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Are You a Good Neighbor?
It’s 3:02 in the morning. You’re awake and at first, you don’t know why. But then, you shift your gaze to the window–an unearthly, orange glow spills onto your floor. You climb out of bed, tiptoe over to the pane, and peer out the slightly frosted glass to see your neighbor’s home is on fire. You throw on the stringy grey bathrobe you’ve kept since college, slip into your crocs and venture out into the cold, though it only takes a minute before the smoke starts to cling to your hair, you can hear the crackling flames leaping from your neighbor’s porch.
No one is awake, but you, it seems. No distant peal of sirens, no throng of neighborhood watchers. Just you, the licking flames, and the smoke.
You jump into action. You call 9-1-1 and report the fire, then throw caution to the biting wind and run straight towards the front door, banging against it with both fists, hollering “FIRE! WAKE UP! THERE’S A FIRE!” When no one answers, you step towards one of the tall windows bracketing the front door, continue banging, press your face to the warm glass trying to peek through the dark slits between the blinds. Finally, you hear the drumroll of footsteps, the front door opens, and your neighbor is standing there in his pajamas, panic still in the process of wiping away the residue of sleep.
The two of you dive back into the house. Grab the kids, the dogs, the old photos, and haul ass out of there. By the time the firefighters arrive, you’re standing on the sidewalk, your gray robe decidedly grayer, your face grayer still. You press the heel of your hand into your mouth as you begin coughing up a lung and while hunched over, you notice that crocs can, in fact, melt when subjected to extreme heat, and you wonder about the state of your feet, which went numb along with the rest of your body once the sight of a fire truck turned off the spigot of adrenaline. But, “this isn’t my house on fire,” you say, and instead of getting checked out by the frenetic looking EMTs, you trudge back home, slide back into bed, barely sleep a wink, before hitting the alarm to get ready for work.
When Your House Catches on Fire.
I often feel like I’m that person who wakes up in the middle of the night to run over to my neighbor’s house. But, if my house catches on fire? I’d somehow fly a massive tarp over my home so that I can douse the flames in total privacy. Like, I’m all for helping other people put out their fires, but I’ll be damned if I accept help putting out my own. And, sometimes, I feel like we go from day to day putting one fire out after another–usually belonging to our colleagues, spouses, children, parents, communities–without stopping to look down to see if our feet have melted off.
Despite what you may see on the internet, I’m actually terrible at vulnerability. Telling a personal story or revealing the ugliest parts of me to millions of strangers? That’s easy. Allowing myself to be revealed in a moment of fragility to my family or friends?
That’s literally what I hear when I so much as think about calling up a girlfriend to discuss my troubles or bursting into tears in front of my husband.
“No. You are not allowed to do that.”
I used to think it was because I didn’t want to be a burden. There is some truth to this. As my parents age, I don’t want them to worry about me–they’ve spent half their lives worrying about me, and I think they’ve earned a few worry-free chapters in their books. Because they are parents, though, the only way I can shield them from the natural parental urge to panic over every paper cut, I keep my hurts to myself. But the truth is, there’s more than a healthy dose of ego and pride in my choice to helicopter a tarp over my house-on-fire.
What Would David Goggins Do?
Decades ago, when my very first dog passed away, I kept myself in my room, howling with heartbreak. My father came knocking. I cracked open the door, thinking he might say something kind, soothing in his own quirky way. Instead, he told me, “It’s not right to cry so much. Stop showing so much emotion.” I slammed the door in his face as hard as I could as if I could physically eject his words from my body.
My father’s disapproval might seem cruel, but it was not unusual. I’ve seen my father cry plenty of times while watching movies (like The Little Princess), but he keeps a tight rein on his emotions in every other setting. I’ve only seen him really lose it a handful of times, the most memorable being when his own mother passed away. Hahlmuhnee suffered a massive stroke and died quite suddenly in her early 70s. Needless to say, we were all unprepared. That day, Daddy burst into tears at the kitchen table over lunch. He didn’t stop until Seoul Hahlmuhnee, my maternal grandmother, padded over to him, pressed one of her hands on his left shoulder and said, kindly but firmly,
“Stop crying. It’s not good to cry so much.”
It’s been 208 days since Rudy died. The intensity of my grief competes daily with the enormity of my shame. I am embarrassed that I can’t seem to get over it. I am embarrassed that losing my Rudy has hurt me far more than losing my other dogs, my grandfather, either of my grandmothers, or any other family member. Inanely, I ask myself “Would David Goggins cry this hard over a dog? No, no he wouldn’t, so stop it.”
Friends are Like Broccoli: They’re Good for You.
I know that I am allowed to grieve in private and I (rightfully) get angry at friends who think they are entitled to my vulnerability just by virtue of their title as “friend.” [They aren’t.] But at the same time, I realize that by refusing to lean on anyone when I’m struggling, I’m not only cutting off much needed aid, I may also be cheating myself of the kind of relationship that grows exclusively from laying ourselves bare.
And I’m not just saying this for the touchy/feely reasons, but for practical/somewhat selfish reasons.
I’ve played counselor to many people over the course of my life. Starting in junior high, I served as mediator during the hours-long screaming matches between my mom and dad, protected my little brother from excessive parental criticism, kept the peace inside our home, lest the frame of our Wilmette house light up in the conflagration of one of my parents’ fights. In all that time, I learned how dangerous it was to need anything, because neediness, it seemed, led directly to conflict. So I couch my vulnerability in excessive intellectualism or humor, pretend that adversity is merely a problem solving exercise like the ones you see in the LSAT, or, when all else fails, dive into puzzles to patch my grief with the pages of my Sudoku book.
Unfortunately, none of these is a recipe for intimacy. And yes, friendships require platonic intimacy in order to grow.
Ten days after Rudy died, I forced myself to meet with a friend, Cindy, who happened to be in town. Cindy is a super-star lit agent and I met her at an event I moderated for one of her clients. Like me, she is Korean American and also like me, she was once a lawyer. Maybe because we had so much in common, at least on paper, we became “fast friends.” We routinely send long voice memos to each other on our phones, sometimes taking months to reply, but still, always replying. Thus, when she said she was going to be in SoCal and wanted to get together, without taking any inventory of my actual feelings, I concluded “it’s been several days. You’re over it and now it’s time to be social again.”
But things didn’t go as planned, and that night, I wrote in my diary:
I met with Cindy for lunch and I started crying in the middle of talking to her, a fairly regular occurrence these days. I have turned into a “scratch and sniff” sticker, only instead of a smell, I emit ugly-cry.
Cindy and I met for coffee and pastries at one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles. We didn’t really talk about Rudy, but sitting there on a sunny day eating vegan croissants al fresco in the middle of a posh little Beverly Hills neighborhood as if everything was normal… It caught me off guard. Everything was normal until it wasn’t, and before I knew it, my face was crumpling up into my hands. I was horrifically embarrassed, corked my tears with a watery laugh and changed the subject; but, there was something inexplicably soothing about being with another Korean woman, who perhaps could understand, without having to be told, the immensity of both my shame and my grief.
For my response, tune in to this week’s podcast!
This Week’s Kollective Recipe – Spicy Tteokbokki.
Recently, I’ve been on a bit of a tteokbokki kick. I’ve been making it a lot for friends, dinner parties, or just for myself. The other day, I had a whole bunch of homemade pesto, and decided to add it to my rice cakes (instead of pasta) and it turned out delicious. Rice cakes are like gnocchi–they absorb the flavors in which they are submerged. My favorite “hack” these days is to add a little bit of the broth packet from my favorite instant ramyun noodles. Below is the recipe for my Spicy Tteokbokki. If you haven’t given these a try yet, do yourself a favor. Head over to your local Korean grocery store OR order the rice cakes online and go for it!
8 oz ricecakes (tubes) 2 tbsp sesame oil 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil salt & pepper 1 carrot, sliced ½ zucchini, chopped ½ red bell pepper, julienned ½ green bell poepper, julienned 2 scallions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 vegan instant ramyun 2 tbsp gochugaru ¼ cup gochujang 2 tbsp brown rice syrup (or maple syrup) 2 tbsp soy sauce 1 JUST Egg Folded Optional: ¼ cup vegan cheese
Add 1 tbsp sesame oil, together with some salt and pepper to bowl of thawed ricecakes. Set aside. In a large pot, add 1 tbsp sesame oil + 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil over medium high heat. When oil shimmers, add scallions and garlic and cook for about 2 mins. Add remaining veggies and cook for 2 mins. Add ramyun broth packet, gochugaru, gochujang, and sweetener and stir until everything is evenly coated. Deglaze with soy sauce and then add 2 cups of water. Bring to boil and then add ramen noodles. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes until noodles are cooked and then add JUST Egg Folded. Top with vegan cheese before serving.
Want instant access to thousands of plant-based recipes like this one? Check out The Korean Vegan Kollective, a downloadable web-app that unlocks:
- 2,000+ delicious and personalized plant-based recipes
- complete nutritional information for every recipe
- integrated grocery shopping lists and grocery delivery in select areas
- access to one-on-one food coaching
- live cooking demonstrations
- exclusive articles and videos from me and my team
- What I’m Watching. Right now, we’re gearing up for the season premiere of HBO’s Succession. It’s been a really long time since Anthony and I agreed to watch a show without waiting for the entire season to finish up. Back in the day, my brother and I would get together with all our friends on Sunday night, cook up a massive meal, and watch The Sopranos together, and it’s not surprising that HBO is having us do the same thing so many years later. By the time you read this, you all will have likely watched the season premier, so let’s meet back here next week to discuss!
- My New Favorite Skincare Product: It’s not exactly cold out here in SoCal, but I have been traveling to NYC and Chicago a lot lately, and those places are cold. I also spent some time in Utah, which was basically a winter wonderland of pristine snow and excessively dry air. Thankfully, I was recently introduced to a serum that’s supposed to keep your skin super hydrated even in the most brutal conditions (apparently, they tested it in Jackson Hole, WY). It’s called the Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum by Glow Recipes (a Korean American women-owned beauty brand), and I gotta tell ya–it not only keeps my skin feeling dewy and glowy, it SMELLS AMAZING!! And I love anything that comes in a pump, lol. Vegan and cruelty free, of course!
- Zines and Things: In case you missed it, I was featured in both VegOut Magazine’s “A Taste of Europe” issue, as well as the Winter 2023 issue of Mercy for Animals Compassionate Living.
I once spent two whole weeks in New York City, mostly by myself. I rented an AirBNB (back when it was brand new) in Soho–a huge, loft style condo with a baby grand piano and a solid oak dining table. I was working out of the Firm’s New York office and liked to believe I was getting a real taste of the big city life. I waltzed past the small bodega on the corner of Wooster on my way home from the office, or followed the lights reflecting off the slick black streets that throbbed through Soho, or paid $13 for a cluster of yellow roses from the Korean market because they reminded me of my mother. I found it hard to sleep at night, not because of the ceaseless chorus of sirens or the thing that was making irregularly scratchy noises in the bedroom closet, but because all the signs of life around me seemed to press in on me, as if to say,
“You are so alone.”
Years later, in Chicago, when I was truly living alone in my own “adult apartment,” when I couldn’t sleep, I’d get out of bed and curl up next to the window overlooking Lake Shore Drive and pretend I could see into all the cars lighting up the city so late at night. I’d create stories about them in my head–simple stories, like “he’s getting home really late and his wife is going to be mad but then they’ll watch TV together and everything will be ok” or “they’re just getting back from a really boring dinner party and can’t wait to order pizza when they get home” or “she’s just finished writing a brief at the office and gets to go home to her two dogs who will be so excited to see her.” And then, I’d shift my gaze to the lights dotting the pier jutting out onto the Lake and I’d count them. “One, two, three…” all the way to eleven, before crawling back into bed, drifting off into dreams suffused with the fellowship of traffic.
Eventually, Anthony would come into my home and heart and I’d no longer have to rely on made up people sitting in Chicago traffic to keep me company and maybe there’s something altogether pathetic about that chapter in my life. I don’t know. But, every now and again, when things get a little bit hard, when courage grows a little bit scarce, I remember those yellow roses, the soft lights of LSD cleaving to my bedroom window, and I am reminded, all over again:
I am never alone.