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.
said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.
Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!
It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.
I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.
The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.
I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.
As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain. I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.
Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.
So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!
when I crack open the eighth, run my fingers across the first white page and prepare to draw the man sipping coffee next to me I still freeze.
I recoil. I do not want the sketchbook to spoil. But the voice in my head says, start.
Start even when you are filled with hesitation and packed to the gills with self doubt.
Start because you’ve done it many, many times.
Start because once you start it’ll come to you. Start anyway.
And when I start, put pencil to paper, it’s a breeze.
Seven sketchbooks later I still wonder if it’s any good. What should I be doing?
Just keep going, says the voice. Again.
Keep going because it doesn’t matter what others think.
Now, let that thought sink.
So I pick up a crayon and colour the man’s coffee mug pink! And chuckle.
Seven sketchbooks later I still have as much fun as I did when I was drawing in my first. But can I make it last?
You want to keep having a blast? the voice is amused, perhaps at my avaricious scheme to hoard the riches of creativity.
But such riches are boundless and for anyone to grab, I yell.
Well, that’s swell, says the voice and offers the last tip – experiment, improvise, take risks and y’know, mix it up a little!
give it your best – every jot and tittle.
And that’s what I’ve been doing. I now have 7 sketchbooks filled cover to cover with sketches of people who I see around me everyday at cafes, restaurants and in the subway. It’s not a big number but it is something considering how afraid and hesitant I was when it came to drawing people an year ago. Several times, especially when the drawing didn’t go my way and was cringeworthy beyond measure, I second guessed myself and wanted to give up. I still do.
But as trite as it may sound, something kept me going, rather keeps me going. The voice in the head is real. It is born out of doggedness. Besides having fun which is primarily why I draw people and everything else, to observe and to document that on the spot, in that very moment feels like actively participating in my own life. Here’s hoping the feeling never goes away!
Below are sketches from my 7th sketchbook. The last sketch in the series is also the very last one I made in Singapore before leaving the country two months ago. Enjoy!
Ever since we moved from Singapore to Seoul two months ago, my dad has been asking me the same question every time he calls. Between, ‘how are you’ and ‘how’s the weather’, which act as the beginning and end to all our conversations, this new question makes up the vast uncharted middle. To be fair, it’s not just my dad, although he’s the most frequent and punctual inquirer, my sister, relatives, and close friends have been wanting to know the same thing.
‘Am I settled yet?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
The day we flew into Seoul, we checked into a hotel and stayed in room 632 for the whole month of March. I remember craning my neck out of the room’s only window facing the road Uisadang-daero, and looking at the green dome of the National Assembly on my left and repeating to myself myself in a reassuring tone that we are here.
We are finally here.
We made it.
After months of planning, researching, debating, questioning the decision of moving, making pro/con lists and checklists, checking items off that checklist, after selling furniture, donating books to the library, having occasional meltdowns and then cheering ourselves up by eating at all our fav places one last time, after making trips to the Salvation Army with impossibly heavy bags, after endless packing, cleaning the apartment, handing over the keys of the apartment to the landlord and finally after saying painful goodbyes to our friends we are here.
All this while I thought once we hop on that flight to Seoul, the nagging feeling of displacement, the feeling of ground shifting beneath your feet, the feeling of being in limbo, floating in ether, the neither here nor there, sitting on the threshold with one foot inside and the other outside the door kind of feeling will slip off like a magician’s silk scarf. A pack of white doves would fly across the stage. Confetti will fall. People will applaud.
Instead my dad asks if I feel settled yet.
I should’ve. But I have a feeling that the show isn’t over. The doves fly back to the magician. There’s a second act. “Baba, we are looking for an apartment. Once we get one, we’ll be settled then”, I tell him. And to myself.
As soon as we get our bearings, we start looking for an apartment. Within a fortnight we sign the dotted line on a rent agreement. This place is much bigger than the one we lived in for 7 years in Singapore. We have a floor to ceiling shoe rack. No more shoes lying about like fallen soldiers in the hallway. There are three bedrooms, so I have space for practicing yoga. No more trying to squeeze myself in between the living room sofa and the dining table. No more pining for a luxurious reading chair with a floor lamp beside it right by my bookcase because the study can accommodate one.
We can stow away our 5 large suitcases in various niches in the walls away from view. No more shoving them under the bed and ruining the wooden slats under the mattress. The kitchen is big enough for the two of us to be working together without getting in each other’s way. “No more, ‘I’m behind you, watch out’, warnings”, I tell Baba jokingly over the phone.
At the end of the month, we pack up again, say goodbye to room 632, the hotel staff, some of whom we came to know by name and move into the apartment. We order furniture from IKEA. We change the password of the electronic lock on the main door. We buy ourselves a frying pan, two pairs of spoons and forks, two dinner plates, bowls, one kitchen knife and a stirring spoon. We unpack our bags, hang clothes in the wardrobes, arrange the toiletries, spread the newly bought cerulean blue sheet on the bed and fluff the cushions. I even hang a pretty white and blue chequered tea towel on the oven door.
But when my dad calls again and asks the same question, my answer is laced with irritation. ” I don’t even have my own pillow...”, I say. The lump in my throat was hard to swallow. Was his need for me to be settled, chafing against the time I needed to be settled?
If I had handled it better then I’d have said to him that I didn’t have my pillow or my books, my computer, my writing table, my paints, sketchbooks, or my favourite Tefal non-stick frying pan. They arrive with the movers in a week. All 42 boxes.
And maybe when they’re here I will be finally settled. With that I’d have headed to the kitchen to whip up something warm and comforting.
I have never made Spaghetti Aglio E Olio quite as frequently as I did in between the time we moved to Seoul and until the movers walked in bearing my kitchen paraphernalia. Why? Not just because I’ve made it hundreds of times before but also because it is incredibly easy to prepare and doesn’t involve anything fancy in terms of ingredients or utensils. Just warm some olive oil in a pan, throw in chopped garlic and red pepper flakes, cook for 2 mins on low flame. Infusing the oil with the flavour of garlic and pepper flakes is key. Add the cooked pasta to the pan. Toss well. Done.
Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmesan on top. To this simple, rustic dish, I create variety by adding either shrimps or chicken and/or mushrooms, zucchini, green beans, chickpeas, even boiled eggs. My husband has been a saint for lapping up every strand of spaghetti cooked the same way day after day during this period. Then again, maybe not that big a saint, I realised later.
When you’re in the process of adapting to everything new and foreign, all it takes is the old familiarity of an oft cooked meal to anchor you like an astronaut’s safety tether that keeps him from floating away in space. Every evening when two souls lost in a trail of thoughts and apprehensions gathered across the table in their hotel room under the glow of an overhead lamp hundreds of miles away from what they knew as home, this food brought them together and comforted them in a way nothing else did. Over forkfuls of spaghetti we made plans for the future.
We laughed and we loved. We said to each other that we’d be alright. It was a great feeling. Sacred even. In a modern vehicle, the axle plays a role in the driving, braking and steering functions. Every dinner of Aglio E Olio felt like that axle – the steady shaft at the centre of two spinning wheels.
In a week, as per schedule Lucy, a short sprightly Korean lady who flicked her hair a lot while talking, knocked on our door at 9 am sharp. She was from the movers and was here to oversee the last leg of this move. Two men were bringing our boxes from a van parked downstairs at the back of the building. She handed us a sheet with numbers from 1 to 800 printed inside little squares. “As each box comes through the door, you need to check its number and cross it out on this list” she said.
“No. 12…books and decorative items…put where?”, called out a tall Korean guy, walking in with a carton balanced on his shoulder. He had a thick mop of wavy salt and pepper hair and a gait that would’ve matched a business suit more than his flannel shirt and jeans which had pearly gates embroidered in cursive letters over the back pocket in lurid pink thread. The owner of the ‘heavenly derriere’ was pointed towards the study where the bookcase was. My husband crossed a box on the sheet. I exhaled.
‘No. 37, TV…No. 8, kitchen utensils.’
As more boxes came in I exhaled some more. For days on end I had this feeling that every ounce of energy in my body was being used in blowing up this giant inflatable zeppelin. And now the job was done. I could set it free to float in the sky. The pressure was off.
“No. 10“, pearly gates, called.
A big fat hen. I wish I said that out loud.
“No. 27“, he called again.
Gateway to heaven. I definitely wish I had said that out loud.
It took us eight hours to put away the contents of those 42 boxes after Lucy and her entourage left. They had unpacked every box and laid their contents on the floors of the respective rooms where they belonged. It was all very neat and organised. I had horrid dreams of my books drowning in the sea but they made it in one piece without a scratch. Everything arrived in pristine condition except two casualties discovered in the souvenirs carton. Eiffel tower had a severed leg and Statue of Liberty had fractured her arm.
But that didn’t matter so much because I had finally reunited with my pillow. Everything that made my home in Singapore was here in Seoul. Things that needed attention now were in the realm of home improvement like hanging picture frames on the walls, buying plants and decorative items, getting cleaning equipments like mops, detergents, dishwashing liquids and so on.
So when Baba called a few days later and before he could ask me anything, I volunteered how impossibly difficult it was to get a proper ironing table. “They’re either too big and expensive or too small and fragile“. Then I ranted about how the tap water isn’t potable and how I didn’t find green beans or minced chicken at any supermarket and how ridiculously expensive watermelons were and how cable network had barely any English channel and how every letter box in the building was without locks and how banks in Korea do not have the provision of opening joint accounts.
I guess I answered his question even before he could ask it.
But that didn’t stop me from asking it to myself. And probing even further. What does ‘being settled’ even mean? How long until you can be fully settled? What did my dad actually want to know from me?
Maybe we have different definitions of the same word. To my 65 year old man who is 4034 kms away from his daughter, being settled may just mean her safely landing at her destination and checking into a hotel. As far as he was concerned, the move was done. Singapore was behind us. I should’ve settled. A month later when we moved into the apartment, surely then I should’ve settled. And finally when our shipment arrived, that should have been the ultimate finish line of being settled. Maybe he would’ve cheered from the metaphorical sidelines if only I said the word.
But I didn’t. Because we were never on the same page. The dictionary definition of ‘settle’, a verb, is to establish a residence. A residence has been established. My father expects a crisp past perfect but I am dwelling in the present continuous tense.
I am settling.
Out of the 7 years we lived in Singapore, I can’t say exactly how much time it took for us to settle when we moved there from Munich. But at the end of those 7 years if a newly bought shoe felt too tight, I knew the exact place to get it fixed under $10. If I needed to buy a rice cooker I could list at least 5 places to buy it from. I had a ‘fish guy’ who’d only sell me the freshest fish and a ‘grocery guy’ who at the sight of me would leave other customers waiting to disappear inside his shop and fetch me the freshest yoghurt he had made that day.
I knew which movie theatres had the most leg room and the cafes where you could be served unparalleled Egg Benedict or Kouign Amman. I had friends with whom I could have deep spiritual discussions and friends who I could call in the middle of the night if I got into trouble. Did all this make me feel settled? A resounding, yes. Did all this take time to build? Yes, again.
And I need that time here because I start from scratch. Because trying to replicate your old life in a new place is utter foolishness. Believe me, I tried.
So instead of ranting about everything that I couldn’t’ find or isn’t easily available or is different from what I was used to, I surveyed the nearby supermarket to make a note of every thing that is available. I researched recipes of dishes I could make using those ingredients and on my 4th visit to eMart I exited with a packet of kimchi, gochujang (Korean chilli paste), sesame oil and mung bean sprouts. My kimchi-bokkeum-bap may have been low on taste but it was a pathbreaker.
Since then, we’ve strolled under cherry blossom trees at Yeouido Park and drank coffee and licked ice creams with the locals sitting on benches with our faces to the sun; found a shop at Itaewon that sells all kinds of Indian spices; and gone on a weekend trip to the port city of Busan. We’ve learnt how to separate the trash into common garbage and recyclables, how to operate our washing machine with labels in Korean and gotten used to buying bottled water just like everybody. I have started sketching in cafes again (as you can see from these drawings), which are aplenty here. And at the end of this month I’m going to join a book club and then take Korean language classes.
A more expensive ironing table that is nothing like the one we used to own before has been bought since. Our kimchi fridge, a common fixture in all Korean apartments still remains empty but I am hopeful that it’ll have a chance to serve its purpose one day.
Sometimes when I am looking out from the window of our apartment in Gangnam my eyes glaze over and I feel like I’m living in this very intuitive and extremely realistic dream from which I would wake up any minute and find myself in my old bed in Lincoln Road. I’d stop the alarm, tie my frizzy hair – by courtesy of Singapore’s humidity – in a tight bun and walk into the kitchen to make us some tea.
Settling, as I have found out is a work in progress. It requires time and patience. It is also a lot of fun if you don’t take things too seriously. But most of the time it feels like climbing an incline. You are allowed to make as many stops as you like to take a breather and to absorb your surroundings like those sure footed goats I once saw bounding up an almost erect mountain in Greece. From a sailboat on the bluest of blue seas, I envied their view and the wonderful rhythm of their steps. Two months in Seoul and I am already beginning to see the view but when I find my rhythm and I will, I hope my dad calls.
Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.
One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table without offending anyone around.
The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.
The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!
That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!
Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.
I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.
So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.
I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.
I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!
These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!