Tag Archives: life in korea

Back alleys of Gangnam

In my neighborhood in Gangnam, the back alleys are lined with outdoor BBQ joints, izakayas, cafes, small bakeries, basement game parlors, nail salons, copy and print stores, night clubs, food trucks, and convenience stores. As evening approaches the neon lights come alive. People pour in from all directions and the smell of food and the sound of thumping music and clinking beer bottles spill out from shops and pavements and fill the air.

During the day it’s much quieter though. With most people in offices, the alleys are empty save for the continuous flow of delivery trucks unloading beer kegs and cartons of food and supplies for cafes and restaurants. This is also the time when minor repair works and maintenance happen, so you hear hammers banging or drill machines making holes into walls or watch a crane hoist a window-cleaner up an office building.

In the sketches below I have captured the minutiae of everyday life over several months on random walks around my neighbourhood. The viral K-pop song ‘Gangnam style” that catapulted Seoul’s Gangnam district into international recognition synonymized this area with wealth, affluence, and a certain trendy lifestyle. True, the gleaming high rises, luxury cars gliding along Gangnam-daero and the swanky Gangnam cafes all attest to that image but as a 3-year-old resident of this district, I have loved exploring a different side of it – a slightly scruffy, often grungy and pedestrian side with loud wet markets, ugly utility poles, and dusty construction sites that live in the back alleys, away from the main thoroughfares.

Afternoon Tea with a view

Chloris Tea room

One summer afternoon I parked myself in the balcony of Chloris Tea Room facing a narrow back alley, ordered myself a cup of Rooibos tea, and looked out into this jumble of brick houses, utility poles, potted plants, hurried passersby, and a bunch of pigeons hopping about.

Back street architecture

Gangnam backstreet

As I turned this street corner a visual explosion of incongruous colours, shapes, and sizes of random urban objects compelled me to stop and make sense of my surroundings. The brick building seemed to be heavily ‘ornamented’ with all kinds of shop signages, AC condenser units, and pipes. There were trash cans leaning against it and a utility pole with car parking instructions stood guard. So much was going on in such a small space!

End of a workday

view from Paul Basset

I sketched this scene from a tiny Paul Bassett cafe inside an office building overlooking a busy alley. It was the end of a workday and out of the cafe’s large glass windows, I saw people spilling out of nearby offices and rushing towards bus stops and subway stations. If you’re curious about the ‘No Brand’ sign on that building like I was, well, it’s a brand by Emart (one of South Korea’s biggest supermarket chains) that sells products at super affordable prices. Their purple sweet potato chips and cheddar cheese balls are very popular!

Queen of hearts

Gangnam backst

There’s a small Korean dumplings shop around the corner from this Copy and Printshop where I often go to buy a prepacked set of 10 delicious steamed Kimchi dumplings for $4. One day on my way there, I saw this tourist in a baggy red sweater full of hearts leaving the shop with a bag of dumplings and her heavy suitcase, perhaps heading to a nearby hotel. She was looking at a map on her phone to find the way.

The Window Shopper

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Gangnam back alleys are rife with independent boutiques selling fashionable clothes and accessories. One day while I was out with my sketchbook looking for subjects, I saw this woman eyeing a red coat at the shop window of this boutique on her way to Gangnam Station. She seemed very interested and paused for few minutes in front of the store but eventually walked away. She probably wanted to give it some more thought.

Fall chores

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A common sight towards the end of fall is dead leaves getting swept off the roads and sidewalks.

Scary Hoodie

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Since I can’t read Korean, when I am out on the road my eyes naturally wander towards anything written in English. One day while waiting to cross the road, I happened to stand behind a person wearing this very amusing hoodie which was totally worth documenting!

Sighting of the Pig Head

Nonhyeon Market

I love visiting traditional markets in Seoul but didn’t know there was one, south of Han River, close to where I live! There’s so much to explore at Yeong-dong Market and as I walked slowly past shops selling beans, rice, tea, kimchi, bean paste, meat, condiments, sauces and a variety of fried snacks, I came upon this scene – a dog owner and his dog in matching outfits. The dog was clearly excited by a severed pig head displayed at one of the stalls and was pulling at its leash really hard and barking while the embarrassed owner did everything to calm his pet.

Boiled pig heads are used at a Korean ceremony called Gosa intended to bring good luck to someone starting a new business or buying a new car or moving into a new home. The head is placed on a table along with different kinds of foods. Those who visit the ceremony stuff cash into its mouth and ears. When the ceremony is over, everybody eats and drinks together. These days, however, people have even started replacing the real thing with a sugar-coated cake resembling a pig head.

The Sign Walker

EDM signage

The guy with the ed:m sign (an education consulting firm) is a permanent fixture on the busy stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station. Come rain or shine, he’s always there. What I find unique and also heartening about this guy is how intensely absorbed he always is in his books and therefore oblivious of his surroundings and the passage of time. For me, this sign-walker stands out more than the sign.

Follow the leaves

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Only a few meters up this alley lies the famous Kukkiwon, also known as the World Taekwondo Headquarters. On weekends, I often see parents heading there with their kids dressed in white Taekwondo uniforms. My interest, however, lies in visiting a small park on the side of this alley which I accidentally discovered one fall afternoon by following this line of Gingko trees and their fallen leaves. When I crave nature, this is where I go for a quick fix.

Slice of Gangnam

Gangnam scene

This sketch isn’t of a back alley but of a view from the back alley of Teheran-ro – one of the busiest roads in Seoul, choc-a-bloc with cars and lined with tall gleaming skyscrapers and lampposts that have the Korean flag fluttering from them. Sometime last year for a certain period of time, all the Korean flags were replaced with flags from different countries of the world. Everytime I walked along Teheran-ro with my husband, we had a ‘guess the flag’ contest.

Tulip Lady 

CB in gangnam

One of our favourite things to do in spring is to walk around the neighbourhood in search of cherry blossom trees. Since they are around only for a week or two, we try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. On one such excursion, I saw this woman walk past a hardware store under a row of cherry blossom trees with a tulip plant in hand that had a single blooming red tulip. Everybody else had sandwiches or coffee in their hands. It was lunch hour. I wondered if the plant was for her own work desk or bought as a gift for a friend she was going to meet later in the day.

The Bargain-hunter

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Right before the onset of winter, I found this guy perusing winter coats at Vin Prime, a thrift shop in one of the back alleys of Gangnam. He didn’t buy anything but he browsed for a long time and let me finish my sketch from across the road. My hands were freezing.

 

 

 

 

Too cold for ice-creams?

 

Not in Seoul! For the last two winters in Korea I have been processing images of people consuming cold beverages and frozen desserts in their down jackets and mittens with absolute wide-eyed wonder.

I am the kind that associates frigid temperatures with drinking hot cocoa or tea with fingers wrapped around the cup for extra warmth. So imagine my befuddlement at finding Seoulites sipping coffee with chunks of ice in them all through winter.

One night in Jamsil station not too long ago, I saw this dad buying soft serves for his kids at Lotteria –  a fast food chain. We were waiting for our order and in those 15 minutes until our food arrived we saw soft serves flying off Lotteria’s shelves and landing in the hands of pimply teenagers, kids and elderly couples, practically everyone except us.

Lotteria Jamsil

Now, I may not be fully convinced about eating an ice cream at the height of winter yet but the more I see people doing it around me, easier it is getting for me to wrap my head around something which I thought was outlandish!

Isn’t it interesting how travel constantly stretches our perspectives and makes it easier for us to acknowledge and even adapt if we so desire to norms, values, beliefs, behaviours, attitudes that are far different from ours?

Rick Steves in his book, Travel As a Political Act says “Travel challenges truth that we were raised thinking self-evident and God-given. Leaving home we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room”.

This sketch will remind me of many such truths that are different from mine and how I can always choose to coexist with them.

White Day

 

I made a fascinating observation the other day on my walk around the neighbourhood.

Every convenience store on either side of the road had built an outdoor makeshift facility with a table and few wooden racks for peddling love-themed goodies in bulk. Candies, chocolates, flowers, cards and soft toys were being sold as individual pieces or collectively in baskets wrapped in cellophane and ribbons.

Seoul streets seemed to be plastered with packaged love and I wanted to know why?

White Day

Turns out that today, March 14 is celebrated as White Day in South Korea and in few other countries such as Japan and Taiwan. In these countries, while Valentine’s day tradition (which is a give-and-receive event for couples in the West) requires women to offer chocolates to men, the reverse occurs on White Day! Men are expected to return the favour by plying women with candies and gifts.

On my way home from the walk I peeked inside Artbox – a popular stationary shop in Seoul. The place was an explosion of red and pink hearts printed on all kinds of merchandise imaginable. Across the room I saw two strangers shopping for greetings cards and of all the choices available, they reached for the exact same ‘I love You’ card which was awkward for them but I got a big chuckle out of it!

And a sketch to immortalize the moment. I just hope it isn’t intended for the same person!

 

 

Same same but different

While working on this particular set of drawings sitting at cafes, eateries and subways around Seoul, it dawned on me, especially after having moved countries recently, how different we are as humans irrespective of our similarities and how similar we are irrespective of our differences!

When we first moved to Seoul (and in the subsequent months) I was fascinated by the large groups of elderly people kitted out with serious hiking gear riding the subways on weekends, by the fearless ‘Ajummas‘ (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) in identical solid perms, sun-visors and windbreakers, by the mini portable fans everybody carried in their hands all summer and the copious amounts of Bingsu (a lip-smacking Korean dessert) they consumed; or how most women would pull out a mirror from their bags and freshen up their make up every once in a while, by the raging red lipsticks and round framed Harry Potter glasses worn en masse and how clothing and preferences changed with season.

On the other hand these days there’s hardly anything novel about a couple sitting together, in silence, glued to their phones; or someone taking a picture of their food first before starting to eat! Don’t we all have that one friend who can’t stop talking, so much so that we mentally check out after a while, maybe doze off in the chair even? Look out for that person in this collection.

And a lady with a fetish for polka dots.

And two ‘rubik’s cube’ lovers.

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Guy with trekking poles and hiking boots, seen on the subway

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My husband on a late night conference call becomes an easy target.

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Ajumma on the left in sun visors and lurid pink jacket, drinking coffee

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(L) Sketched this lady on a hot summer day. She was wearing white, and carrying a matching white purse (R) Two ladies eating mango Bingsu. This was common sight all summer

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(R)From her polka dotted top, hand fan, umbrella and backpack, it was safe to assume that she really liked ……

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(R) This guy in green GAP t-shirt was a one man show. He seized every conversation and talked so much that one of his mates dozed off!

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(R) A lot of thought and effort goes into appearance and I see most Seoulites dressed really nicely when out which means I feel underdressed half the time.

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(L) From my table, it looked like a “It’s not you, it’s me” kind of conversation. Don’t miss the bright red lipstick on this woman, rather on every woman in these drawings.

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(R) Mini portable fan= most seen summer accessory in Seoul. (164,000 of these were sold in South Korea this year!)

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(R) Couple that plays rubik’s cube together stays together! These two were relentless in a ‘coffee be damned, let’s solve this thing’ kind of way.

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(L) Make-upping should be a word here.

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I often see business meetings being conducted in cafes. Here’s one in session. Attendees – 3 feisty women and one man who squirmed in his chair every time the discussion heated up.