Kim Ha-jin, a 30-year-old working professional in Seoul, loves buying chocolates after work. “I don’t buy boxes of chocolates,” she told The Korea Herald. “I usually buy one or two pieces at high-end chocolatiers, such as Godiva or Laderach. It usually costs about 5,000 won. It’s a treat that I give myself after long, grueling hours in the office.”
Before getting into chocolates, Kim said, she was into “luxurious but small” beauty products. “I would get the cheapest products, such as pink lipstick or hand cream, from high-end boutiques,” she said. “They didn’t cost much, compared to other products such as anti-aging creams or a box of perfume, but they still managed to lighten up my day. I think I buy chocolates for similar reasons.”
Although there are currently no statistics on how many young Koreans do something similar to what Kim does after work, her love for desserts reflects a consumer trend that is widely spreading in the country today: “Sohwakhaeng,” which roughly translates to “small but certain happiness.” The term refers to moments that are ordinary but filled with joy and contentment.
Examples include having a glass of quality wine after taking a warm shower, or cuddling with one’s puppies before going to sleep. And now, sweets are becoming a part of this trend, which chooses peace of mind and small joys over having to ceaselessly compete against others.
But why sweets? In recent years, South Korea has seen an emergence of eclectic dessert cafes serving treats beyond ice cream and cheese cake. Some cafes feature a swimming pool inside, while others are built and decorated in a way that reminds one of a public bath. Some are located in Korean traditional houses, while others feature artworks and books. From funky-looking popsicles to ice cream decorated with colorful and edible flowers, the city inarguably offers a lot of options for those with -- or without -- a sweet tooth.
“I think there’s something so satisfying with going to such dessert cafes, of course because they offer something that tastes sweet, but it also makes you feel like you are being treated well,” said Kang Joo-na, a 28-year-old Seoulite who loves visiting dessert cafes in the garosu-gil district in southern Seoul and the Hongdae district in Northern Seoul.
“The cafes are so well-decorated and offer such trendy, and sometimes even artistic, vibe, but they still cost significantly less than high-end restaurants in the city. So I think many come to these places, even if they don’t necessarily enjoy sweets, as a way to treat themselves. You want to spend time in a space that’s both visually pleasing and even inspiring, away from your grey office. It gives you another sense of reality.”
The trend has spread into the online world in the country. Author Jeon Ye-ryang, whose Instagram account has some 106,000 followers, wrote a book about running her own home cafe. She came up with the idea after vising many cafes during her leisure time, while working as a full-time office worker.
She would make her own, creative beverages -- for instance, she would mix cold matcha and frozen chocolate milk -- and baked goods at home, take pictures of them and post to her social media account. Her posts received a lot of attention, leading her to write a book about her experience and unique recipes.
“I think I like her posts because they made me realize that there are many fun things you can do at home,” said a follower of Jeon. “And that there’s nothing wrong with staying at home and doing things that make you happy. I think there’s still this shared idea that if you don’t have any plans for the weekend, you must be either socially awkward or lazy.”
Still, some are concerned about the spreading “sohwakheang” trend. “I think it can be seen as a form of escapism,” said a Seoulite, who asked to be identified only by her surname Choi. “Many are focusing on things that are pretty and sweet to avoid thinking about the problems that they have. It’s nice to feel such small joys, but in the long run, only focusing on ‘sohwakhaeng’ may not solve the existing, structural problems, such as a lack of adequate housing and job security among young people.”
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)