The Banana Story: Procuring Produce in S. Korea

Purchasing bananas at the Pyeongchon E-mart in Anyang South Korea can be a little trickier than one might expect. At first glance, the produce section of an E-mart grocery floor looks pretty much like any produce section in any American grocery or discount department store, except some of the varieties of produce may seem unusual to a foreigner. Persimmons, for example, will appear in produce bins in the autumn, as will arrays of pumpkins of a very different assortment than the large orange kinds we are used to in the United States. In the spring, large purple grapes with skins as thick as a plums and a more tart taste than table grapes typical in America appear beside the most delicious mangoes you’ve ever tasted in your life.

But bananas are as common and equally as loved in S. Korea as they are in the States, and abundantly available in the produce section –  as long as you are shopping several hours before the store closes. This is because produce is stocked once, I assume very early, every day and not replenished. In other words, produce is pretty much first come, first serve. So you can buy all the bananas you want (though buying only a few can prove a little more challenging) as long as there are bananas to buy.

Not being much of a culinary adventurist, but a big fan of bananas, I made sure to grab a generous bunch of them that first shopping day at the Pyeongchon E-mart before browsing around for other interesting foods and other odds an ends for my, then new, officetel. When my cart, which, by the way, had multi-directional wheels,  felt sufficiently full, I headed to the rows of cashiers on the ground level to purchase my goods. There’s nothing unusual about the way E-mart cashiers operate. Just like at home, you wheel your cart into line, wait your turn, then unload your purchases onto the conveyor belt. The cashier then runs the bar code of each item across the scanner and the cash register keeps a running total. Everything was running just as smoothly as can be when suddenly the rhythmic flow of scanner-beeps came to a halt. This is usually indicative that the cashier has come across some bit of produce that needs weighed This is not, however, what occurred in this instance.

The bananas, by then somewhat near the top end of the grocery cart, had finally made their way down the conveyor belt amidst boxes of dry goods and dish towels and were now being held in the right hand of the somewhat confused looking cashier. She looked at me questioningly and I looked at her questioningly, and when that garnered no result or action on either part, I just shrugged my shoulders to convey my ignorance over the situation. She shook her head and put the bananas away, and I did not get to buy any bananas that day.

Walking home with my self-boxed groceries on my recently purchased dolly I realized that one difference between the check-out counter at E-mart and those in American grocery store is the absence of produce scales. Since the other produce I had purchased was prepackaged, it was easily scanned and caused no problems. The bananas, however, were not so conveniently packaged, and since there is no scale at the check-out counters at E-mart, there was no way for the clerk to know how much to charge for the bananas, so she could not sell them to me. Of course, this is probably what she was trying to tell me, but not knowing the language, I remained ignorant.

When I returned the following day to try my luck again at purchasing bananas, it was with a more observant attitude. I headed back to the banana bin in the produce section and scanned the area for a scale. Nothing. But there was a woman wearing the kind of hat one wears as an employee of a grocery store standing on the other side of the banana bin helping a customer with her bananas. I made my way around to the pair and watched their interaction. The customer handed the bananas to the woman with the hat who weighed them on a digital scale, pushed a button to produce a UPC sticker, bagged the bananas, placed the UPC sticker on the bag  and handed the bananas back to the customer. Voici! What an easy and civilized method, I thought, and promptly followed suit to purchase my very own bunch of bananas to enjoy in the comfort of my own home.

This may seem like a small success, but when you are living in a foreign country and simple communication suddenly becomes a daily issue, sometimes the small successes are your only successes and so are worthy of celebration.

But this is not the end of the banana story.

After work one night, around 10:30 PM, I went by E-mart to pick up a few things as my coffers were running low, and a bunch of bananas was on my list.  Knowing my chances of getting any produce so late a night were slim, I hoped for the best. When I got to the banana bin, it was nearly, but not completely, empty. There were a few bunches of bananas left.  I picked a bunch out and took it to the lady with the scale and handed them to her. She shook her head, crossed her fingers (the Korean sign for ‘no’) and took my bananas away from me and placed them on a table behind her (well out of my reach). I was astounded and quite confused. But one thing I’d learned about Korea is this: if someone tells you “no,” they mean NO. So, realizing I was standing there like a person struck dumb, I roused myself went about my other shopping business without protest. It took me a few shopping trips to get up enough courage to buy bananas at E-mart again, and I never had any problem again.

I’ve told my banana story to many people, including my Korean students, and while they all found it amusing, no one has offered a possible reason why the banana woman took my bananas away. I’ve decided I prefer to think she knew something about those bananas that I did not and was protecting me from making the grave mistake of purchasing them. Who knows, perhaps because of her wisdom, I have avoided some infamous banana plague that causes one to foam at the mouth and attack E-mart customers while hanging from the ceiling (or otherwise “go bananas”). In which case, let me just say, thank you banana lady at E-mart who runs the digital scale, thank you from the very bottom of my heart.

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