no one wants to talk about money and privilege.

let's talk about money and privilege.

oh god, this is so uncomfortable. i hope i don’t regret this.

i go to momofuku ko and atomix alone. i don’t feel weird or self-conscious dining alone anymore; i take my book, read my book, scribble notes about the food into the margins of my book; and i watch the people around me. i’m starting to think that dining alone is a great way to gauge a restaurant’s approach to hospitality — at kawi, the staff is always friendly and courteous, but i am largely left alone, and the conversations that do occur happen organically. at ko, i feel like a server has gone out of her way to chat with me about evening plans. at atomix, one of the servers asks (not in a rude or mean way) if i often dine out alone, if i enjoy it.

the short answer is, yes, i do enjoy dining out alone, and i don’t hesitate in doing so. (it has taken me years to get to this point of ease.) the other answer, though, is, that, dude, this is a $250 meal. i can’t think of any friend off the top of my head who would be excited or financially able to drop $250 on one meal, $300 if we’re factoring in drinks. i’ve only been able to do it because, with ko, i planned ahead and budgeted (as well as my financially stupid brain can budget, at least), and, with atomix, i spent birthday money. i do not have the means to drop $300 casually on one meal.

wealth is kinda relative in ways, though — i don’t have $300 to drop casually on one meal, but i’ve eaten at kawi 13 times in the last 6 months. i spend an average of $60-80 every time. you do the math because i won’t. i haven’t only been eating at kawi, either; i’ve been eating all over the momverse. that’s a lot of money i’m giving to one restaurant group.

i’m not swimming in money, either; i just happen not to spend money on anything else, aside from books (though my book spending has decreased significantly) and the occasional big skincare purchase ($50-70) from korea 2-3 times a year. in general, i don’t buy things. i eat. i also will subsist on bread and peanut butter or rice and shredded rotisserie chicken for days leading up to payday because i’ve spent my money on nice meals.

that’s just one part of it, though — i don’t have student loan debt because i earned full scholarships to both undergrad and law school, and, when i did have to pay for two years of uni out-of-pocket (long story), my parents paid for it. my parents covered my rent for me for years in new york city when i was in law school and when i was no longer in law school but freelancing and working on my dumb novel-in-stories.  i don’t have credit cards because i’m really shitty with money and i’ve run into bad trouble with credit cards in the past, so i just don’t have credit cards anymore.

i haven’t been traveling at all this past year, except for trips to and from los angeles to see my dogs and my parents, and my mother uses her points to pay for my flights. i stay with my parents when in LA and drive their cars, so i don’t have those additional expenses to worry about. i’m planning to drive up to the bay area when i’m in LA over the holidays, and i’ll take one of their cars and crash with friends, so, again, all i’ll really be spending money on is food. and gas. and my dog.

and i know — the key thing is that i have been able to make the decisions i’ve made because i have parents who have the means, both financial and otherwise, to catch me if something ever happens to me. that’s not a reflection of how hard i work and hustle (i work my ass off), and i’m in no way financially dependent on my parents and do not want to be again, and it’s not that my parents are crazy rich asians — they’re solidly upper middle class. to be clear, this kind of privilege isn’t the kind that allows me to coast or take it easy. what it means is that i have the privilege of feeling less burdened because i don’t have to be afraid of potential emergencies and crises, and that frees up tremendous mental and emotional space for me to pursue the things that i do. it would not be fair or right of me to deny this privilege and pretend that it doesn’t exist.

does this sound like i’m showing off? because i’m not. i wish more people, especially creative people, would be more explicit about shit like this, especially if they have a family or a spouse who is able to help sustain their craft. it still boggles my mind how so many writers seem to be able to jet off for weeks-long writing residencies or apply to so many fellowships and contests and generally just write all the time — like, do they not have jobs? or what are these magical jobs with such generous PTO and minimal/flexible hours? because there is no way these writers are supporting themselves off their writing alone. literary fiction sells an average of 2,000 books. essays don’t make you much money, unless we’re talking print and features. short stories pay nothing. most advances do not earn out, even the lower ones, so it’s not like writers are surviving on royalty checks. and this matters because all this opacity around money and income makes marginalized writers feel like shit, like they’re not being serious enough about their craft, simply because they do not have the means or the time to do residencies, go to conferences, or live in a major city like new york.

— 

momofuku can be a weird flash point from which to talk about asian american food and culture. one of the difficulties is that (i’m going to make generalizations here; bite me) asian americans (at least of my generation) have very much internalized racism and bought into these bullshit, racist notions of “authenticity.” like, asian food should be cheap and grungy. it should be served by cranky waitstaff who are only nice to you if you speak their language. asian american chefs who try to break out of those stereotypes and elevate asian american food are accused of whitewashing it, they must hate their ethnic cultures, their food is inauthentic and overpriced and made for white people.

pretty much every single person who pushes back against me when i talk about kawi has been korean american.

a great comparison in literature this year is ocean vuong’s debut novel on earth we’re briefly gorgeous. vuong is a vietnamese american author, and he first became known for his poetry. his novel has been highly praised, long-listed for the national book award, and generally beloved across bookstagram, except for rare instances, like with one particular bookstagrammer who clearly did not like that vuong was writing in the tradition of autofiction (a la ben lerner) instead of staying in his lane. it didn’t surprise me that the bookstagrammer was herself asian american. it did appall me that she ended her review with a condescending note of advice to vuong to be more “authentic.”

what does “authentic” even mean, though? what is authentic to any given person differs by person — or, at least, it should. eunjo park’s food at kawi is no less authentic for playing with the internal details of traditional korean dishes because that is the kind of food that is authentic to her. what junghyun park is doing at atoboy and atomix is no less authentic for the way he plays with korean ingredients in dishes that don’t present as korean at first glance. the same goes for what douglas kim is doing at jeju noodle bar or namhyung woo at her name is han or what sohui kim has been doing at the good fork since 2006 or dave chang with momofuku since 2004.

“authentic,” in the ways that people, yes, even asian americans, like to attribute with assholery to minority food or writing, is a racist notion that is maintained to keep POC in the lanes white people have prescribed for them, and it’s bullshit.

okay, but bringing this back to money and privilege — momofuku can be a weird flash point because it’s not cheap. and chang keeps opening new restaurants in really bougie places (this, i think, is a legit criticism). again, the former ties into ideas of “authenticity” because asian food should be served in grungy places, not restaurants done up in warm woods and thoughtfully designed spaces, and asian food should be cheap.

we’ve already established that these “rules” are racist and dumb. money, too, is a thing that restaurants think about; they’re businesses after all; and they need to stay solvent. money is a major reason lucky peach folded (rest in peach). i’m assuming money is a reason noodle bar in columbus circle and kawi and bar wayo are where they are — stephen ross is a minority investor in momofuku, and he owns (or has invested in, whatever) columbus circle and hudson yards. unlike other people, some of whom are still calling for a boycott of momofuku, i don’t think much negative or positive of ross’ investment in momofuku, and i think it’s not reasonable to expect the group to demand that ross divest. business is much more complicated than that, and the momofuku group employs a lot of people.

but, anyway, money and privilege impact the choices we make. i stopped looking for jobs in publishing because they wouldn’t pay me enough to sustain the lifestyle i want, which happens to include nice meals. i actually dropped out of university two years in, and i only went back to finish my degree because i realized that i needed a dumb BA to get better jobs — i had to pay for those final two years because i lost my scholarship when i withdrew. at the same time, i withdrew from law school after a year because, even though i’m sure i would have made a lot more money in that career, i knew i would have been miserable, and i was dangerously suicidal throughout 1L.

and here is the point where i’m starting to wind down and get muddled up about what i’m trying to say. typically, i might try to draw a neater conclusion, but this is a substack, and it’s where i want to be able to let the crap in my brain just kind of have a place to be and attempt towards cohesion.

i guess what i want to end this with is — i don’t earn a shit-ton of money, and i don’t have any financial security (my last full-time job paid me $58K, and i’m currently making by on short contract gigs that have no long-term stability), but i earn enough to be able to afford meals and access different levels of food (to an extent) as i try to do more food writing. and here’s the thing that maybe irks me the most — the opacity of these goddamn industries and the gatekeeping that is both racial and financial because there is no room at the table for those of us who aren’t white, aren’t independently wealthy, aren’t married to a high-earning spouse. and i think we need to be more transparent about money, how we’re able to support our creative lives, what it’s really like to be a working creative professional. being transparent only makes it better for all of us.

thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on momofuku. i’m sure there are so many other things you could be reading instead. i wonder if i should edit these better, but this substack is meant to be a nice casual outlet for all the stuff i’m constantly chewing on in my brain, i.d. food, momofuku, other crap.

so thank you for reading! i am now going to go to fuku to try their new white meat spicy chicken sandwich! and eat more of their slaw — omg, their slaw is so good …