Thursday, May 7, 2009

Korean Shopping Adventures

This Tuesday was Children's Day in Korea, and as a result, Keegan had the day off. We have been talking for a while about getting a new piece of furniture for the "hallway" in our apartment (really the five feet of wall between the guest bathroom and the kitchen), and we knew just the store we wanted to visit. So around noon we headed towards Gohyeon to pick out a new piece of beautiful wooden furniture.

The store we like is a nondescript building along the highway, with a haphazard collection of fountains and outdoor furniture in front of it. On the patio is a huge chair carved out of the root system of a massive tree. It is totally cool. Inside, there are all kinds of chests, shelves, wardrobes, and chairs. There is even a giant handmade wooden bed that looks like it weighs a ton. Towards the back there is another room full of even more furniture.

When we first got to the store, there was no one around, and we felt funny poking around in the dark back room without permission. So Keegan scouted around outside until he saw a woman returning the shop with groceries and food for lunch. Most Korean shops are small, family-owned affairs, and it's not uncommon to see the proprietor eating an elaborate, chili-paste-tinged meal in the shop if you go shopping around noon. The woman turned on the lights for us in the back room and left us to browse, returning after a few minutes with small paper cups full of instant coffee.

We quickly zeroed in on a beautiful dark wood cabinet with thirty-six tiny drawers painted with Chinese characters. I think that the usual use for such a cabinet is to store the herbs and other ingredients for Traditional Chinese Medicine, but we plan to use it for odds and ends. We beckoned the saleswoman, and she quoted a price for us in Korean. It was one of the few chances I've had to listen to a number purely in Korean, without an immediate translation to English or a calculator display. So I was very proud of my language skill. We moved to the front of the store to complete our purchase.

At this point, things got interesting. The salesman who had helped us the last time wasn't there, and clearly the woman needed to find him to help her carry the cabinet and complete the sale. So, she asked us to sit (I recognized the word from my class!) and turned on the television for us, while she whipped out her cell phone. On the TV was a Korean movie about a girl and a pony, and we did our best to figure out what was going on. While we watched, the girl's father sold the horse, angry words were exchanged, and the girl watched with tears in her eyes as the ship containing the horse sailed away from a pier. As we followed this drama, the proprietress brought out a plate full of Korean rice cakes and chopsticks and told us to help ourselves (another word from my lessons!).

Now, at this point, it is necessary to say a word or two about Korean rice cakes. These were not the dried, puffy kind of cakes that you can buy in the health food aisle. Oh no. These were glutinous, heavy, doughy, green concoctions, presumably made by boiling rice until it was nothing more than a gluey mass, rolling it into a dough with some herbs, and then somehow sucking every last shred of moisture from it. We have eaten these before - usually they are filled with a sweet, sticky red bean paste. But these had no filling and were dry, tasteless, and rubbery. Imagine putting one of those aqua-jogging belts into your mouth and trying to chew it up. We are not big fans of this type of food (could you tell?), but of course, it would have been very rude to refuse such kind hospitality at lunchtime on a holiday afternoon. So we slowly chewed our way through a few slices of rice glue. The kind proprietress brought us some tea, which helped.

Eventually, the proprietor arrived and moved the chest out to the front of the shop, where he proceeded to carefully and systematically dust the entire cabinet. Then he loaded it into a truck to drive to our apartment. Meanwhile, his daughter (I assume) told us she would give us a 50,000 won discount, despite the fact that all of my carefully learned vocabulary for bargaining remained completely unused. We followed the delivery truck all the way back home, where the kind proprietor unloaded our new furniture and carried it up to our place. I was happy that I could tell him "You worked hard. Thank you. Good-bye," in what was no doubt heavily accented, mumbled Korean.

The chest looks wonderful in its new spot.

In the evening, I had another shopping adventure. I wanted to make a recipe that called for four eggs, but we only had two. I decided that I would walk down to the corner store and buy a few more. The store close to our apartment is only a convenience store, so I wasn't sure what I would find, but when I went in I immediately saw some large trays of eggs. Eggs aren't usually refrigerated around here, and these were no exception, but I figured since I planned to cook the eggs for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven, it would be ok. I wasn't sure how to buy only a few eggs from the huge tray, so I was happy to see nearby little net bags, each holding only three eggs. I walked back to the apartment with my little purchase, proud of my resourcefulness in getting what we needed for dinner.

As soon as I pulled out my purchase in the kitchen, though, Keegan asked me if I knew that I had bought hard-boiled eggs. He had seen them packaged that way before at various convenience stores when traveling with Korean co-workers. Sure, enough, cracking one egg revealed hard-boiled innards, slightly brown from sitting out on the shelf for God knows how long. I became incensed, threw the eggs away, and suggested that we order a pizza. And thus ended our day of Korean shopping adventures.


Mom said...

The new chest looks beautiful. And you have a right to be proud of yourself for using your Korean language skills. I had to laugh about your other shopping "eggsperience."

Sue said...

A perfect spot! Now you can alphabetize all your little possessions and file them away in this wonderful chest. :)

chrissy said...

tee hee. I'm so proud of you for trying to shop local! Can you join a CSA or such? We joined one and our first 1/2 box comes next week. We're so excited and scared to see what new veggies we'll have to learn how to cook and eat. =)

p.s. the chest IS beautiful.

Heidi said...

Hey Ellen!
I am finally catching up on your blog. What a beatufil piece of furniture! I am impressed that things are familiar to you but you still seem them with fresh eyes; what a unique and great perspective!
Norfolk still misses you--a lot!
Happy (belated) first anniversary by the way!