After lugging my bags around like a strongman competitor, I sat in my hotel room in Incheon overcome with relief (and a welcomingly cold aircon). Most of my baggage made it to Korea unscathed. However, my oversized Trader Joe’s chocolate bar suffered multiple compound fractures. After heart-wrenching deliberations, I decided to do the humane thing and put it out of its misery – its dark, delicious misery.
I had a free night and a late morning before meeting my fellow teacher cohort back at the airport. Therefore, I had nothing to do but explore.
Fortunately, there was a Lotte Mart (a Korean hypermarket) just down the block. There was nothing I wanted more than to dive headfirst into the Korean shopping experience. Also, I could use a new backpack. My meat mitts carelessly broke the zipper off of mine during the flight.
When I arrived in the grocery department, my eyes widened. The three-story shopping behemoth blew me away. An astounding variety of items, blaring music, and the word “SALE” plastered everywhere within eye shot was a lot to take in. My wallet started to sweat. I patted my pocket and said, “It’s okay. Don’t be scared. We’re only here for some dinner and a little soju. I’ll protect you.”
Everything from seaweed cakes, dried and bagged squid, and an absurd amount of SPAM reminded me that I wasn’t in America anymore. After briefly forgetting again, the sight of fruit prices brought me back – 4000 won (~$4.00 USD) for a small bunch of bananas. I learned that fruit is quite pricey throughout the country. I rejoiced at the extra incentive to maintain my low-carb lifestyle.
As I perused the aisles, I noticed I was the only person wearing a backpack (luckily one zipper still worked). I also realized I was the tallest and most foreign-looking person in the store. My anxious side piped up.
“They’re watching you, man,” said Anxiety-Brain. “They think you’re stealing stuff. Why’d you bring a backpack anyway?”
I was too awestruck, sensorily inundated, and brainwashed by free samples to use proper reasoning. Therefore, I agreed with him. “We should probably buy something, just to be safe.”
I grabbed what looked like a seaweed salad. I would eat it the next morning and discover it was a cup of sliced green onions. It wreaked havoc on my breath and jeopardized my chances of make friends.
The Lotte Mart sound system oscillated between Korean pop music, a pre-recorded English-speaking man, and Korean-speaking woman reminding shoppers of Lotte Mart’s low prices and high customer satisfaction. Cute Korean jingles redolent of cartoons were sprinkled into this variegated soundscape.
Shifting my listening to the ambient chatter, I covertly eavesdropped on a young couple picking out bottles of soju and recognized my first Korean word in everyday conversation. “Co-la,” the lady said. I think they wanted Coca Cola to drink with their soju. I also thought I was an ignorant foreigner making assumptions about strangers. Either way, I smiled and pumped my fist. They looked at me like I was crazy. I was too excited to care.
Entering the checkout line, I saw packages of M&M’s for 950 won. This bummed me out, as I had bought a massive variety pack of M&M’s in the States to give to my school’s teachers and administrators. I thought I was bringing them a rare American candy. I should have known better. Mars is too smart not to take advantage of robust Asian markets. Oh well. At least I tried.
As I was checking out, I realized I forgot to grab soju.
“You done messed up,” said Anxiety-Brain.
“No, I didn’t. Shut up,” I said (not out loud, thank goodness). Anxiety-Brain wasn’t going to bully me anymore.
“We didn’t come to Korea to sit in a hotel room and drink,” I explained.” “We came here to meet people. Let’s go to a restaurant.”
After purchasing my “salad”, I figured I might as well check out the department floors before moseying off to an eatery. What I found was both predictable and surprising.
I’m used to superstores having in-store restaurants. Walmart tends to carry a Subway or McDonald’s. Some Target stores have a Starbucks. Lotte Mart had a full-fledged food court. I couldn’t believe it. Five counter-service restaurants to go along with an overwhelming variety of delicatessen and groceries? If I wasn’t careful, I knew I would bring back more than just memories from Korea (like some unwanted poundage (or kilogram-age if that’s your thing)).
In this small country, I stand in the shadows of giants. My finger at the bottom accentuates my expert photography skills.
Soju is one of the most affordable hangovers out there. (About $1.50 USD)
The bananas are so fresh they grow them right in the store. Not really, but they need to do something to justify the price.
This is the most aesthetically pleasing urinal cake arrangement I’ve ever seen. I think Mom would approve.
Free samples abound in this land of plenty.
A few locals will say that Koreans invented fried chicken. I know for an unverified fact that fried chicken was invented in Kentucky. I should know. I’m a Wildcat. In Korea, however, I just agree. Maintaining harmony is key.