Fish Out of Water

By Alec Siegel

Jigalchi Fish Market, Busan, South Korea

Whipping winds make the brine and fish stench all the more pungent.

We are strolling the sea-splashed alleyways of Jagalchi fish market, on Nampo Port, in the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula and second most populous city, Busan.

Middle-aged women flank both sides of us, yelling, snapping, smiling, frowning. They aggressively hawk their wares, outdoing each other out of necessity. They sell the same things after all, all offer identical prices. How to choose one over the other?

Mackerels thrash in tanks the size of a shoebox. Immobile crabs in slightly larger tanks.Octopi nestle in pastel colored buckets, looking like soaking up the sun. Stingrays hang on hooks-stretched dry-more fossil than flesh.

But everything is fresh here, as fresh as it gets. One whiff tells you that much. It’s overwhelming to stroll Jagalchi’s rows of fish stalls, especially during a mini monsoon. It’s freezing, the wind-chill brutal.

Don’t let the sunset behind one of Busan’s many green hills fool you. It’s freezing.

The women and the stalls they operate offer more than a freshly caught fried fish dinner; they offer refuge from the gales. Merchant and customer alike huddle around heat lamps, puffing on their hands in between sips of soju (Korean rice liquor).

We walk on, sandwiched by pleas.

“Sir! Sir! fish! Over here! Cheap!”

One lady finally manages to catch our attention. Perhaps it was her force, perhaps it was our frostbitten exhaustion. Whatever the reason, she reeled us in. Unlike the fish desperately flopping around in her tanks, we happily settled in back of the adjacent restaurant to thaw and refuel.

It’s a new world. I can move my appendages. I can feel my face. I can laugh without fear of a permanent smile. But that’s nearly what happens when our meal hits the table.

A fish fried whole which, most likely, was searching for a meal of its own only hours before in the East China Sea, split in half, frowning. A hot bowl of soup. Banchan-small side dishes, usually an array of pickled vegetables. And to round things out: A cold Coke in a glass bottle.

A frowning fish makes for a happy meal.

All around us as we eat, Koreans banter and laugh, picking through steaming hot plates of sea creatures and vegetables. A newscaster drones on a small television set in the back. The woman who baited us shuffles from tables on the inside to potential customers out. They should bite. It’s warm in here.

We reluctantly finish eating. As I push in my chair, steeling myself for the cold that awaits, I make eye contact with a man seated alone behind me.

His eyes are icy blue, his fingernails rusted yellow, his hands smudged in black grease. A Russian seaman. (Judging by the language he attempted to communicate with and the fact that Nampo Port is home to a sizeable diaspora of Russian ship workers). On the table in front of him: the same spread I had eaten minutes before, only a bottle of soju in place of a Coke.

He smiles and speaks, motioning to the contents on the table.

His words are foreign to me, but I know what he is trying to say.

Just chillin’.


By Alec Siegel

Higashi Village, Okinawa, Japan

Despite its Biblical title, Canaan Farm is a hellish place.

Part of it, anyway.

The pigsty: A fenced enclosure accommodating 30 or so animals. Pure Okinawan pigs, wild boars, a hybrid of the two. Trees look lightning struck, dotting the barren enclosure with apocalyptic scar. The pigs ate the roots. It’s a tree graveyard. A smaller barn-like structure with ten cages, each no larger than 10×10 feet housed another 15. Their prickly coats range from apricot to coarse black. Mud and feces cover their snouts. All are eventually eaten, if not by one another, by human beings.

Every morning for five weeks, six days a week, we feed these creatures. Their breakfast, lunch and dinner: brewed barley hop residue (procured from a local Orion beer factory), dry cereal, rice powder, blocks of tofu, okara (the residual product when tofu is processed), a pinch of salt. We mix these ingredients in a large, rusty machine, divvy them into black buckets, and disperse them throughout the ten indoor cages. (Outdoor pork feast non-stop on poop and mud, and the occasional paper bag).

For them, it’s Heaven. For their handlers, not quite.  

Chickens cluck-15 to 20, hens and roosters-stealing nibbles of pig feed as we prepare it. An inseparable group of cats call this stink home as well, slinking about each morning, watching us as we work-strange bearded men in mud stained work clothes and rain boots.

This is farm number four, our first in the southern Japanese prefectural island Okinawa. Higashi, the country’s top pineapple producer, is 30 or so miles to the south of the northern tip of the finger shaped island. We are an hour and a half plane ride from the mainland. It couldn’t feel any further away.

Gone is the chilly December air. The rough, endless mountains. The Shinto shrines. The occasional stray feline. Up here, in the hilly north of Okinawa, winds rage and pigs thunder. It is a jungle. Thick green palms and thin brown reeds spring from the bush. The clay red hills wear thick gashes from recent landslides.

Canaan Farm’s pig operations are tucked atop of one of these hills, at the end of a bumpy, dirt road that winds up past a mound of steel and aluminum cans (“Mt. Can”). The sty overlooks a small valley.

Piglets on the loose! Seeking cover among abandoned farm equipment.

It’s three of us each day-Michael, Go and I. Go is a 27 year old man, full-time staff at Canaan. He resembles a Mongol: A round face, wide features, a wispy goatee and beard. Go is affable. Often childish, always kind and quick to chuckle. He studied for three years at a small university in Oklahoma. Hip-hop music brought him to America. He was intrigued by the rhythms and cadences.

50 pigs roar when our battered white farm truck arrives. We mix and serve the grub: butlers of beasts. For 6 days each week, 5 weeks in December and January. It gets colder as the days inch toward a new year.

My senses revolt. The acrid, devilish smell. The sight of large male pigs eating newborn piglets. The sound of bones being crushed beneath teeth. The taste of a penetrating odor. These things will fade with time.

My memories strengthen. We seek out the eggs the chickens left us (a daily scavenger hunt). We converse: our pasts, our unfortunate present, our futures. We laugh: Go is a goofball. These things will remain, forever.

An Agu (Okinawan native pork). Mud-crusted and maybe stuck.