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A Lesson in Waiting


Being in limbo is a rough place to find myself. I’m anxious. “How long before they’re ready?” I wonder, gazing at the jars. I think back to my explorations in South Korea, and my mouth waters in anticipation. The longed-for taste of spicy fermented leaves with hot rice ushers me back into the pantry. I patrol the shelves, watching my cabbages, artichokes, cucumbers resting in liquid. I squint to detect signs of fizz, to observe the vegetables marinating slowly.


All I can do is sit tight. And the doing nothing is affecting my body. My muscles are sore. Every evening a headache makes its way from the back of my eyes to the bottom of my neck. I can’t fall asleep. When I want the days to speed through, insomnia is a dreadful burden. The sun sets, I finish dinner, I watch the stars…and then count out the seconds staring at my ceiling. I’m exhausted, but my mind keeps spinning in jumbled directions. My thoughts circle around me and my problems. What will life be like after this? Is everyone else feeling the same way? Should I stock up on flour, salt, potatoes? Who else can I talk to about the isolation?

What is it about waiting, interminable waiting, that is so unbearable to the human persona? We devise ways to perform faster, short cuts for every aspect of life. There’s new slang to hurry our communication along, to indicate our unwillingness to listen to one another. Programmers concoct various icons to mitigate our annoyance regarding download, upload, and processing speeds. Retailers clamor to placate our desire to possess an object at the very instant we lay eyes on it…or even as we’re imagining we want it.


We’ve forgotten the joys that come from postponed gratification. The sweetness of anticipation before festivities. The pleasure in recognizing hard work that goes into a beloved creation. The satisfaction of long hours spent in making something of value. Waiting is hard work to so many of us. It feels opposed to the constant push for productivity we’ve accepted as normal. Waiting plants us firmly in the universe’s reality and a great truth we cannot seem to swallow: life is uncertain. 

We love to make plans. We find it impossible to function without the illusion of predictability. “Tomorrow I will still be alive,” we lie to ourselves, “I will do those three things left on my list…next week I’ll call my mother…next year I’ll have lunch with my friend…”  


There’s another normal — not being able to imagine what happens after this moment. And there is no solution for that troubled space. Only the opportunity to search inside myself, to question my fears, to live in the waiting. Maybe there aren’t happier days ahead, maybe there are no future possibilities, no end to this continuity of…delay…of coping. I have to learn how to adapt to that.

So I sit with this time, with the loss of certitude, with the sorrow that comes out of change. I keep working on my capacity for patience and gratitude…now…and now…and now. I wait…for the pickling to mature. I steep in my discomfort…and I return to watch over my containers of cabbage, artichokes, and cucumbers as they gradually brine. In these vessels, perhaps, are the rewards of my indolence.


Serves  2 quarts  Prep Time: 3 hours


2 pounds (1 kg) Napa cabbage  

¼ cup (62 grams) salt (with no iodine)

6 quarts (5.7 liters) non-chlorinated water 

8 ounces (200 grams) radish, peeled and diced

1 teaspoon (2 grams) grated ginger 

6 garlic cloves grated

5 tablespoons (25 grams) chili pepper flakes

3 tablespoons (40 mL) distilled water

1 teaspoon (4 grams) granulated sugar

¾ teaspoon (3.75 grams) kelp powder *

1 medium bunch scallions, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces


  1. Rinse cabbage thoroughly. Cut lengthwise into quarters. Remove the core. Slice each quarter into 2-inch wide strips (5 centimeters). Deposit cut cabbage in a bowl and add the non-iodized (iodine will prevent fermentation) salt. Massage the salt into the cabbage until the leaves begin to soften.
  2. Cover the cabbage with non-chlorinated (chlorine prevents fermentation) water. Rest a plate over the bowl in order to keep the cabbage pieces submerged in the water, if necessary.
  3. Take out the cabbage after 2 hours, keeping the leftover brine water. Thoroughly rinse the cabbage and allow it to drain for 30 minutes.
  4. In a separate bowl mix garlic, ginger, chili flakes, sugar, kelp powder, and the 3 tablespoons of distilled water until they form a paste. Smear the paste over the drained cabbage, cut scallions, and diced radish, making sure to coat well. 
  5. Pack your mixture into a lidded container, pressing down so that any excess liquid rises. Pour the leftover brine water into the vessel to cover the vegetables, if needed. Do not overfill. Leave a 2-inch (5 centimeters) space at the top for fermenting juices to release.
  6. Store the sealed kimchi jar in a safe place at room temperature for 3 days, after which you can check for bubble formation on the fluid’s surface. If there are none, check back after the 5th day. Ensure your kimchi stays properly submerged by gently pressing down on it with a spoon.
  7. Once bubbles appear, refrigerate your kimchi for 2 weeks. The longer you allow fermentation, the more full-bodied and complex the flavor. 
  8. Kimchi is traditionally served as a side dish or banchan (반찬; 飯饌) with meals. You can also eat it with rice, put it in soup, or enjoy it on its own. Kimchi can be safely preserved in the refrigerator for up to 5 months. 

* BT Tip: Kelp powder will add an umami flavor to your kimchi. You can substitute fish paste, if preferred.


107 replies »

  1. I find myself reading this post again – and I thoroughly enjoyed it this 2nd pass around. I feel the ache & challenge of waiting, no matter how necessary. And though months have passed, it still feels like we are still waiting, despite wanting so much to move on.

    Pickles are yet again a metaphor appropo to the day.

  2. Thank you for your honest & heart-wrenching reflection on waiting, pickles and life. It is a uncertain & crazy time and I hear you – it is challenging not to know what is on the other side, or when we will reach the other side (we were just talking yesterday, my little family, about when we could possibly make a car trip from Singapore to Ipoh to visit family).

    Kimchi is a staple – you have made me want to cook up short-grained rice just to have some.

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