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The Things I Learned from my Prior Relationships.
Anthony dumped me about 6 months into our budding romance. We’d met on OkCupid and while things were pretty good when they were good, they were pretty bad when they were bad. Enough to make him think it was never going to work out between us and that we might as well cut our losses and go our separate ways. Now, obviously, his projections for our future were wrong. I remember at the time, I wrote him several thousand words on why I believed we were better together than apart, but it didn’t work. That said, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that we definitely had some issues that we’d need to work through in order to arrive at stability.
Prior to meeting Anthony, I’d only had two significant romances. One was my ex-husband and the other was a brief “love affair” (the kind they make movies about!) with a young man from North Carolina. Both filled out my understanding of what a romantic partnership should and shouldn’t be. My first marriage taught me the following important lessons:
- Safety, above all. And by safety, I am referring to both physical and mental safety.
- Respect. Viewing the other person as a partner and not as a pseudo-child or burden.
- Boundaries. While all-consuming love affairs can feel pretty good at the time, failure to cultivate and respect clear boundaries can cause problems down the line.
- Friendship. Despite the many problems that doomed my first marriage, I can say that I learned from my ex the importance of friendship, the ability to simply “let it all hang out there” when need be.
My first husband was Korean American, like me. Both of us went to high school in the suburbs of Chicago and both of us graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana. We’d gone to the same church together for over a decade–Korean Evangelical Church of Chicago. Therefore, I didn’t really appreciate the potential issues I’d have to navigate when in a relationship with a non-Korean person until I met Ash, the young man from North Carolina.
My First Time Seeing a Confederate Flag.
I vividly recall the first time I’d ever seen a confederate flag in my entire life (other than in textbooks). It was draped lazily over the back of a faded blue pickup truck parked in the middle of a picturesque field of tall grass, about a mile from Ashley’s home. Two men stood in the bed of the pickup while another sat in one of those foldable lawn chairs. I must’ve said something to the effect of “Wow, a confederate flag,” because Ashley tossed his head and offered, “Oh, they’re all over,” as if the normalization of hanging the symbol of slavery on the back of a pickup truck would reassure me.
This was my first real lesson in interracial dating.
Being a Korean American dating a white man in North Carolina felt a little bit like that scene in Indiana Jones, where Indy is required to take that “leap of faith” across the chasm on his way towards finding the holy grail. Every step was fraught with uncertainty, particularly that very first one. Not only did we, as a couple, have to manage the major disparities in our lived experiences, I felt, rather keenly, the eyes of everyone around me. It would soon become a running joke between us that anytime I landed at Wilmington International Airport, I’d satisfied the “one Asian in Wilmington” quota for the city. I almost never saw anyone who looked like me, except for when we went to the small takeout spot called “The Great Wall” for dinner. And thus I instantly understood, implicitly, that if I saw so few Asian Americans, then those who lived there might view me as an oddity, especially when holding hands with someone who looked like them.
While it was easy enough to ignore the world around us when we were cocooned inside his little cabin in the woods, we couldn’t stay within the four corners of his home forever. Love is like that–there’s a temptation to forget everything but the “feel goods” of a new affair, to breathe in only the scent of passion in favor of practicalities for as long as you can. But love can’t subsist forever on the first supply of kindling–like anything else, it requires oxygen and steady replenishment of fuel to survive, especially if there’s a storm ahead.
We were walking in a local shopping center, holding hands, when I saw a couple of older ladies staring at us. Not in that disinterested way that I could have probably handled, but with something akin to an open-mouthed engrossment in a car crash. I let go of his hand abruptly and he looked at me, curiously. “Those ladies are staring at us,” I whispered, tipping my head in their direction. He didn’t even look. He pulled my face towards him so that he was looking me straight in the eyes before saying, “I don’t give a FUCK,” before kissing me.
Ashley’s brashness was, in my opinion, born out of his youth and the fact that he’d spent all 25 years of his life living inside a relatively non-diverse town. There’s no question he didn’t appreciate how “othering” it was to be the “one Asian in Wilmington” (even as a joke). However, in addition to teaching me the role of passion in my middle-aged life, Ashley also taught me the importance of not allowing others to dictate the boundaries of my love.
My fling with Ashley was short lived, a hot burst of flame before it crackled out with a hiss.
A few months later, Anthony slid into my DMs.
Milk Curd Ok, but No to Bean Curd?
Small things can add up to big things. It started with silverware. I’d always been so uncomfortable with forks and knives, particularly if there was more than one of each. Anthony navigated the dining table with the kind of confidence I had with chopsticks, but the difference was, he wasn’t very interested in learning to use the latter, whereas I… well, I sort of had to learn which fork went with which course (they still don’t have chopsticks at most restaurants). Then, the food would arrive and once more, what seemed like insignificant preferences threatened to engulf me: he loved salad, I loved kimchi; he loved pasta, I loved ramen noodles; he loved risotto, I loved bibimbap.
In the beginning, I catered to not just his preferences, but the prevailing norms of American food and etiquette. I laughed until tears rolled down my face when he admitted he would have trouble eating anything defined as “bean curd,” even though I’d grown up eating tofu and, well, he seemed to have no problem with eating “milk curd” (cheese). I began to dabble more in the kitchen, mostly to impress him with the culinary prowess I’d developed from nearly a decade of watching Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. I learned how to make risotto, pasta fagioli, balsamic chicken, and, of course, my crowning achievement–chocolate cake. Once, I spent hours preparing a Korean meal: galbi cheem (Korean style braised short ribs). It was one of my favorite dishes growing up, one that we had only on the most special of special occasions (Christmas, birthdays, graduation). I used my mother’s recipe for the Korean BBQ marinade and was so proud to serve some up on his mother’s fine China, even as he used a fork and knife, without any rice or kimchi.
Then, a few months later, Anthony declared,
“I’m going vegan.”
At the time, I couldn’t articulate why I felt so threatened by Anthony’s declaration. It was his body, his diet that he was changing, not mine. We had multiple heated arguments about his decision, including one in the driveway of my boss’s home just minutes before making our appearance at her holiday party (one where I knew there’d be little to no vegan options). He reassured me that he wouldn’t judge me for electing not to join him (even as he paraded before me an endless series of documentaries and articles regarding the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet). I explained to him that food was my love language, a language handed down to me by my grandmothers, mother, and aunties; that he was unilaterally taking from me one of the ways I could express my affection.
But, even as I repeated this to him sitting in his car in my boss’s driveway, I knew this wasn’t the entirety of why a diet change (albeit a pretty drastic one) was making me so uncomfortable. In retrospect, I realize now that it was a combination of two things, really: (a) the only vegan people I knew were white, and (b) the one asking me to join him in eliminating animal products from my diet knew so very little (or showed any real interest in) the cuisine I loved to eat.
Kimchi = Safety.
You know how they say “you don’t know what you have until you lose it?” I didn’t realize how much my parents and family meant to me until I left for college. The soft lilt of Korean being spoken in the family room while I studied at the dining table, the smell of doenjang hovering vaguely around us at all times, the click and steam from my mother’s rice-cooker right before it was time to eat, the clink of steel chopsticks accompanying the tidy orchestra of dinner time at the Lee Family’s kitchen table… All of these things spelled the most profound sense of safety to me. Despite making multiple trips back to our “Wilmette house,” I realized that as I continued to traverse down a path that would move me farther and farther from home, the only safety was me.
If I was to find safety no matter where I went, I would have to answer the question:
“Who am I?”
I majored in English and minored in Asian American studies in college, partly in order to answer that question. I devoured books in the same way I consumed soondooboo chigae. I thought maybe if I read about how other people answered this question, I could find a good template for starting that process for myself. Enter right: Derrida, Lacan, Sausseure, Woolf, Dickinson, Eliot, Dostoevsky, and even Freud. Because I was Korean American, I figured it made sense to dive into the literature of the diaspora, perhaps find other artists who created rich self portraits as I sketched my own. Enter left: Kimiko Hahn, Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Chang Rae Lee, David Hwang, Joy Kogawa, Ondaatje.
Even as I immersed myself in critical race theory, felt my bones shake as I read about the “white gaze,” I also just missed my mom. The food she and my grandmothers made for me at home. I felt the absence of kimchi in the dorm’s cafeteria like a splinter in my chest, and nearly wept when my mom sent me a care package of kimchi flavored cup ramen. I saved almost all my spare change for weekly trips to Dorcas, the local Korean restaurant, and stifled a flash of rage with the cool smile my mother taught me when one of my classmates complained about the “the smell” of the kimbap I brought to introduce them all to Korean food.
I was everything that can fit inside the statement, “I am my mother’s daughter,” including all the food I loved as a result of the person she always said I was:
“You are you. And you don’t have to be anyone else but you.”
So, when Anthony, who has already described himself as a functional eater (someone who eats food just to prevent death) decided to go vegan and implicitly asked me to do so too, I felt he was telling me the opposite:
“You are you, but you have to be someone other than you.”
“You are Korean, but you can’t be Korean anymore.”
The fact that he was white and knew so little about what being Korean meant to me, who I’d defined myself to be, combined with the fact that up until that point, he’d shown so little interest in understanding how my Koreanness–that longing for kimchi–played a role in my identity, made me anxious for our future and, to be honest, deeply resentful.
Plant Based, w/ Benefits.
As I always say, we our a product of our choices.
Despite my anxiety over going vegan,
- I went vegan shortly after Anthony did, and
- I started veganizing all my favorite Korean food, beginning with kimchi.
You can watch this video to learn more about why I went vegan. But, put simply, I went vegan because I figured that not doing so would spell doom for my relationship with Anthony (something Anthony ultimately conceded to be true a few months after I’d gone vegan), and I wanted to set a good example for my father, who’d recently been diagnosed with cancer. There were, however, a handful of side benefits to going vegan–some surprising, others predictable. For instance,
- I became a much better cook, out of necessity. In 2016, vegan options weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today and vegan cheese tasted like plastic, so I had to learn to cook or be relegated to French fries and wilted salads sans dressing at most meals.
- My love of animals grew exponentially, as I was no longer shackled by cognitive dissonance. Yes, I loved cows and pigs and goats and chickens and I absolutely basked in knowing I no longer ate them even while I professed to love them.
- I started paying way more attention to the size of my carbon footprint–something I am ashamed to admit I was pretty indifferent to prior to going vegan. Once I had a foot on the rung of eco-friendliness, I grew motivated to climb up as high as I could.
But perhaps the most unexpected byproduct of going vegan was that one day, while enjoying a Korean vegan meal prepared by my mother, Anthony decided to learn how to use chopsticks.
How “The Korean Vegan” Came to Be.
I realize it’s obvious, but for those of you who are not vegan (and let me just say, if you count yourselves among that contingent, it means a little extra something that you’ve made it to this point in the newsletter), I want to reiterate that when you decide to cut out animal products from your diet, here in the United States, you’re eliminating the overwhelming majority of options available to you at restaurants, cafeterias, parties, and even family get togethers. As a result, unless you’re ok with eating the same 5 things for the rest of your life, you quickly start experimenting with other cultural cuisines and for Anthony, what better place to start than the food his [then] girlfriend was veganizing?
Perhaps it was partly my openness to going vegan that prompted him to be more open to “bean curd,” but I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t bother trying to hide my joy when he described my tofu-packed doenjang chigae (femented soybean stew) as “delicious,” when he scarfed down the eggplant I braised in my mother’s Korean BBQ sauce in lieu of short ribs, when he marveled at a box of Hachiya persimmons as I showed him how to suck out the rubied flesh just like my grandmother taught me when I was five. A few weeks into cutting out eggs and dairy from our diet (the last things to go), one morning in bed, he once more crowed over how much he enjoyed the meal I’d made the night before. He joked, “You’re more vegan than I am,” as his arms tightened around me. I rolled my eyes, guffawed, even as he continued,
“You’re ‘the Korean Vegan.’ You should start a YouTube channel showing people how to make your recipes.”
Yes, in case you’d never heard this before, Anthony is the one who came up with the idea of what you now all know as “The Korean Vegan.”
Getting Bitch-Slapped by America.
Although my bibimbap is good, it couldn’t solve all the problems we had in our relationship. Specifically, Anthony’s growing fondness for Korean food did little to mitigate the impact of the 2016 election.
Anthony and I had just hit a stride in our relationship. After a bumpy first year of courtship (i.e., the breakup), we’d settled into “serious relationship”-hood: we went to Italy together, we moved in together, we went vegan together. I was thus completely unready for the massive wedge that sprang to life between us literally minutes after I’d found out Donald Trump had been elected.
Over the next several weeks, Anthony and I battled through hours long discussions punctuated with “bitch-slap” analogies and other pithy descriptions aimed at expressing my rage and fear. All those memories of being called a “chink” or “gook,” of being told to “go back to your country,” of being asked, “can you see out of those eyes?” — they came together as a rough and ugly collage of the America I woke up to that morning. The America I knew disappeared overnight, and every single time Anthony couldn’t see my pain, when he told me I was overreacting to what amounted to “just 4 years,” I felt the chasm swelling between us. Soon, it would be insurmountable. I even started wondering whether staying with someone whose experience as a white man created such an effective blind spot to my life as an Asian woman was, itself, a form of racism. I called my cousin one night, huddled in the corner of a hotel room (we were in Philly for the Philadelphia Marathon), and asked her,
“Do you think I’m being racist to myself by staying with Anthony?”
I realize that the way I’ve described things between us might make Anthony seem a little cold. Honestly, he is very logical and uncomfortable with strong demonstrations of emotion — from himself or others. His natural instinct is to put distance between him and anything that causes any real emotional agitation. At first, I thought it was because he had no feelings. But, I learned, in fact, it was the exact opposite. Anthony is one of the most instinctively empathetic persons I know. He literally cannot help it — because he would if he could. There is no easier way to make Anthony cry than to cry yourself.
And I was crying a lot those days.
I think it was that — the total lack of restraint in my reaction to what he thought was “not a big deal” — that opened his eyes to what ultimately ended up saving us.
Six weeks after Donald Trump was elected, while I was cooking a lovely tofu stir fry, Anthony recounted to me he’d started crying in the middle of teaching his class (Anthony was a music professor at Loyola University at that time). Not because Donald Trump would be our president, but because he was describing to his students how the election had affected me, how hard it was to see me cry. He repeated to me what he’d told his students through tears:
“As a white man, I can never fully understand your pain.”
Six months after the 2016 election, I shared my first story–one about my grandmother–on Instagram.
I Was Right.
I’m not going to lie and say that we’re 100% perfect and that we never ever argue anymore. We still get into heated arguments (read: FIGHTS) over politics, my rage-Tweets on SCOTUS, why racism continues to affect me differently than it affects him. And although the absolutely perfect soondooboo chigae Anthony made for me for my birthday a couple years ago can’t completely guard against clashes in the future, there’s something profoundly healing about how he created a bunch of flashcards of common Korean words as he continues to yell “I want ‘nose-bleed'” at random intervals around the house; how he proclaims that bibimbap is literally one of his favorite foods of all time; how he confidently explained to me that Chipotle’s vegan option is made out of tofu and he had no idea why I’d avoided eating it for so long when it was so good; how he watched all 16 hour long subtitled episodes of My Mister (a Korean drama) and subsequently dubbed it one of the most extraordinary shows he’d ever seen on TV.
But more importantly, the humility in Anthony’s concession all the way back in 2016–that he couldn’t know what he didn’t know–was a powerful statement of love. It breathed space into our relationship for my pain, the shape of which was totally unfamiliar to him, but one that he was willing to bend around and even protect until it grew almost as familiar to him as it was to me. It affirmed that he understood that this hurt, this sometimes inconvenient stone I’d carried around in my body my entire life, was as much a part of who I am as my love of classical music and puppies. And it also underscored that who I am doesn’t need to be limited by what he knew.
In the end, though, it merely confirmed what I knew all along:
That we are far better together than we are apart.
“Hi Joanne! I moved to Philadelphia from India for grad-school in 2015, finished and started working as a Data Analyst at UPenn, met the love of my life in Jan 2019 on OkCupid and married him in Aug 2021. My husband is Irish-American, born and raised in Pennsylvania. I never thought I would meet someone as open minded and accepting of me and my culture in Philly (with a relatively small immigrant population). But, most times I feel lost in his circles. I feel unseen and feel the pressure to say things to please, I am unable to connect to them as I would with a family. I have very few friends I hang out with because most are across the country or globe and since grad-school it has been hard to find and make friends in a new country, plus I am an introvert in general with some social anxiety. I feel like they are his family and friends and so they only care about me so long he does. We have talked about pursuing “our” social-circle or “my” circle but I feel torn between wanting to depend on him and be independent of him at the same time. -Nilanjana
First of all, congratulations on meeting the love of your life on OKCupid! I similarly met the love of my life on that platform and am always happy to find others who met and married through the internets.
In regards to your question, I think it’s important to acknowledge that being aware of your dilemma is actually a much harder barrier to hurdle than you may realize. A lot of people (e.g., younger Joanne) believe that love is the melding of two souls into one, though, to be honest, that’s just a co-dependent relationship. I’m not a marriage counselor, but I’ve been to enough couples counseling sessions to know that maintaining some boundaries is a critical component to a successful partnership. So kudos to you for recognizing that “be[ing] independent of him” is a worthy endeavor.
On that score, it might be helpful to assess in what kinds of social situations you feel more at ease. For example, I’m terrible at cocktail parties, bars, or “networking” sessions. Generally, the more unstructured the event, the sweatier I get. I prefer sit down dinners, with assigned seating; one-on-one coffee dates; or even a 30 minute Zoom-sesh while sitting on my couch. In other words, I’m much better interacting in small, intimate settings than I am in loose, group events. Because I know this about myself, when I started to make friends as an adult, I didn’t force myself to go to parties or other social events that I knew would be taxing. Instead, I emailed someone I found interesting and asked them if they’d be interested in having coffee. More recently, I asked them to Zoom with me. I should also note that, thanks to the internet, some of my closest friends are those I met through Instagram, and though I don’t get to see them as often as I’d like, they help me recharge in that way that only true friends can.
Another strategy is to find a social group centered around an activity that you and your husband enjoy doing together. For example, my husband and I both enjoy long distance running. We therefore joined a running team in Chicago and before we knew it, we had a robust group of friends–new to both of us–who could geek out about running while eating the Korean vegan food I made for them. Some of them were Korean, but the overwhelming majority of them were not, but I felt seen in an entirely different and still rewarding way. And the best part was, none of these were “Anthony’s friends” or “my friends.” They were truly “our friends.” What do you and your husband like to do together? Do you like dancing? Do you like working out? Do you like reading mystery novels? Whatever it is, double down on that activity and find others who enjoy it as much as you do.
Finally, talk openly with your husband about how he can help you. It sounds like he’s a very accepting and loving partner, but explain to him that you feel a little invisible in his social circles and even with his family, while also providing him with concrete examples of how he can help you feel seen. This can include:
- Hosting monthly dinner parties, inviting friends and family over for a traditional Indian meal
- Hosting a movie night for friends and family featuring an Indian movie
- Asking him to stand up for you, publicly, if necessary, when you are the victim of micro-aggression, even by his family
- Finding Indian restaurants to visit together for monthly date nights
- Planning a trip to India, so you can introduce him to your family and homeland
I also think it might be fun to explore some of the rich history of your husband’s culture (if he wants to). [Sidebar: in high school, I read this novel where the heroine was from Ireland and subsequently I grew obsessed with Irish clothing, food, language, agriculture, geography, history, and politics. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to Ireland than leprechauns.] Not only will you get to know more about the love of your life, it might help to disarm him should he feel defensive about how you feel when around his family and friends.
The key is to feel on solid ground at home, where you can develop the confidence you need to overcome your social anxiety when you are away from home, when you are away from your husband.
- Did you have a chance to listen to this podcast I did with The Kimchi Kids?
- Did you check out this interview I did with VegNews?
- Anthony and I just wrapped up Winning Time on HBOMax, a docudrama about The Lakers Dynasty. 10/10–absolutely recommend even if you’re not really into basketball (guilty as charged) in case you’re looking for something to watch while we all wait for Succession. We followed that up with They Call Me Magic, a docuseries that charts the life and career of the legend that is Magic Johnson.
- I recently made these really pretty rice paper butterflies by dropping pieces of rice paper in some hot oil and then sprinkling them with a delicious seasoning blend. They were super easy to make in case you want to a snack that’s not potato chips.
- After getting a bozillion requests for the tripod I use, I recently posted this video on “My Creator Story” that provides a behind the scenes peek into how I make my videos. Sadly, the particular tripod that everyone was asking about is no longer available, but you can find an alternative along with a bunch of other stuff I use for content creation, cooking, baking, etc. on my Amazon storefront.
This is what I wrote on the OkCupid profile that lured Anthony into my DMs:
I don’t believe in soulmates. Or, love at first sight. I don’t believe it’s possible to know whether you’d be compatible enough to marry someone upon laying eyes on her as she breezes through the cafe you happen to be standing in line at in order to get your boss her skinny-bitch latte. I don’t believe in locked eyes and locked hearts and locked bodies or that passion is the be-all, end-all to life. I don’t believe in destiny and even if I did, I sure as shit wouldn’t believe that love is written in the stars like some sort of alien love song. I don’t believe in swooning or spooning, excessive employment of the words “love” or “need,” or speaking in metaphors like a walking collection of Bukowski’s worst compulsions.
I believe in hard work. I believe in discipline, even in love—especially, in love. I believe in being on time, picking up the tab, sending flowers to someone whose mother is sick, calling my mom to check in on her cold, saying thank you to the barista who makes my latte every night. I believe that chance encounters only offer us a chance to be kind, because kindness is the most importantly underrated thing. I believe in forgiveness, in peeling back the skin and taking a real good look at the wounds resting beneath the surface, even if it hurts and makes you want to vomit, because it’s so goddamn critical to understand the pain of the earth. I believe in persistence, trying again and failing and trying again and failing and trying another time even if you’re pretty sure you’re going to fail, because hope is much more tangible a thing than Sylvia fucking Plath. I believe in the heaviness spreading across my chest like orange marmalade, the way my poodle shakes her butt when I come home until I kiss her nose, I believe in the sighs that slip into my bedroom window at 3:45 a.m. because they tell me, quite desperately, that the world is too large for solitary heartbeats.
I stand behind almost everything I wrote in the above. However, I do believe in soulmates, now. Not the kind that’s predestined for you like in some sort of cheesy rom-com flick, where you spend your entire life searching, searching, searching, burning money on plane tickets and psychics, dismissing potential suitors and entertaining all the wrong ones, moving heaven and earth to find that one random person who somehow just knows you love Billy Joel and red leather shoes and has been carrying the missing half of your heart all these long years and thus fits so seamlessly into your existing life that the only logical explanation was that he was tailor made for you. Nah.
You see, the hard part isn’t finding your soulmate.
It’s becoming one.