three weeks ago, i decided to make garaeddeok at home, starting by milling my own short grain rice flour. neither task honestly was necessary — at the time, i was still at my parents’ in los angeles, which meant that i could (1) go to the korean store and buy perfectly good rice cakes or (2) go to the korean store and buy maepssalgaru (short grain rice flour).
the rice flour used to make garaeddeok isn’t any rice flour; it’s specifically short grain rice flour (because short grain rice is stickier, which results in that desired chewy ddeok texture); and you find it in the frozen section of asian markets. because it’s frozen, it means the flour is moist.
to mill rice flour at home, you start by washing and soaking your rice overnight. when you’re ready to get started, strain your rice, then run it through a food processor or a coffee grinder. sift the flour; run any remaining big pieces of rice through the processor/grinder again. doing this at home won’t result in the finest (or best) flour, but it’ll do. it’s not difficult but laborious in that it takes a fair amount of time — but, i don’t know, all i seem to have in excess right now is time.
i generally struggle a lot with feeling like i have no purpose, and this sense of meaninglessness has been deepening the longer i am unemployed. what was general anxiety to begin with has been mutating steadily into envy, which i’ve been trying to cut off and suppress before it becomes even more toxic and destructive. maybe this isn’t the right time to talk about this, but maybe there isn’t ever the right time, and covid-19 and the protests have been feeding into this in unexpected but not wholly unsurprising ways.
what i envy people are two things — their work and their people. these two things branch off the same stem, which is my desire to belong somewhere, to be wanted, to be part of something that is bigger than myself. i envy people who have places they’re meant to be, jobs where they are a part of a team moving toward a common goal with purpose, people who want them and fit around them.
my envy, often, has felt simple, and it’s been pretty horrifying witnessing my envy unfurl in recent weeks. on a professional level, it remains fairly simple and straightforward — i envy the person who has the job i want, the job i’d do so well but cannot have. it’s been frustrating because i know this job exists — it’s a real job! at a real company! one i love and wish so much i could work for — but i am constantly in this position of looking into the room i want to be in. this is the story of my life, always existing outside but never being allowed in, of getting close but never actually making it, and this professional envy has been playing on all my insecurities and imposter syndromes. it confirms to me that what i feel is true — that i am invisible, and no one will ever see me, and i will never be good enough.
my envy, though, has been taking on all new forms with the protests, as i sit at home, feeling helpless and useless. i’ve found myself envying people who can organize, who can do something, contribute something beyond donating to organizations and bail funds and trying to signal boost and having conversations with other asian people, all of which aren’t nothing — i’m trying to do what i can with what i can. it just doesn’t feel good enough, meaningful enough, and this despondence has tangled up with my professional anxiety to create a monster that is becoming increasingly difficult to manage.
the thing that makes envy so horrifying and ugly is how self-centered it is. envy centers you because it’s all about you — it’s about your woes and your insecurities and your wants. it’s about how you would be better served if you could only take this thing someone else has.
it’s about how you feel small — and i know this, and i’m trying every day to shift my perspective, to take the focus off myself and to think, first, of other people. i’m struggling every day not to let my envy spiral further out of control because i don’t want to be that person, but it’s been feeling increasingly like a losing battle because envy feeds off my depression and loneliness and general hopelessness, so here we are, i guess. here we are.
rice flour is finicky, and i figure it’s because of the moisture content. i’m assuming this would be less of a challenge if you’re working with store-bought rice flour, which is likely much more consistent, but i have rejected that for some dumbass reason to mill my own flour. i am not very consistent or very methodical, so my rice flour varies when it comes to moisture.
the first time i try making garaeddeok with my freshly-milled flour, i don’t think about moisture content and just dump a full cup of water into my flour and salt mixture because the recipe says so. i’ve never really used rice flour before (hence, the actually-following-a-recipe), so i’m horrified when i find myself looking at a bowl of thick slurry, far from the craggy dough i should be looking at.
it’s fine, though. this is the most valuable thing cooking has taught me — to learn to fail and be okay with it. it’s only through failing that i’ll learn how to cook, how certain ingredients work, how different techniques can change the shape of a dish. this is a lesson that carries through life and applies directly to political activism because learning to speak up for people, for causes, isn’t something that you just do perfectly out of nowhere. it’s why i’ll always be supportive of people trying and why i won’t give people shit for getting things wrong. what matters is that they try and keep trying, and i fuck up all the goddamn time, anyway. who am i to talk?
here’s one new, curious way my envy has been manifesting — i actually couldn’t read anything by contemporary authors writing in english for a while. i could only read translated literature, which meant sinking myself back into korean and japanese literature-in-translation, much of which is written by women. translation offers a boundary that protected me, a barrier through which i couldn’t project myself, the career i wanted, onto the asian women i was reading. publishing works differently in asia. for one, in asia, they don’t start at a disadvantage against mediocre white people. slowly, i have been coming back into reading contemporary non-white american literature, but the envy remains, and i find it difficult to pick up writing by my asian american peers, not because i resent them their successes but because i wish i could share in them but can’t because, once again, i am on the outside, looking in, and it is dark and cold and lonely out here.
i really miss my dogs.
RESET — and trigger warning for talk of thoughts of dying.
after seven weeks in los angeles, i return to brooklyn. i’ve become less antsy about being outside when necessary, wearing my mask and staying as physically distant from people as possible. as nyc gets ready to reopen, though, i don’t know that i’m ready to go back to restaurants yet. i don’t trust other people enough to be safe and not be assholes, and i really don’t want the health and well-being of restaurant workers to be put on the line. i wish our dumb government would do better in providing the financial and economic relief needed to protect people’s lives and livelihoods, but that’s wishful thinking. this is the u.s., after all.
i’ve been expending tremendous amounts of energy over the last few weeks trying to convince myself that i’m okay, i’m okay, i’m okay when, in fact, i am far from okay. writing these words down feels like tremendous indulgence in and of itself; what does my personal breakdown in slow motion matter in the context of a pandemic, of black lives matter, of police brutality? how self-centered does my struggle to muster up any desire to stay alive feel when cops are killing black people without consequence? other people would do anything to live without constantly having their lives under threat, but i wish, instead, that i could stop living. what a waste of a life, indeed.
but the truth is that i find the bullshit of the world pressing down on me and squeezing everything out. cops are out there, freely murdering people, and dumbass idiots won’t wear masks when outside because to ask that they do so is somehow an infringement of their rights, and publishing is so willfully racist and determined to do the least possible just to avoid being burned until this “moment” passes, and food media is an insular, opaque world that is blindingly white. in the face of all this, i find it impossible to find any hope in anything. that hopelessness is making it impossible to write, even to try sitting at my table and putting words together.
i miss writing for the sake of writing. i miss not thinking about submitting, about publishing, and i miss finding joy in the act of writing. i’m sure i’m not the only writer who struggles with this, but i’m also sure this isn’t cool to say out loud, but here it is, anyway — that i feel the weight of fifteen years wasted on honing my craft and working on a novel-in-stories, that i find it difficult to read because other writers’ publications are stabbing reminders of my own failures, that i’m so disillusioned by publishing and its willful racism that i don’t know if i ever see myself within it again.
that i am lonely and tired and resentful. that i feel invisible, wondering why i’m even writing this, other than out of a desperate desire to be seen, which i despise myself for. that, maybe, if this is the year i don’t outlive, i want to leave some kind of record that i was here, and i felt something, and i wasn’t able to survive it, but that’s okay — at least, i tried.
i suppose i’m obliged to chase all that with the disclaimer that i am not actually actively suicidal right now. i don’t really find it thrilling to be alive, and i very much don’t want to be alive, but i don’t actually want to die. that probably sounds like a contradiction to you unless you’ve been here, too, in which case, fuck, i’m so sorry.
this substack started out as an eessay i wanted to write and pitch about milling rice flour and making garaeddeok. there’s a lot of history captured in this, a lot that’s changed just between my parents’ generation and mine. like, my parents grew up following their mothers to drop rice off at their local bangatgahn. my dad remembers how my halmoni would bring the flours home to make different kinds of ddeok.
as korea has developed and industrialized (very rapidly, at that), bangatgahns are changing. people don’t need to drop rice off to be milled; they can buy flour in markets if they need it; and why do they need to buy rice flour to make ddeok at home when they can simply buy ddeok in shops and markets?
why am i trying to mill rice flour and make ddeok?
i could argue, on a practical level, that it’s because it’s impossible to find good ddeok in nyc — the ddeok i find in manhattan is terrible. also, freshly-made ddeok is bomb. at the same time, though, i don’t actual eat much ddeok, and i don’t need to have it, and, as i mill flour, fuck up, mill flour, fuck up, i ask myself constantly why i’m putting myself through this. why am i wasting so much rice? why am i so determined to get this right? does it make me a loser because i’m only able to do this because i’m unemployed? because i honestly have nothing better to do? how pathetic and sad does this make me, trying to learn a useless skill?
the purposelessness of this whole endeavor has extended into the writing because, sure, i could sit down and try to pitch this piece, but i keep getting stuck on where — where would i pitch this? to what editor? who would want a very niche, very korean story about rice flour and rice cakes? is my inability to think of publications because i’m being lazy and not doing my research even though i spend a lot of time consuming media, specifically food media? is my general discouragement with writing my fault? am i to blame for my writing not going anywhere? am i doing everything wrong?
am i wasting my time? when all i seem to have these days is time?
as i’ve been watching the shit come out about bon appetit, shit that people of color have known for years and years, i admit i haven’t felt much hope that maybe things will change. i don’t believe much will change at all. i feel the same about big 5 publishing, which is currently putting in a fair amount of effort to say lots of nice, empty, meaningless things about “listening” and “trying to do better” without actually doing anything. i think companies and industries are waiting for this news cycle to move on, so they can go back to business as usual and stay as white as they always were, which is why i’d be more than happy to see both publishing and food media burn to the ground. burn it all down, and build it up again with a more equitable table, even as i don’t believe i will ever get a seat at that table. in this case, it really isn’t about me.
i fucking miss lucky peach. i’m sure lucky peach would be having its own reckoning right about now, but, still, i miss lucky peach.
eventually, i get the ddeok mostly right. i’m better at giving my soaked rice enough time to strain before i start grinding, and i add water carefully until my dough is closer to the right texture. now it’s mostly about getting my gochujang strawberry sauce right, which is, honestly, the bigger challenge because i’m terrible with sauces.
i don’t know that i’d make ddeok on the regular, but i like knowing that i can make it when the rare craving for ddeok kicks in.
i guess that’s what makes it worth it. maybe. i really don’t know.