Tag Archives: Seoul

Smelling the flowers or..

There is a pine tree lined walking trail behind our apartment. it’s not particularly scenic – just a 2.5 kms long and occasionally dusty stretch wedged between Gangnam’s high rise apartment blocks and a very busy thoroughfare, but it gets the job done. Whenever we feel like stretching our legs but don’t want to venture out far from home, this is where we head to.

Besides offering quick access to nature, this path provides fantastic people watching opportunities! You get to see all kinds of characters engaged in various workout routines. Five minutes into the trail you are greeted by a bunch of retirees bending and stretching every which way at the outdoor exercise facility, then there are the brisk walkers kitted out in gym clothes marching ahead with their nordic walking poles, the joggers zigzagging past ajummas ambling down the path in sun-visors perched on their signature permed hair, you have the dog walkers, the elderly tennis players, the moms energetically pushing kids on swings, the office workers in business suits with TUMI laptop bags rushing home from work, and the families of course, young and old, in groups of four or five, taking leisurely strolls.

One time I saw this guy with his dog kneeling down on the sidewalk looking for something in the bushes. I lingered around for a while to check what he was up to. Was he stopping to smell the flowers or was he searching for his dog’s poop? I couldn’t tell. The rest of my walk was spent pondering over his motive. I had to come home and sketch the scene. The mystery remains unsolved.

Throwback to a chilly afternoon

While watching the Biden-Harris inauguration ceremony the other day I remembered sketching this scene at Terrarosa cafe not so long ago. We were itching to get out of the house that day for some fresh air and change of scene but since it was too cold for a walk, I and my husband opted to take the bus to our favourite cafe instead with our kindles in tow. The thought of settling down by a window with a good book, cup of hot chocolate and the possibility of stimulating conversation put a spring to our steps. The convivial company of physically-distanced strangers was equally beckoning.

The cafe, not far from our house and a fairly new discovery, is located inside a huge warehouse kind of space in the heart of Gangnam and is decorated with retro looking metal furniture, classic black and white chequered floor and my personal favourite (also the reason why I flock to this place so often) – hundreds and hundreds of books on travel, design, illustration, photography, fashion and cooking, all stacked in shelves that run up to the ceiling and wind around the room.

After the mandatory QR code scanning at the door (for contact tracing purposes) we rolled in. The place had just the upbeat vibe we were craving for. A table by the window overlooking some pine trees was secured and the hot beverages were ordered. I had been enjoying Susan Cain’s book – ‘Quiet’ and was reading the part where she explains, via the work of a psychologist Hans Eysenck why introverts enjoy quiet intellectual activities whereas extroverts crave high-wattage ones. Spoiler alert – introverts have wider channels in their brains that allow a lot of stimulation to enter causing them to feel exhausted or overwhelmed easily, whereas extroverts have tighter channels that makes them feel like not enough is happening!

Esysenck hypothesises that all human beings seek just the right level of stimulation, not too much not too little. The book encourages you to consciously situate yourself in environments where you feel optimal. I had a very good feeling about my environment but if I had to be really picky I’d say it was just one interesting subject short of optimal. I had my sketchbook open before me and colour pencils on standby and in between reading, I was also actively scanning the room for a target.

Luckily, it didn’t take much to sniff him out. My husband was sitting across from me riveted to his iPad screen, anxiously watching the 2020 US Presidential election unfold. There were no new updates in the last hour. Actually nothing substantial had happened in a while. There were thousands of ballots still waiting to be counted; the forecasters said the race was too close to call. I sketched him watching the CNN anchors repeat and rehash the same information over and over again.

Rebeginning

It should be new year, new beginnings but this post feels more like a rebeginning after the 3-months break I took from blogging.

It so happened that the pain from my shoulder injury I was recovering from last year paid a little visit recently and overstayed its welcome. While I couldn’t draw much or use the computer or do anything that strained my shoulder, I read a lot during this time which is never a bad compromise! I also made quite a bit of progress in Spanish which I am learning on Duolingo. It’s coming in very handy. I can now say sentences like Mi esposo nunca quiere se ducha to my husband with a straight face and watch him go nuts because he doesn’t understand a word. To set the record straight, he does shower everyday.

The sketch above depicts how we spent our holidays leading up to the new year. It was freezing outside. Temperatures had plummeted to -17°C and the city got placed under stricter restrictions due to surge in covid cases. There was simply no where to go except be at home tucked under a blanket with a cup of hot tea and a book. After finishing two non-fiction books, a short story collection, a novel, here I was devouring a murder mystery by Keigo Higashino which is set in Tokyo, a city I love spending time in and cannot get enough of. Although following detective Kaga through the quaint neighbourhoods of Tokyo hot on the heels of the murderer made for some pretty decent armchair travel and was the next best thing!

Day out in Euljiro

After spending a sunny weekend afternoon exploring the dusty alleys of Bangsan Market – known for its incredible range of baking supplies – we decided to rest our feet at the nearby Horangii cafe located inside Sewoon Plaza, a timeworn shopping mall that used to be Korea’s first electronic market back in 1968.

Today the place is a maze of identical looking stores crammed with audio devices, security cameras, room heaters, TVs, air conditioners, electric fans, arcade games and a vast selection of light fixtures. Because everything looks alike it’s easy to get lost, which we did, several times before finally locating the staircase that led us to the third floor where the scene was noticeably different – one made of trendy cafes, eateries, shiny boutiques and a flock of hipsters posing outside Horangii, clicking selfies.

Once inside, the cafe reminded me of the poignant setting of my fav Wong Kar-wai film – In the mood for Love. The narrow and dimly lit space with pale yellow walls, dark wood furniture and vintage lamps evoked nostalgia.

In stark contrast to this plush setting, the stained wall exterior, exposed wires, and the air-conditioning units were a lot of fun to sketch. The shopping plaza overlooks old print shops and metal workshops with tin roofs. Loud banging noises interjected the hum of conversations from time to time which seemed like a part of the setting.

We found a table right outside the cafe from where we enjoyed our lattes and scones. Interestingly, each coffee cup comes with a sticker of a tiger (or Horangii in Korean) which you can peel off and take home as a keepsake!

Before leaving we walked over to the skywalk and soaked in the sweeping views of the ever-changing Euljiro skyline with its old buildings – some still standing while others already demolished with rapid construction underway. Below, the streets were packed with cars and Cheonggyecheon stream flowing right through the middle of this urban jungle, reflected the cloudy sky.

Content that the day couldn’t get any better, we took the bus home, which is where I spotted this lady wearing the neatest pair of frilly white socks with little hearts on them! The edgy black loafers complemented her delicate side-slit pastel dress. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see her face but remember seeking refuge from time to time in the visual delight of those little red hearts on that boring 40 mins bus ride.

The Elevator story

elevator story copy - low res

A few months back the most adorable incident happened in the elevator of our apartment building. It was Children’s day in Korea, a public holiday, so a lot of kids were out enjoying the day. We saw a few at the bus stop licking ice creams. Some were walking into restaurants with their parents. Parks were teeming with toddlers chasing each another as their slightly older siblings threw frisbees and rode bicycles and scooters. Evening saw these frisky moppets return home in their mom’s arms or on their dad’s shoulders, happy but tired faced, tightly hugging giant soft toys and balloons.

It was nice seeing the neighbourhood peppered with little humans in place of adults in suits and ties marching in and out of offices.

We spent the day outside too on a long walk by a lake. Later, we got some food packed for dinner and headed home. As we were going up to our apartment, we saw this boy, about 4 or 5 years old enter the elevator with his family.

He may not have seen many foreigners in his life, because as soon as he laid eyes on us, he was transfixed. There was no stealing furtive glances out of the corner of the eye for this little guy; he caught us in the most innocent, full-on face to face, mouth agape, utterly bewitched kind of stare! The look of wonderment lasted from level 1 until level 12 which made his mom very uncomfortable. Just before leaving, she bent down and asked him to say hello to us. Once out of his trance our starer became very shy. He did wish us eventually, spurred on by his dad, mom and sister who chimed in with a nice long – Annyeonghaseyo.

I sketched the scene as soon as I got home.

Orange on my desk

desk with orange copy - low res copy

With the onset of this pandemic, we’ve all had to make adjustments to our lives some of which I still feel like I’m coming to terms with. For example, spending inordinate amounts of time at home for days on end. Being in my own company isn’t foreign to me. I work from home and I enjoy it a lot but you still miss the social contact like meeting friends or in my case, meeting friends and going out with them to sketch especially in crowded places. Countless pages of my sketchbooks have been joyously filled with drawings of people at cafes, restaurants, parks, and subways.

But with strict social distancing measures in place back in February, when Korea saw an alarming spike in COVID cases (highest after China), stepping out of the house for anything other than buying masks or groceries was out of the question. By next month many offices were letting employees work from home. My husband and I weren’t just sharing a workspace, it dawned on me that we were going to be spending entire work weeks with each other.

The thing with an unprecedented situation is, however hard it rocks your boat, you look around, take a stock of your situation and say – ‘well, it could’ve been worse”. It took a while for us to learn and eventually adjust to each other’s schedules. And have a bit of fun in the process, at least one of us did. A month or two into the lockdown, I noticed an orange appearing on my work desk, every day.

Desk drawing low res

My husband couldn’t help notice that I forget to eat my fruits during the day. Instead of reminding me to eat one, he started placing a random fruit at different sections of the house where I hang out to check if my behaviour alters and discovered that only by keeping it here on this desk does the fruit get consumed. Indeed a lot of oranges were consumed this way!

I made this sketch on the day I found out that I was the subject of his social experiment. If anything has come of this besides a good chuckle, it is that I now eat my fruits without needing a stimulus. Not too bad!

Of all the changes that we are making in our lives right now, I hope this one sticks.

Draw your mess

wardrobe 1

Am I the only person who hasn’t put away their warm clothes yet? We’re halfway through August and now I am thinking how far can fall/winter be anyway? I may need that trench coat or the down jacket sooner than later. All that effort put in sorting, folding, stacking, and arranging would go to waste. This here is the train of thought that got my wardrobe looking like above.

I have been meaning to organize it for a while now but every month I end up carrying forward this task to the following month. Spending longer hours at home during this ongoing pandemic hasn’t exactly increased my productivity at housework. If at all, I’ve been slacking off.

It ain’t a pretty sight, I admit. Finding a somewhat coordinated outfit in this closet requires equal amounts of luck and patience. Meanwhile, belts have gone missing. Socks are hiding themselves in corners and crevices. Scarves have never become more elusive.  A wardrobe as cluttered and disheveled as this should stick in one’s craw but if you’re an artist, this scene can also get you all excited! And you find yourself picking up a sketchbook, some colour pencils, and drawing the mess instead of tidying it up. Well, there’s always tomorrow.

 

Longest monsoon

South Korea has been pummelled by torrential rains since late June and from what I’m reading – it isn’t over yet! Today marks the 53rd day of the monsoon season. The skies have been ominously grey forever. Humidity is so high that everything feels sticky all the time, even the apartment floor.

Compared to the inland regions that are experiencing floods and landslides, I’d say we’re lucky to be getting on with our lives with the least amount of disruption in this part of Seoul. If the pandemic has us wearing masks on a daily basis, the incessant rains that don’t seem to have an expiration date have us carrying umbrellas wherever we go, so much so that it feels like a part of our attire. Or an extended limb.

coffee bean in rain

I sketched this cafe scene on my way back from an appointment. We were a few days into the monsoon, a time when one could still trust the weather app and if it said no rains for a few hours, you believed it and didn’t carry the umbrella. It rained a lot and I had to take shelter here for a while. Luckily I had my sketchbook and a hot cup of tea on the side.

smoker with Umbrella

In the following weeks when the rains ceased to stop, we became inured to the wet weather and acted like this tattoed guy, probably a chef or a kitchen staff who I saw coming out from the back of a restaurant into the alley for a quick smoke. Even for a break as short as this, he couldn’t risk leaving without his most trusted accessory dangling from his arm!

Grandma in EBT

A few days back I was eating churros at Express Bus Terminal when I spotted this interesting character approach the table opposite me. She may have been in her late 60s and was wearing a bright green chequered shirt over a white tee paired with grey tights and classic slip-ons. Placed at a slightly jaunty angle on her head was a straw hat with a flower attached to it. The thing that caught my eye though was her yellow umbrella which gave this ensemble a cheery look!

Before settling down she got herself a cup of coffee. Then she kicked off her shoes, plonked the rest of her stuff on the floor, and put her feet up on the chair. An electric hand fan appeared out of one pocket and a piece of paper from the other which she held in her hand and studied for a long time.

Metro - peeps with Umbrellas.jpg

This year’s protracted rainy season has elevated the humble umbrella from a functional object to a fashion accessory. Instead of moping about the miserable weather, people are having fun carrying umbrellas in varying designs, colors, and fabric, sometimes matching them with their outfits! I saw some interesting ones on subway line 9. As you can see, everyone was keeping up with the times with their masks, color-coordinated umbrellas, and mindless phone-scrolling.

 

Sale at Olive Young

Olive Young is a popular beauty and health store based in South Korea that I had never heard of until I started living here.

There are at least five decent-sized Olive Young stores ( in addition to countless cosmetics shops) within walking distance from my apartment in Gangnam and at any time I visit one of them to buy a tube of suncream or some moisturizer I need to jostle for space because they are always crowded.

Also, the diverse range of cosmetics and skincare products displayed on the shelves can be mindboggling but not for the Korean customer who I see flitting from shelf to shelf confidently scooping up rejuvenating snail masks, eye creams loaded with collagen extracts and acne patches. I envy how well informed Koreans are about skincare products!

In recent years, K-beauty products, especially skincare has risen in popularity. Articles and blog posts waxing lyrical about the ’10-step Korean skincare routine’ or the ’13 best Korean Face masks’ keep popping up on my newsfeed. When my overseas friends visit Seoul, trips to Olive Young stores are imperative. I wanted to know why. If something exciting is brewing in my own backyard shouldn’t I be curious?

OlivenYoung

People loading up on beauty products during a sale at a Olive Young outlet in Gangnam

So I dug a little deep and found that the global cosmetic industry makes a ton of money. In the next 3 to 4 years, it is expected to grow to 379 billion dollars! If you break down this number into product categories (cosmetics, perfumes & colognes, skincare, hair care, , and others), you find that it is skincare that’s driving most of the growth. By 2024, the global skincare products market size alone is expected to reach 196 billion dollars!

What makes skincare so popular? Industry analysts point towards increased awareness in wellness which in today’s day and age translates to clean eating, fitness and the natural, no make-up look. The wellness trend is driving consumers to take better care of their skin. And this ‘skin first, make-up second’ philosophy that has been gaining momentum across the world is believed to have originated in South Korea where skincare is part of the culture.

Not just that, the sizeable skincare and cosmetic industry of South Korea is highly competitive. In order to stand out brands constantly invest in research and development to create new, better quality, and competitively priced products which earn them an edge in the global market.

In a CNBC interview, I heard Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam – a site that curates and sells Korean beauty products – explain how K-beauty created a skincare wave. “They opened the door to innovations, allowed indie brands to come to the forefront of a lot of these skin care trends, they also widened the appetite for new products and categories and they’ve been a big part of the education around skincare.

She also believes that “influencers and social media were key for K-beauty to takeoff”. The skincare boom owes a lot to social media. Skincare gurus and make up artists have huge fan followings on Youtube and Instagram where they share their daily skincare routines and explain why they prefer certain products and how those products impact their skin. As a result, consumers are discovering new products and learning about ingredients that go into these products.

Today South Korea is not just an exporter of beauty products but also a huge manufacturing base for American and European brands. As the country continues to grow as the latest beauty innovation and creation hub, I certainly have a better understanding of why my neighbourhood Olive Young stores are always buzzing with activity. I visited one recently during a big promotion and managed to buy four items I didn’t need! The sketch is from that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello again!

I have been away from the blog for a long time, so long that it makes coming back a little difficult. For the past few days and weeks, I have been mulling over what I could say to make my return feel less jarring.

For a while I toyed with the idea of making a comic which would in succinct panels illustrate why I was away. Or maybe a chronological account of what I was up to all this while would best demystify my unexplained absence. But I realized to produce anything of quality befitting the dramatic re-entry I was imagining in my head would take time.

And the last thing I want is to spend more time away from blogging. I have missed telling stories. And I have missed hearing from those who read my stories. If not for that one reader who in her comment on my Instagram page nudged me to start writing again, I would still be standing at the threshold, hesitating.

For the lack of a clever way of expounding my year-long absence from blogging, I will state the facts as plainly as possible.

Last year, in the month of May, I suffered a shoulder injury which took a physical and psychological toll on my body. What started as a nagging pain in my left shoulder that I thought would disappear on its own in few days only got intense and agonizing with time. The following weeks were spent undergoing physical therapy, taking muscle relaxants and pain medications and receiving half a dozen injections but they brought little relief.

The doctor advised me to rest my shoulder and back completely. My deteriorating condition made it difficult for me to sit upright for long. Very soon I was unable to write, draw, cook, clean or simply hold a book up to read. It required Herculean effort to lift a bottle of water to drink. I couldn’t tie my hair or dry myself with a towel after taking a shower. The pain remained unabated. My left arm hung limply from the shoulder and the medication caused such drowsiness and nausea that I spent days in bed, sleeping or in the toilet, throwing up.

self portrait covid

Eventually I got referred to a shoulder surgeon at one of the biggest hospitals in Seoul. MRI revealed frayed shoulder tendons and a rare congenital condition (found in a small population) that had caused the inflammation, and hence the pain.

The treatment? More medication, continued physical therapy, and plenty of rest.

I was told that in the next six months to a year (possibly more) I should regain some of the strength and flexibility back in my shoulder. “Really, that long?”, I remember asking my doctor incredulously. For me, coming to terms with this long recovery period was most challenging. It meant depending on others for simple tasks; it meant not being able to do things I loved doing; it meant being in pain for longer than I had expected. Other than a flu here and a sore throat there which took most a week to heal, I had been blessed with good health. The complacency that comes with that sort of thing is a deterrent to you ability in handling stress and ambiguity. Lesson learnt.

The biceps is one of the most exercised muscles in the body, my doctor had explained in halting English. He backed that up by picking up the pen lying on his desk. “There, I just used my biceps”, he said. That’s why healing is slow. So slow, I realized, that it takes a long time to sense any sort of improvement.

But it’s there. It’s happenning. I know because I opened a jar of olives today and it didn’t hurt.

It took me a year to be able to do that. I have still a long way to go in terms of recovery and I don’t know if wishing to get back the shoulder I had is unrealistic but in the process of dealing with this crisis, I have made few good changes and adjustments in my life. And if they stick, why, I should still have gained a lot!

For now, I am happy to be back here with the renewed desire to share my stories again and drawings, of course. The above sketch is a current self portrait of a first time mask-wearer with improved shoulder strength.