Back to the Fish Market

Last weekend I had another amazing experience at the Noryangjin fish market. This place has unexpectedly become one of my favorite destinations in Seoul.

Our group started as 2 dudes and 2 chicas. Both girls are foreigners like me, and this was their first trip to the largest wholesale seafood market in Seoul, a city that loves seafood. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate my Korean friend for joining us because an experience like this would probably not be possible without him. Speaking the language, you are able to know what you are buying in the market, negotiate the prices, and communicate with the restaurant staff to maneuver your way through the rest of the meal.

I’ve only been to this place once before, like a month ago, but was recognized by one of the fish vendors as soon as we walked in. People around here continually remember me, I can’t get used it. And of course he wanted us to purchase his stuff, instead of walking further in to the depths of the market. I told him we were taking a stroll but would try to come back. Well, we didn’t, choosing instead to buy our food from someone else, and on our way out, almost 4 hours later, he let me know of his disappointment.

We strolled through the market for 15-20 minutes before deciding to buy a flat fish and a crab. The fish was carved up beautifully and brought to the restaurant for us to eat, and the restaurant boiled up the crab to be served a little later. We took our shoes off, sat on the floor and drank soju mixed with beer, somek, although I’m unsure of my spelling. It’s delicious and I have been drinking a lot of it.

Ilsan Art Gallery-Noryangjin Fish Market 121




Ilsan Art Gallery-Noryangjin Fish Market 137

At the table next to us sat a Korean guy and Korean two girls, late 20’s, also enjoying a night of Korean cuisine and booz. Dude took a liking to our table, often offering advice on how to eat, what to eat, how long to cook the stew that comes later in the meal… all kinds of things. Dude’s English was alright, but huge thanks again to my Korean friends for the constant translation. Often I’ve found that if you show a genuine interest in their culture, many Koreans are very willing, and most of the time will offer, to share their knowledge and customs. It’s pretty awesome when it happens. And this guy was going above and beyond what I usually encounter. He saw that we wanted to clean the platter of the pickled ginger before the restaurant took it away, so he asked the server to bring us another side dish full of it. And to further enhance our dining experience, he bought us a pancake type dish loaded with octopus and green onions. It was delicious, you dip it in the soy and wasabi. I could tell he was pretty happy when I kept going back for more and more of it.

Ilsan Art Gallery-Noryangjin Fish Market 138

As the night progressed, and as the soju was passed around again and again, the interaction between our tables increased. We ended up finding out a lot about our neighbors. He is a high level Judo master, referring to himself as Kung Fu Panda, even showing us a few pictures of Kung Fu Panda on his phone. It’s comedy because he’s a large man and pretty much resembles Kung Fu Panda. One of the girls was fairly quiet, probably a sign that her English skills may have been lacking, but the other girl had good English and was very talkative.


I have heard that the Korean culture has a long way to go with regards to accepting anything that is outside of the social mainstream. This can include foreigners, handicapped, overweight people, and others choosing alternative lifestyles. This need to fit in to the social framework of Korean normality makes it very difficult to be openly homosexual. Although no doubt soju induced, and most likely aided by the increased comfort factor that comes from knowing that many foreigners are in fact socially accepting of the freedom of lifestyle choice, the 2 girls shared with us that they were in a homosexual relationship. This was followed by high fives, and comments like, “don’t worry, it’s ok with us”, and “you should move to North America” from the foreign delegation at the table. Too many details are not necessary, but I’ll just say that it took a while for the Korean in our group to understand what was going on, and to accept that yes, those two women are in fact “lovers”, to use their words, and not in fact close cousins as you insist.

I only make mention of this episode because it was one of my first realizations of this closed Korean society. It is my understanding that such an encounter is not likely to happen all that often here in Korea. I thought the time we spent with their group that night was pretty awesome, so I’m glad they felt comfortable with us. My friend is far from a bad person, he has just not been faced with a situation like that before. It stays hidden out of fear of discrimination. But after a short while he seemed to accept what he had learned, I think it was a valuable learning experience for him, and the night went on.

… and then the most amazing drinking game started, keeping us pre-occupied for at least an hour, probably more. Rock Scissor Paper is utilized for literally everything here. It’s like the national pastime, hobby and sport all wrapped in up in one bundle of competitive decision making enjoyment… and it’s awesome as drinking game. We split in to a group of 4 and a group of 3, a representative from the group of 3 had to go twice. A community glass of very strong somek was filled, stronger than what you would drink on your own. And we squared off, #1 against # 1. Whoever wins moves on to #2 for the next group, so if you lose then the next person in your group competes. And on down the line you go. The first team to run out of competitors loses and has to down the community somek glass.

The restaurant staff asked us twice to quiet down, as the chants of “Kai – Bai – Bo” could probably be heard around the corner and up the stairs in the heart of the fish market. So that probably means that the rest of the restaurant patrons weren’t enjoying our company as much as we’d like to think.

Everything you read on the internet is true, and today I read that:

Kawi = scissors
Bawi = paper
Bo = rock

So now I understand the Kai – Bai – Bo that I hear daily at work.

Probably somewhere around 2:30am, we all walked out of the fish market together, took a few pictures and parted ways with our new Korean friends that we’ll probably never see again.

Learn Korean with


~ by ripcitytoseoul on July 21, 2009.

One Response to “Back to the Fish Market”

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