Sad Young South Korean Lady

‘I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki’, an intimate look at personal therapy sessions in a culture that disdains therapy

32-year-old South Korean Baek Sehee seems at first glance to be a mover and a shaker.   This gorgeous young woman has had a slew of romantic partners, friends, and a job others might envy.  She works for a large publisher managing their social media content.  Baek Sehee came up with an extraordinarily brilliant and daring idea for her first book, but it isn’t the memoir you might be imagining.  It turns out that Sehee has spend her life mired in depression.  She made the decision to finally go to a psychiatrist and record her sessions, which she would print verbatim in her future work, along with her own commentary on the therapeutic process.

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is the result of this effort, and it is a compelling yet disturbing read.  For those unfamiliar with the term ‘tteokbokki,’ it is the name of a deliciously sweet dessert that vendors sell on the streets of South Korea, which the author would indulge in, only to be wracked with guilt afterwards at the calories she consumed.

Sehee tells us what drove her to therapy, despite her fears, was an exhaustion with the grief and sadness she carried inside her; which isolated her from the rest of the world.  She was desperate to feel better.  She explains: “Even in my most depressed moments I could be laughing at a friend’s joke but still feel an emptiness in my heart, and then feel an emptiness in my stomach, which would make me go out and eat some tteokbokki-what was wrong with me?”

Baek Sahee

It’s unclear precisely when she tells her analyst she is recording their sessions, but it is clear from the therapist’s comments at the back of the book that the taping made her feel somewhat self-conscious. But even more telling is what the psychiatrist doesn’t say.  She never gives us her sense of their counseling sessions and whether Sehee is progressing, or simply spinning her wheels.  She offers no explanations regarding the many prescriptions she wrote for Sehee for anxiety and depression, and we are unsure if she felt these drugs enhanced or hindered her progress.  In other words, she remains a blank slate, unwilling to reveal her thoughts, or experiences of countertransference; possibly in fear of some sort of backlash, or simply because she didn’t want to hurt her patient’s feelings.

Sehee explains during her first session that she suffers from low self-esteem. But as she continues to speak we listen to the viciously repetitive cycles of negation she partakes in that make her more frazzled.  We see how damaged her soul is, and while we empathize with her suffering, there is something infuriating about her as well.

Baek Sehee was not born an optimist; she seems wired for turmoil. In high school she floundered and was unable to get into college.  She grew up in a poor home where her father beat her mother and she and her siblings, and they all tried desperately to keep this from nosy neighbors who sensed something was amiss. Her older sister occasionally came to her aid, but even her benevolence was tainted. In order to receive her kindness, her sister required complete obedience which Sehee resented.

Sehee’s boyfriends tended to come and go quickly and she admits she had trouble being authentic with any of them and could only play the part of “cute girlfriend.”  She had problems at work, either saying too much or too little, having no sense of boundaries and often feeling frustrated in all of her relationships. Sometimes she would play games with others, lying about her experiences in order to win their favor. She had trouble relaxing after work, and sleeping well was always a problem. In one of the rare moments of level-headedness with her therapist, she asks why she can’t love herself as others do. She admits feeling like “someone of no consequence, an invisible person.”  Her distractedness frightens us.

The thrust of the book is the therapeutic process, which requires skills Sehee has yet to master. You have to be able to listen carefully, and also be willing to share things that are outside of the rehearsed script you present to others. You must be able trust the therapist enough to risk exposing yourself to reckonings that could be painful or destabilizing. And you have to be willing to accept that we all have distortions threaded into our thinking. Sehee tends to repeat her stories ad nauseum which she tells the therapist in a manner that cuts off the therapist’s ability to intervene at crucial moments.

When Sehee’s analyst tries to show her how she tends to put a negative spin on almost everything, she changes the subject to avoid mulling that over. She postpones speaking about her parents and siblings even when the therapist repeatedly encourages her to do so. She can’t seem to keep her focus on any other human being but herself. Her casual obtuseness jolts the reader. She wants everyone to like or even love her but doesn’t seem to know why, but also seems to have little love in her heart for anyone else. She’s hyper-critical about her appearance and her weight, and is terrified others find her boring. But the sad reality is she is boring, because she seems to care so little for others and has less interest in the world.

But perhaps I am being too harsh.  Sehee and her psychiatrist are both victims of South Korea’s repressed culture. Most people look down on psychoanalysis.  The suicide rate among Korean youth is among the highest in the world. Many believe this is because of economic woes and the fact that a college degree no longer assures one a job.  The educational system is fiercely competitive from grade school onward. Dr. Kim Hyong-soo claims “Talking about emotional problems is still taboo.”

In addition, there is a strong ethos of Buddhist and Confucian thought that emphasizes stoicism, and considers an excessive focus on one’s own troubles unseemly.  When K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun killed himself, his suicide note read “ I’m broken from the inside.”  The depression has slowly eaten away at me has consumed me, and I couldn’t beat it.”

Still, there is a fascination being inside the counseling room with her.  We feel we are a party to a sacred realm and find ourselves drawn to her testimony; mesmerized by her ability to keep thwarting herself from getting better.  And we want her to get better.  There are a few glimmers of hope.  She mentions becoming interested in books and what they have to offer her.  And, she is able to sum up her problems for us.  She writes in one of her personal commentaries this: “What do I wish for?  I want to love and be loved.  Without suspicion and with ease.  That’s it.  I don’t know how to love or be loved properly, and that’s what pains me.”  For the briefest of moments, she convinces us she has a shot.

(Bloomsbury, November 1, 2022. Translated by Anton Hur)

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Elaine Margolin

Elaine is a book critic for The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Times Literary Supplement, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and several literary journals. She has been reviewing books for over 20 years with a sense of continual wonder and joy. She tends to focus on non-fiction and biographies.

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