Fish markets make for ideal tourist traps in Busan.
“I’ll never trust another old person,” Bart Simpson once said, and for that nugget of wisdom I’ve always half-respected him. The fact is the elderly are as capable of screwing you over as a menacing looking teenager, or a hard ass, stone face punk twenty-something. Worse, the elderly won’t just take you for a ride… they’ll say they ‘fleeced’ you and call you a ‘sucker’. Of course, if you trust the elderly, you can have no complaints about being called a ‘sucker’. That’s just exactly what you are.
And that’s exactly what I am. A sucker. A pure-bred, plain-as-day sucker. I met an old man and let him have his wicked way, and he damn well did it on national TV. No, not Korean national TV, which is of interest only to Koreans, and which is so backward and racist that no one takes it serously… but the BBC!
Being fleeced like a rube on the BBC is like being pantsed at your wedding, or outed at your funeral. It makes you look more foolish for not realizing that you were being watched… by several million people. You didn’t just fail to notice one person rape your dignity – you failed to notice an audience of millions, or their cameras, lighting or sound equipment.
I was in Busan for the weekend – the biggest port city in Korea, and the fifth biggest in the world. There are gangsters, hookers and miscreants in Busan, and more than once have I found myself in a world of trouble and adventure. But I never saw this one coming.
My girlfriend, Amy, and I were looking for the world famous fish market, where live, raw and cooked fish are bought, sold and eaten. Koreans will eat ANYTHING they find in the sea, and fish markets are consequently fun tourist traps for uninitiated Westerners.
It was nighttime when we stepped off the subway and instantly became lost. I was barefoot – as always – and the fish blood and guts that ran ankle deep in the street proved quite the stomach-turner, as my feet turned bright red. We watched animals being skinned alive by half-dead old women in floral dresses and giant rubber boots, and fed alive to drunken old men at blue plastic tables. We saw crabs the size of car tires and people eating live octopuses that tried fruitlessly to escape. It was both a freak show and a glimpse into another culture – one where the suffering of animals is requisite for a family day out.
But everything looked the same. Each street was the same as the last, and they all meandered back and forth in the darkness. It was a confusing place. We were truly lost.
“Can I help you? An elderly man asked us, in Korean. We asked him where “the fish market” was, and he told us in poor English what we already knew – that there were dozens of fish markets all around the area. We asked him about the biggest, best, most famous one…
Soon we were tearing through backstreets, after this weird old man. In Korea, if you’re old, you stop for no one. It was hard to keep up, as the people who jumped out of his way deliberately walked into ours. But every now and then he’d stop and ask someone something. I liked that he was the first Korean person I’d met who didn’t refer to me in racist terms or laugh with other Koreans about me in a language they thought I didn’t understand.
He won my trust.
Finally, we came to a huge bird-shaped building by the water, and the old man assured us that we were in the right place. Outside, there were a few signs in English, which meant they wanted tourists to come here, and so it was probably what we were looking for. We tried to thank and ditch the guy, who seemed to be finding a table for three.
“I buy,” he said. “I buy food, keep you safe.” He smiled a lot and looked oh-so-innocent. We wanted dinner alone, without the awkward language and cultural gap, but reluctantly, we accepted his offer. We sat down and he immediately began talking to the large family at the table beside us, and scored several free dishes of fish heads. I never noticed that he was conning them, or that he was more subtly conning us.
The first plate of food arrived and I saw something new, after a year and a half in Korea. There were pink and purple wormy-eely things flopping about on the plate… The old man picked one up with his chopsticks and ate it, with a red sauce. We both ate one – not bad. It tasted of nothing much, and the texture wasn’t as bad as you’d expect from eating a living being.
“Red sauce, Korea sauce; green sauce, Japan sauce.” He shook his head as he pointed at the wasabi.
There was a plate of yellow things, too, which seemed to have tentacles, and were also alive. They tasted alright, too. Nothing I’d willingly eat in the future, but not entirely awful.
We ordered two bottles of soju, and the elderly man – who finally introduced himself to us as Mr Kim – conversed with the family beside us. He seemed to have no issues with imposing himself upon others, and his social skills were admirable. Pretty soon we were all absorbed into the family, whom spoke unusually good English.
More food came. It was good sashimi, and there was lots of it. Soon we were all drunk and talking. I tried to speak the occasional word or sentence in Korean, which they appreciated. It was a lot of fun. Mr Kim’s son was living in America, and Mr Choi’s son was living in England. They both tried to teach Amy and I about Korea, taking immense pride in the fact that Korean food is better than Japanese food… They kept saying Korea was “number one!” and that Japan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Russia are all dirty and immoral. Also, white people are evil, but have lots of money and so are tolerated…
I didn’t care, though. I’d been in Korea long enough to ignore racism and pretend to like the place. “Oh yeah,” I lied. “Korea is very beautiful – much nicer than Japan!”
They explained why kimchi was the best food in the world, and I faked agreement. They also let me know about other classic and predictable topics – Dokdo, Japan’s occupation, the importance of racial purity. Two charming old, twinkle-eye’d Hitlers.
Fuck the racist hicks, I thought. We need to eat their food, drink their soju, and make a break for it. We needed to get a hotel in a different part of the city, and it was getting late. But the old men were hard to shake. Mr Kim kept ordering soju and regaling us with his racist rhetoric.
Suddenly, a fight broke out. An old woman was shouting about having waited thirty minutes for her food, and demanded her money back. Another old woman was clearing tables and trying to ignore the deluge of insults, which were comprised of some of the harshest Korean swear-words I know. A younger woman pushed herself between the two, as the angry customer began to push and shove. She stuck money into the aggressor’s hand, which was accepted, but did not appease the woman. But it fooled the young one. She was a rube, like me.
As soon as her back was turned, one woman flew at the other, and in the mess of floral dresses and permed hair, I couldn’t tell who was who. There were cunt-punches and titty-twisters, hair-pulling and eye-gouging. Soon, though, they rolled out the door onto the balcony and out of sight. No one followed them; no one cared.
Mr Kim didn’t seem to notice. He just kept talking as normal – various nationalistic boasts. He kept informing us on Korean etiquette, too, of which we were both obviously aware, having been in Korea so long. We would pour with two hands, share food correctly, point our chopsticks away, and acknowledge all the rules and hierarchies of social gatherings.
When it came time to finally leave, Mr Kim showed us the bill, and broke a big rule himself – the eldest always pays for dinner. Every time I’d eaten or drank with Korean people – whether for business or pleasure – that has been the unbreakable rule. The eldest must always foot the bill… especially if they promised to do so while inviting you to eat with them.
Damnit! I said to myself. I’ve been fleeced like a rube. I took my wallet out and paid the extremely over priced bill – several times the cost of a standard restaurant. I was pissed, having been lied to and lectured by a hypocrite. But I was also glad to see the back of this bastard. Although the night had actually been enjoyable, I wanted to get away from the man whose company I’d enjoyed less than the food, and who’d referred to me numerous times as American, despite my having told him otherwise.
When we turned to stand up and put ours shoes on, I realized there was a film crew shooting a couple eating sashimi. This was no amateur affair, either. This was a big film crew, with expensive equipment. Two of the camera men were wearing National Geographic camera crew t-shirts.
Amy and I had sat with our backs to this for god-knows how long. Mr Kim, sitting opposite us, hadn’t said a word. I began to wonder if he was in cahoots with the film crew. Maybe they were filming a documentary about dumb foreigners being scammed.
“Go ask them what they’re doing,” Amy said, and I obliged, as I was filled with curiosity.
I walked over and asked plainly: “What are you filming?”
“We’re from the BBC,” a woman – possibly the director – explained. “We’re filming a documentary called ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, where six teams travel around the world without spending a penny on travel. We’re team four.”
“What are you doing in Busan?” I asked.
“We’re just passing through Korea… How long have you been here? What do you do?”
I told them I was a teacher and magazine editor. She looked disappointed, as though she wanted me to give some exciting, romantic story that I could regurgitate on camera.
“Were you just filming them?” I asked, pointing at the couple, who were still eating.
“Yes, mostly. We caught you, too, if that’s ok? You’ll be on TV in October.”
I turned and walked away. “Good luck!” I called back over my shoulder. I walked back to the table and Mr Kim handed me the bill, as though it were a fucking gift. He didn’t even say thank you, as we walked out, and he tried to make us pay for his taxi to the opposite end of the city.
Great, I thought. Fleeced like a sucker on the BBC.