Baek Sehee: I want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, trans. Anton Hur, Bloomsbury, 2022.
This book is a very modern type of memoir. It originated as a blog and features the transcript of interviews with a psychiatrist from when the author was in her 20s, interspersed with her personal reflections, conclusions and lessons learnt. It became a massive bestseller in South Korean when one of the members of BTS recommended it, and I think it speaks particularly to millennial or Gen Z readers who are looking for an honest non-fictional account of what it feels like navigating your professional and personal path in today’s world.
Although outwardly successful (working as a social media manager for a publishing house, pretty, popular, often in a relationship), Baek suffered from a persistent low-level depression, a sense of hopelessness and lack of self-esteem. She was perhaps not in immediate danger of suicide, but she found it hard to motivate herself to keep going, was often hypercritical of herself and found herself in co-dependent relationships which often drove her to despair.
The therapist was perplexed when Baek asked for consent to record the sessions, and was embarrassed when they read the book, as it made them regret some of their counselling choices. Certainly from my experience of Western-style coaching, CBT and Samaritan-style listening, it felt quite interventionist, but I have to admit that I’m not familiar with how psychologists/psychiatrists work. I did like the very candid comment made by the psychiatrist at the end of the book:
This is a record of a very ordinary, incomplete person who meets another very ordinary, incomplete person, the latter of whom happens to be a therapist. The therapist makes some mistakes and has a bit of room for improvement, but life has always been like that, which means everyone’s life has the potential to become better. To our readers, who are perhaps down and out from having experienced much devastation or are living day-to-day in barely contained anxiety: I hope you will listen to a certain overlooked and different voice within you. Because the human heart, even when it wants to die, quite often wants at the same time to eat some tteokbokki, too.
Written in plain, sometimes quite clichéed language, but with a candour and immediacy which is refreshing and compelling, particularly in East Asia, where mental health issues and feelings of failure are very much still swept under the carpet. It feels quite revolutionary because it preaches individualistic values which run counter to the traditional collectivist values of Korean society.
What matter isn’t what people say but what you like and find joy in. I hope you focus less on how you look to other people and more on fulfilling your true desires.
…but I really don’t know how to tell the difference – between what I really want and what others want for me.
Of course, you could argue that a lot of misfits appear in fiction from China, Japan and Korea, but it takes a lot of courage to discuss directly what authors often portray aslant via their (often quite problematic) characters – I’m thinking of Dazai Osamu here, for example. Hearing the following said aloud (or written on paper) feels quite brave even in Western society:
It is impossible to fathom the sadness of those who are left behind, but if life gives one more suffering than death, shouldn’t we respect their right to end life? We are so bad at mourning in our society. Maybe it’s a failure of respect. Some call those who choose their own death sinners or failures or losers who give up. Is living until the end really a triumph in every case? As if there can be any true winning or losing in this game of life.
Although this sounds very dark – and I’d have hesitated to share this with my recently deceased niece or with my younger son when he was going through the worst of his depression – the author does finally figure out a way to live with her possibly lifelong condition. It may seem very obvious, but after her therapy, she realised that she should share her feelings and thoughts not just with one paid person, but also with family and friends, to balance out her own self-pity and self-consciousness, while also listening to their own concerns and stories. She also learnt to move away from her black-and-white thinking, and to accept that we are able to experience contradictory feelings simultaneously. It is a message of hope, but not unrealistically upbeat – everything will be fine now – either.
My initial thoughts while reading the book was that it felt rather simplistic both in term of ‘teachings’ and language. Less memoir and more self-help book (which are never stylistically ambitious). But after some conversations with my sons and others of their generation, I realised that they perceive the complexity and subtlety that my generation appreciate and take for granted as needlessly vague at best or insincere at worst. There are many, many more reasons to have low self-esteem nowadays, when everything is up for scrutiny and comparison online. This book addresses the younger generation’s concerns in their own language. It might not be entirely to my taste, but if it can help them forge their identity and get through the dark times, then I’m all for it.
I am always at war… Life is as messy as a bag whose owner never clears it out. You have no idea when you might reach in and pull out a piece of old trash, and you’re afraid someone is going to look through your bag someday… Their eyes seem to be looking down right at my phone screen. I’m afraid they’ll be reading my thoughts… I consider my public persona as the cover for what is underneath, a membrane no light can seep through.
By the way, I asked Anton (the translator) when I saw him at London Book Fair what tteokbokki was exactly, apparently it’s a popular street food, a kind of pasta (chewy rice cakes in fact) stewed in a spicy sauce.