A glimpse of history in the marketplace

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During the Korean war, death, not life, was the norm. Work meant survival.

Sheâe(TM)s smiling. They often do here. This part of town is called Nambu Shi-jang (Nambu Market), and though it isn't the only traditional market in Jeonju, it's thelargest. Itâe(TM)s run in large measure by middle-aged women called ajumas. (Ajuma means aunt. It, along with ajushi — uncle — is an almost universal term in Korea, and can be used to address a multitude of people, from shop owners to bus drivers to strangers.)

The traditional markets all possess the same basic elements: a large indoorshopping area specializing in textiles and cooking utensils and rice desserts and butchers' shops. Outside, an even larger area comprises smallbooths or sometimes simply individual sellers — the latter crouched close to the ground next to goods which they have spread out in front of them on blankets and plastic sheets.

The markets exist in stiff competition with the newer, Western-style supermarkets, such as E-Mart. But the markets are also popular — partly because their prices are so reasonable, and also because many of the people who shop here also belong to “a certain generation”. Many of them are in their 40s or 50s. These are the Koreans who remember the years of privation and dictatorship which followed the war. But itâe(TM)s not unusual to see sellers who are well past the age which in the West would qualify them for retirement. They vividly remember the war and the Japanese colonialism which preceded it. These women aren't so much ajumas as hal-moni — grandmothers. There are male sellers, too, of course. But they are in the minority.

* * *

The market is filled with noises and smells. Speakers blare out a litany of hectoring advertisements, and the stalls are filled with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as sea food and meat. Some shop owners stand guard with fans to brush the flies away.

When you slow down and stop and look, itâe(TM)s hard not to feel an inexpressible poignancy. You glimpse, for a brief moment, History Itself. Look at the sellers. Their hands are gnarled, their faces are weathered and brown; criss-crossed with uncountable lines.

The older sellers often have fatigued, worn bodies. They are hunched, occasionally bent out of shape by arthritis. They are small. During their formative years, their diet was simple — sometimes restricted. They did not have access to the same amount of protein as their children have had. Nowadays, they need to move slowly. They rest on small platforms or blankets in their stalls. However, many of these sellers are here not because they are financially desperate: usually, they have raised children who now support them. But they need to be in the market. Work is what forms them, and gives their lives structure.

* * *

The Miracle on the Han — Koreaâe(TM)s jump from nation-wide destruction to economic success, meant an immense sacrifice. And it was the generation of the ajumas and ajushis and hal-monis and al-po-jis (grandfathers) who made this sacrifice. The Korean War was staggering in its cost. It took twice the number of lives as the Vietnam War, and flattened much of the country. In a sense, during those years, death, not life, was the norm. And even after the war, the sense among Koreans that a pit of mortality could at any time swallow you up ran strong. Work was not only a means to gain success, but a talisman of survival. It was your only real hope.

* * *

The traditional markets are physical manifestations of this older attitude. Things have changed. There is even an idiom for this change among the young people: ex-generation and n-generation. Those who remember the past and were marked by it are ex-generation. They think more in terms of self-sacrifice than self-indulgence. N-generation people, on the other hand, have embraced global culture — their preferred stores are the brightly lit, orderly malls such as E-Mart and their preferred culture is pop music.

* * *

But Nambu carries on. With its wide selection of reasonably priced food and down-market textiles and household goods, it appeals to those determined to spend their money wisely. Furthermore, it's a social centre. For the people who live and shop here, this is where their friends are. It is their life.

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