Finding wings in a bewildering land

23:46, May 23 2014
 Sugar gliders
SUPERMARKET PET: Sugar gliders are among a bewildering range of ‘‘products’’ available in Korean supermarkets.

Nelson Mail reporter Sarah Dunn is currently in Korea on an Asia New Zealand Foundation programme, working on an English-speaking newspaper. Here is her second blog from Seoul.

You can buy sugar gliders in the supermarket here.

Native to Australia, sugar gliders are similar to flying squirrels. They have a furry membrane that stretches between their front and back legs like a bat's wing and if they get high enough off the ground, they can glide.

Apparently they're not considered endangered but I had no idea they were available in stores like this until I spotted some of them huddled in a cage near the checkout counters.

Korean supermarkets are a bewildering land of plenty that I'm only just wrapping my head around.

Due to import tariffs, fruit is very expensive, and most items are individually priced - a big, floury, old apple can go for about $2, and watermelons reach nearly $20.


Savoury food is much cheaper, although with all the amazing street vendors and restaurants I won't be doing much cooking.

There are also large cosmetics counters at the supermarket.

The Korean beauty industry is something else - cosmetics stores are everywhere, and they're all little miracles of packaging and design which encourage you to stock up.

The products themselves are quite creative: I've seen packets of silkworm cases that you're supposed to stick on your fingertips and use to exfoliate your face; numerous products made from snail slime; and yesterday I was handed a sample pack of "cabbage emulsion".

Facial masks are particularly popular right now. Korean masks come in sachets, and when you open the sachet, you find a balaclava-shaped sheet of paper soaked in liquid, with holes for your eyes, nose and mouth.

You're meant to drape the paper over your face and wear it around for a while. The effect is a little alarming - I can't help wondering if anyone has ever robbed a bank wearing one of these things.

Instead of the New Zealand system of small shops lining a street, most domestic Korean shopping seems to be done at either a large mall or a market. These are more or less opposite environments.

D-Cube City mall near my house is so fancy that the women's bathrooms look more like bars. They have mood lighting, long benches with mirrors so you can sit down and fix your makeup, and tables dot around the place so your friends can wait for you in comfort. The toilets seem almost an afterthought.

Needless to say, the rest of the mall is covered in polished marble and is equally ritzy.

The Seoul Folk Flea Market is something completely different. It's sometimes called the dokkaebi or "goblin market" because of all the secondhand goods sold there - the implication being that goblins have come in and fixed all the items by magic.

It's a big, sprawling mess of a market, and you can tell you're getting close by all the people selling their goods on blankets spread out across nearby alleyways.

The market is heavy on army surplus, which makes sense as all Korean men aged 18 to 35 have to carry out at least 21 months of conscripted service.

I've seen guns, clothing, camping-style gear, freeze-dried meals and boots, as well as a lot of books and bronze antiques. Ballet shoes, football gear, broken radio equipment, Kenny G records and the odd sex toy all make an appearance in the bric-a-brac bins.

Getting around to all these places is extremely easy thanks to Seoul's wonderful subway system. The Seoul Subway can seem daunting for newcomers because it boasts 17 different lines that cover the whole city.

But as it turns out, the system is fully bilingual and it's impossible to get lost.

Living in Seoul is strange but it's starting to feel more like home.

There are hedgehogs here, and I've seen my first hamster.