The citizens of Gwangju have been given a fantastic gift recently. It’s not something easy to recognize as it’s impossible to see and does little to change most folks’ day to day. This isn’t some grand financial boon for the populace and it is not an edict handed down by government representatives alongside speeches touting the wonders of modern advancement. The gift handed down to us, this fragile thread that may pass at an instant, is a mild start to summer. Though it may be a bit warm at times, the extent of the heat has done little to stop even some of the more temperature sensitive people I know from enjoying barbeques, parks, and the like. This week, we’ll be looking at a nice patch of shade that is great on days hot and cold alike.
Anyone who’s been downtown would be hard pressed to avoid the signs for the Daein neighborhood but I’m always surprised at how few people I know have walked into the open air market there. Daein Market, located a few blocks east of downtown along Chungjangro, is one of my favorite traditional markets in Gwangju and is definitely deserving of such praise. Spending as much time around the city as I do, for however commonly courteous people can be here, there is still that aspect of urbanity, that loss of the human touch in things. Some of that is necessary: it would take an absurd amount of time to accomplish anything if everyone was constantly offering salutations to every other person they saw (imagine a world where meetings can’t start until each person has individually greeted the rest – the current bureaucratic processes move like lightning compared to that reality). Still, there is little better than feeling a sense of genuine warmth in the smile and wave of a stranger. During my visits to Daein Market, the sort of behavior reserved for smaller towns and villages becomes the norm. Every corner I turn or any shop I approach, the keepers of custom greet me in a way unlike many other parts of the city: with a wave and a smile.
Beyond the friendly atmosphere, Daein Market has a great selection of produce, snacks, housewares, meats, and a host of goods I could spend all day listing. One of my favorite shops to frequent is almost dead center in the market and offers traditional sweets ranging from crispy songpyeong (a sweetened puffed rice snack) to gum paste balls with a sweet, nutty filling (of which the only description I’ve been given is ‘bean paste’ but really, how many disparate flavor producing items carry that moniker in Korea?). Beyond the fact that finding all of these desserts in one place is convenient, the prices, especially considering the proximity of this market to downtown, are hard to beat. During the summer months, one of the greatest reliefs of this market, even more than the selection and prices, has to be the relatively cool air caused by a system of overhangs and air conditioned shops, making this a perfect escape from the crowds and heat of the nearby area.
There is one more surprising twist about Daein Market that, even knowing how much of a marvel this city can be sometimes, I was entirely unprepared for: the night market. Open every other Friday, the Daein Night Market is an event hosting local artists and art that is reminiscent of a Bohemian tent city in Greenwich, NYC. The artists have a tremendous variety of styles and mediums encompassing an impressive depth and range, featuring everything from modern sculpture to classical brushwork. Even if you’re not in the market to pick up some of these great pieces benefiting the continuation of the arts in Gwangju, there’s no reason to miss out on a chance to see something unique so close to downtown to start off the weekend in a grand state of mind. The most recent market event occurred this past Friday, sadly, but you should have another chance to check it out Friday June 29th. Even if you live a ways away from downtown, there are a host of buses that drop off directly near the entrances to Daein Market and if in doubt, just pop downtown and take a short stroll past the north entrance to Art Street.
This time of year always makes me think of the farmers’ markets back home. Summer is a time of mingling with folks from all over town, debating the relative merits of the best way to gauge the ripeness of melon, speculating on the quality of this year’s crops compared to last, but above all else, having a chance to connect with people on a deeper level over our combined reliance on and investment in the earth we tread. What we do determines who we are and having that chance to become a part of that conversation, even if the words may be lacking, is an important part of experiencing life with a stronger sense of connectedness. Life can get hectic in the hotter months; sometimes what we need most is to take in a little shade on the crooked trail.