Would Taylor Swift Eat My Gimbap?
Wooing my queer crush with food and Instagram
Save me, I’ve been feeling so alone
I keep waiting for you, but you never come
Is this in my head? I don’t know what to think
Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” Fearless (2021)
When I make gimbap, I start with the rice.
I wash two cups in a pot, filling it with water and setting it to cook on the stovetop because I rarely have the foresight to let my rice soak as I should. As that cooks, I crack four eggs in a bowl with salt and a drizzle of half-and-half, using chopsticks to break the yolks and whip the eggs into a yellow slurry. I heat a pan on medium-high heat, lightly oiling it, and pour my egg mixture onto the pan when it’s hot, folding the egg into an omelette that I slide onto a pan to cool.
I cut my cucumber into long strips and de-seed them, then cut one carrot into a pile of matchsticks. I’ve made my danmuji (pickled Korean radish) and potato banchan (side dish) the day before, so I move on to prepping whatever protein I’m using — hot dog, Spam, bulgogi, whatever I’ve got — and warm it up in the pan, before slicing my cooled omelette into long strips, seasoning my rice with a pinch of salt, a tiny drizzle of sesame oil, and a toss of toasted sesame seeds, and setting up my mise en place. I get a little finger pot of water to seal my gimbap, my seaweed sheets from the freezer, the bamboo mat I’ll use to tighten my rolls from the drawer. I pull on a pair of disposable plastic kitchen gloves and cue up my Taylor Swift playlist on my phone, and, now, it’s time to roll.
And I never saw you coming
And I’ll never be the same
“State of Grace,” Red (2012)
Most of the time, I have no idea what Taylor Swift is singing about. It doesn’t matter if she’s telling lyric stories about falling in love or breaking up or longing for someone — I really have no idea. But I can imagine it, can tap into universal human emotions to conjure up similar feelings, even though I’ve never directly experienced any of these things before. I’ve never been in love or been in a relationship. I’ve never even gotten close.
A friend advises that I try dating, if only just for practice, and I know this friend is right. Dating is something you have to work at, too, and I was never properly socialized as an adolescent — I didn’t go to dances, wasn’t a part of clubs, didn’t have much of a social life outside of my small church. In college, I didn’t join a sorority, still wasn’t a part of clubs, often went days without physically speaking to anyone. As a young adult, I moved across the country from Los Angeles to Brooklyn, withdrew from law school to take on odd freelancing jobs while working on a novel-in-stories, and, again, often went days without physically speaking to anyone.
It wasn’t just that I was shy or that I liked my solitude. Starting in high school, I had been taught to link my self-worth to my body, which was average by American beauty standards, but too big for Koreans. Because of this, my own immigrant community shamed me for my body. That shame broke me down mentally as I spent the next ten years trying to whittle myself down physically, counting calories, exercising obsessively, and restricting, going further down the spiral of self-loathing that completely eradicated any confidence or pride I had in myself as a person. While I’m in a much better place now, I still can’t look in a mirror without feeling that familiar chill of repulsion shuddering down my spine.
All this meant that, by my early twenties,I basically withdrew from society because I couldn’t deal with how others reacted to my body, how I thought they would reject me because of it. I became resigned to doing life on my own, even convinced myself that I was okay with it, learning to dine alone, go to movies alone, move apartments alone. I told myself I was “independent” and didn’t need people; I was a misanthrope, an introvert, a writer who would rather spend my time reading than being social. I wasn’t a naturally gregarious person, anyway, so it didn’t matter if I didn’t talk to anyone that day.
Part of healing included breaking down these lies I’d come to believe about myself. As I gradually opened up to the world, venturing out to meet people, make friends, and learn how much I enjoyed human company, I started to feel the lonely pangs of my singleness, a feeling that had existed before but hadn’t lit up as pain. I still couldn’t think about dating, though, or let myself dwell on my singleness because I had other things to worry about first — becoming financially stable, selling my book, bringing my dog out to Brooklyn from L.A.. It wasn’t difficult, not when I’d already gone fifteen years assuming I’d be single and alone forever — until, one night in 2019, I’m having dinner with a friend and look up to see a stranger making a loop around the room, and I think, well, shit, you’re fucking cute, and, then, there’s Taylor Swift, singing about love in catchy melodies that keep worming their way into my brain and my heart.
I don’t wanna look at anyone else now that I saw you
I don’t wanna think of anything else now that I thought of you
“Daylight,” Lover (2019)
The first time we see each other, it’s from across the room. She’s chatting with someone, and I happen to look up from my conversation when our eyes briefly meet, brushing gazes before returning to the person alongside us. It’s a glancing moment, inconsequential really, so I’m surprised by the electricity that runs through me, that spark of curiosity and wonder. I like the way she looks, the way she smiles, and I don’t know what this feeling is.
We’re never introduced formally, but our paths cross often enough that we learn who we are. I promptly follow her on social media, trying to glean what I can of who she is outside of her profession — she cooks professionally and makes gimbap — but she posts so sporadically, there isn’t much to learn. It’ll be months before we speak, months I’ll spend admiring her from a distance while avoiding her because, as I learn, I become neurotically shy when it comes to feelings. I throw myself in her line of vision as often as I can, even though I can’t get myself to make eye contact or say hello or initiate conversation, which frustrates the hell out of me because, at this point, it isn’t even that I want to date her — I just want to talk and get to know her. I want to know if we’d be compatible, if we share the same sense of humor, if she rolls her toilet paper from the top or bottom, if she eats the correct brand of Chocopie, if this, if that, if everything.
In the beginning, it’s enough to know that she is there, to have someone I even want to get to know. Her existence is enough, a kind of hope that I’m not totally dead inside, that maybe I, too, can experience the things that Taylor Swift sings about, from the magic of that first meet to longing for someone who’s in love with someone else all the way to heartbreak and healing and starting the cycle over again.
On Valentine’s Day, she follows me back on social media, and I wonder why as I stare at the notification on my phone. I think, maybe, we could start to move beyond perfunctory, polite small talk if our paths continue to criss-cross in the future, but we don’t. I’m too afraid to try because what if she isn’t interested, what if she thinks I’m annoying, but, then again, what if she is interested and then she finds out how inexperienced I am, how much I’m flailing as a grown person, how bad my brain is? What if we talk, and we learn we wouldn’t even be friends? And, then, underneath all that, how sad is all my pining for a stranger I don’t even know, how creepy, how pathetic, when I could just approach her and say, Hi, can we get a cup of coffee, I’d like to get to know you?
As the months stretch on and we continue to orbit each other, the silences get louder, the neuroses in my brain deafening, and, in frustration, I turn to making gimbap, posting photos of my progress to Instagram in an attempt to say, Hi, I’m here, look what I’ve been up to.
Is the end of all the endings? My broken bones are mending
with all these nights we’re spending up on the roof with a school girl crush
“King of my Heart,” Reputation (2017)
In her documentary, Miss Americana, Taylor Swift says that she didn’t eat a burrito until she was twenty-six. That’s the main thing that sticks with me from the documentary, not because it surprises me (Taylor Swift is a white American who was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Nashville), but because it fills me with a different wonder. Who first introduced her to a burrito? What else has she not eaten? What will she never have the opportunity to eat — like will she ever try gaejang or pork chop over rice or pork sisig? Maybe she’s had egg rolls, given the pervasiveness of Chinese American food, but what about spring rolls or lumpia shanghai? Has she had kimchi mandu? Pork buns? Pho? Has anyone made her gimbap?
Until 2019, I was fairly ambivalent about Taylor Swift. I was more cognizant of her than I was any other Western celebrity, but most of my curiosity about her centered around her personal branding, her ability to craft and embody her public persona and narrative so thoroughly. I was skeptical of so much she did — the Christmas gifts to her fans, the private listening sessions, her effusive concert monologues — because it all seemed too calculated, though that kind of image control is part and parcel of celebrity. Maybe it was Swift’s naked eagerness, her desire to be liked that got to me. I don’t know what flipped the switch in my brain, but, in 2020, deep into my crush in the midst of the pandemic, I had to say it out loud: I loved Taylor Swift. I even liked her because of her desire to be liked, her chameleon-like ability to adapt when others tried to throw her off her narrative, her doggedness to shine and remain at the top.
When Taylor Swift sings about love and desire, I think, I wish I knew how that felt. I wish I didn’t feel so half-formed, so stunted, and I admire Swift’s songwriting, her ability to tap into feelings that are universal even if I’ve never experienced them in the same way. The emotional core of her songs resonates, even if the story she’s telling in her lyrics has a specificity only she knows, and I wish I could put all my feelings into a song and send that out into the world to speak for me.
I can’t write songs, though, but I have food. I’ve been cooking for many, many years, mostly for myself because cooking has been the best way to manage my depressive, anxious brain, as well as a way for me to build a relationship with food that wasn’t built on shame. The more I cooked, the more I was able to piece myself together, the more people I started to gather in my life, people who came to my tiny Brooklyn apartment over the years for my thirtieth birthday dinner, book clubs, writing sessions, hangouts, a gimjang I hosted in 2019. I cooked for all these gatherings — miyeokguk (seaweed soup), tall New York cheesecakes, Dutch pancakes with buttered apples, dahkdoreetang (spicy chicken stew), so much gimbap. I started thinking of new combinations to try — like, could I take the elements of a bánh mì and put that into a gimbap, what about curry katsu, how would this combination taste, what about that? As I continued to roll gimbap for friends and family, I started to think that this, here, was my love song.
Taking photographs and sharing them on social media, too, have become a kind of love song, a way of one-sided communication that has to suffice, fill in for my longing to say, here, let me care for you. I know she’s there on social media, that she’s silently watching, but I don’t know how to coax her out. All I know is to keep trying to show myself as genuinely as I can, lay myself bare in my vulnerabilities, and hope she sees me.
Say it’s been a long six months
and you were too afraid to tell her what you want
That’s how it works
That’s how you get the girl
“How You Get the Girl,” 1989 (2014)
Gimbap literally translates into seaweed (gim) rice (bap). Traditionally, in gimbap, you find a “main” protein, an egg omelette, danmuji, and an assortment of vegetables like blanched spinach, julienned carrots, and cucumbers. Gimbap is made for field trips, road trips, casual gatherings, and it’s typically for larger groups because gimbap requires a lot of work — each filling has to be made individually then each gimbap rolled — and that amount of labor is mostly worth it when you’ve got lots of mouths to feed.
Gimbap-making itself is an act of love — or, at least, if we are to try to avoid such sentimental generalizations, an act of care. Gimbap has so many parts, so, when I make gimbap for someone, it’s a way of saying that I love you, I care for you, here, I have made this roll of rice wrapped with seaweed and stuffed with things, all to make the perfect bite, just for you.
Gimbap, thus, became a secret language, a way for me to communicate with her through the internet. We’ve spoken briefly a few times in person before the pandemic shut everything down and I start spending months back in Los Angeles, and I know she’s there on social media, dropping in for whatever reason as a silent observer, no likes, no comments, no DMs. Occasionally,I try to chat with her, but she’s slippery and evasive, friendly enough to make me think she’s just shy, but elusive enough that I’m filled with self-doubt every time she doesn’t leave room for a conversation. Instead, with no other means of speaking, I fill the spaces of our silences with photos of gimbap.
I guess you never know, never know
and it’s another day waking up alone
“the 1,” folklore (2020)
I want to tell her everything — how I made gimbap with eomook (pressed fish cake) and liked it even though I haven’t historically liked eomook, how I tried making a riff of samgyupsahl ssam (pork belly wraps) in gimbap form that confused my dad, how I save little scraps of egg to give to my dogs. I want to talk to her about how I love being in LA with my dogs but feel so alone and isolated out in California, how I would stay put in Brooklyn if I had someone here to ground me. I want to tell her I worry about her, especially in these times with the pandemic and anti-Asian hate crimes, but it doesn’t seem like my place, so I stay silent.
I can’t get a read on her, on our ambiguous interactions, but I want to ask how she’s doing, if she’s okay, if her days are passing uneventfully. I want to know if she goes home to someone, has someone who’ll help carry her burdens and fears, and then there are all the neurotic questions — why does she follow me on social media if she won’t engage with me? Is she ever only kind out of politeness? Have I annoyed her with my presence and would she like me to go away?
She has so much access to me, to my day-to-day, to my fears and insecurities and vulnerabilities given my constant over-sharing on the internet, but I know so little about her. I feel that it is up to her to initiate. All it would take is a reply to a story, a DM, something simple and casual that gives me an in because I’ve tried when I could, tried to coax her into a casual conversation, tried to make things more personal, but she’s always polite and then she falls away. There’s never room for more, so I scuttle back, keep my feelings to myself.
I wonder how Taylor Swift would sing about this. Are my hesitation and confusion, this fear that makes me want to die, things she would understand? How would she capture this longing, this want, this desperation not to be invisible? What is the story she would tell in this song? Would it make me feel less alone, less crazy-brained and pathetic, if she could package up my loneliness and longing in a catchy, heartfelt song I can try to learn on guitar?
I’ll spend forever wondering if you knew
I was enchanted to meet you
“Enchanted,” Speak Now (2010)
The cycle goes like this — I pine for a few weeks, hating every time she pops up in my dreams and on my social media feed and in my life. I keep waiting to find out she’s dating some basic dude. I roll gimbap, share photos online, until the pining reaches a tipping point, and I slide into self-loathing and spend the next few weeks trying to remove her from my brain.
I roll more gimbap, share more photos, but as I think I’m moving along nicely, our paths cross again, and I’m thrown back to the top of the cycle, back to grumbling over how I wish we could at least be friends. If not that, then, could I get some kind of closure, no more of this oscillating between hope and despair?
I’m not brave enough for that kind of finality yet, so instead, I wash two more cups of rice. I prep my fillings, season my rice, get my seaweed sheets from the freezer. And, then, as always, when I’m ready to roll, I cue up my Taylor Swift playlist on my phone, and I shove my feelings to the side, lose myself in the rote motions of filling and rolling gimbap, and wonder if Taylor Swift would eat this, if she would prefer gimbap with bulgogi or Spam or tuna, if she would like any of it at all.