cabbage within the radius of a city block (98% guarantee).
2. Numbers are a universal language. I once tried to buy a cucumber from a woman around the corner from me, and she confidently charged me 5,000 won. I asked her again, and she stuck five fingers at me, rapidly saying other things I did not understand. I now refer to her as "Racist Cucumber Lady" and we glare at each other when I walk past her shop twice a day. The lesson: if you want to avoid confrontations, stick to products with handwritten price tags. No rip-offs, no inflation: you pay what everyone else pays.
3. If it looks bad, it probably is. “Supermarket fresh” is a term Westerners have been raised to be wary of, which implies that a street purchase is automatically the healthier, greener choice. This is untrue. Just because a man is selling tomatoes on the street, it does not mean those tomatoes are a) locally grown, b) healthier, or c) pesticide-free. Produce can be sold out of season, so if it looks off, trust your judgment and walk away.
4. If it comes from a cart, you’re (probably) good to go. For whatever reason, homogeneity in a wooden box with wheels often leads to a cheaper and tastier product. Don't ask why.
5. Take time to find the sweet spots. I have the “Apple Man” for apples, the “Miscellaneous Dried Food Lady” for peanuts and onions, and the “Old Lady Who Sometimes Wanders Off Leaving Me Standing Like An Idiot Alone For Five Minutes” for eggs and bean sprouts. It took a few weeks of walking home from school to discover which routes lead to which vendors, and which vendors have the best products and prices, but my bank account has thanked me.
6. You’ll feel more like a Korean. I’m a sucker for cultural immersion, and refrained from eating Western-style food for the better part of my first two months here. Yes, shopping at E-Mart and HomePlus can be culturally challenging in its own way, but just a walk through Seomyeon's market alleys has made me feel more like a citizen who actually lives here. In these moments, I've seen Busan for what it is: a beautiful, intricate city made up of thousands of people trying to make a living, strike a deal, coming together in clusters to talk and shop and drink until the next day, when they do it all again. To ignore these people is – for me, anyway – to ignore people like the Apple Man, who helps make up this city in small doses by just sitting on his white plastic stool all day. I have never seen him come or go, but I know that he has been here long before me, and will remain here long after I travel on.
Story Photos by Ben Weller
Lead Photo by Michael Fraiman
You can see more of Ben Weller's photo work at benweller.photoshelter.com
Read more from Michael Fraiman