In 2012, 35-year-old Christine Yi’s life was, on paper, a “success.” She’d raised $4 million at her hedge fund job in less than three years and was married to a man that her traditional Korean-American parents approved of, largely due to his prestigious family and job. But Yi was completely miserable.
“There was no joy in my everyday life,” she shares. “It was a stressful job, and I didn’t see my husband a lot anymore. I don’t know what changed…what we both wanted in life wasn’t the same anymore. But it wasn’t just my marriage that was unhappy — it was my whole life.”
But Yi wasn’t truly ready to start fighting for a happier life until her older sister, Joy, was diagnosed with breast cancer later that year. “I was hysterically crying and so scared,” she says, recalling the moment in vivid detail. “But she was calm. She just said, ‘I’m going to be fine. But every time I call you, you’re unhappy. Life is just too short — I want you to be happy.’”
That phone call jump-started a series of massive changes in Yi’s life, and thankfully, her sister went into remission the next year.
After leaving her husband, Yi quit her job. But surprisingly, the biggest change in her life ended up coming via her phone. “The turning point of leaving my job was when I gave back my BlackBerry and got an iPhone,” says Yi, who remembers playing around with the phone, learning how to use it one night at drinks with a friend. Her friend later asked her, “What do you want to do?” Her answer was simple: “to eat well and be happy.”
The friend suggested she download Instagram, because fashion people were posting for a living and she believed food wouldn’t be far behind (she was right). That push was the catalyst that propelled her Yi’s eventual job as Instagrammer influencer, known as @cy_eats, and purveyor of chili oil that she makes with her now-husband, James.
But the followers didn’t come immediately. Yi’s first post was an admittedly “terrible photo” of a scallop dish (her favorite) from the now-closed Tamarind restaurant in New York City. And for the first couple of years, she was just posting for fun. It wasn’t until a break-up with an Instagram-obsessed boyfriend that she started to seriously consider the app as a career. He had about five times the followers she did — in 2014, that was 5,000 to her 1,000 — and in her eyes, “the best revenge was becoming the best Instagrammer ever.”
“I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I loved food and wanted to focus on food. I started posting four or five times a day and people liked it,” she says. “[Publications] started reposting me, and I’d gained hundreds of followers overnight. In a year, I hit 100,000 followers. That’s how much I was posting and eating.”
But Yi admits she wasn’t being fully true to herself at the start. Her strategy then was to be mainstream, which meant posting burgers and mac & cheese — American food that would garner mass appeal, even if it wasn’t what she herself would normally eat. “I wish I was more authentic during those years when I was moving and growing really fast,” she says. Still, there was one crucial, self-imposed rule she always lived by: “Unlike others, I always eat the food that I post. I’ve always made sure to be genuine and authentic about food that was actually good.”
Even though Yi’s followers were growing, her checking account wasn’t. After quitting her finance job, she hadn’t made a single penny from her social media presence, and was living off of money she’d saved up while working in finance. “It was very disconcerting for my family,” Yi says. “I was told so many times by my mother: ‘You’re lucky your father [who passed away several years earlier] isn’t alive to witness this.’ My mom was the most stressed for me. She wanted to help but didn’t know how, so just called and asked if I was ‘looking for a job.’”
Yi tried to explain Instagram to her (and in Korean, too), but her mother’s response was always, “How and when will you make money?”
“Korean parents can be very traditional,” says Yi, “and I had just come out of a traditional, successful money-making job and a successful marriage — at least financially — so everything fell on deaf ears. The calls started coming once or twice a day and it would just be [my mom] crying. To hear your mom sobbing because she’s just so worried about you is so heartbreaking.”
So, in 2015, Yi gave herself a deadline. If she didn’t make a single dollar in two years, she would find a “traditional” job. But in the meantime, her full-time job, for all intents and purposes, was to eat and to post photos. She was part of a budding food Instagrammer community, and together, they would meet regularly and celebrate one another’s accomplishments. And yet, she still didn’t feel like she belonged. There was the lack of diversity — she was the only non-white person with a larger following — but there was also the difference in age, which she felt the most.
“The others were all really young. I was 38 turning 39 in 2015, and everyone else was in their 20s, graduating college, or 30,” she says. “Most people had jobs and did this on the side, but thankfully, I had a ton of savings from my old job — but I needed to make money, because it wasn’t going to last forever.”
After almost exactly two years she made that promise to herself, at the tail end of 2017, Yi got her first paid job through Instagram. “It was $39,” she says with a laugh. “But it went really fast after that. I got another job for $500, $1,000, $5,000, and once you do one paid thing, it starts to snowball into huge opportunities. I went from making $39 in 2017 to $59,000 in 2018. That’s when I thought, I could really do this for a living.”
Still, it wasn’t completely official for her until she got her mother’s seal of approval, which happened in November 2018 in San Francisco, where her family lived. Yi was invited by a PR company to try a Peruvian restaurant, and she brought her mom as a date. The general manager escorted them, led them to a beautiful table with a view of the Bay Bridge, and the chef prepared a special menu for them.
“My mom was living for this, being treated like royalty. They even let us take boxes of food home when my mom asked to bring some back to the family,” she recalls. “She was so excited. By the end of the meal, she said, ‘I don’t understand what you do, but today it felt like you’re obviously doing something right.’ The concerned phone calls stopped in 2018. Now, she’s proud of me. The only person I want to make proud is my mom.”
At this point, Yi felt she was truly living her own life to its fullest — emotionally and physically. “I was making up for lost time,” she says. “I spent so many years of my life wanting to live my life but not allowing myself to. Now, I’ve found true happiness.”
And authentically, too — which is now reflected in her posts. After years of snapping “mainstream” food content, Yi reverted back to her roots in 2018, posting dishes that she enjoys the most, like homemade Korean food, dumplings, and noodles. “The people who are most responsive and enthusiastic and curious are mostly AAPI,” says Yi, though she’s quick to shout-out other cultures as well who resonate with her content. “It’s heartwarming to be able to bond because of cultural commonalities.”
Although Yi has an upbeat personality that makes you feel like you’ve known her for years, that’s not the only reason for sunny outlook on life. In 2003, she was involved in a subway accident so traumatic that she can’t remember a moment of it. She lost her balance and fell into the tracks, and the subway ran her over. She had to have her right leg amputated and replaced with a prosthetic, and the only reason she lived was because someone pulled the emergency brake on the train. After the accident, she found her strength through the strong community surrounding her. “I had 200 people in the lobby coming to see me in the emergency room, and friends just came to make me laugh. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by so many good people in my life.”
The aftermath gave her a new perspective — but it didn’t come quickly. Her recovery was difficult, and it took her almost three years to learn how to walk again. “I had a chance to live again,” she says, “and I took it.”
That wasn’t the only time that Yi chanced death. Last October, she went into cardiac arrest out of nowhere. Her heart stopped and she dropped to the sidewalk. She still doesn’t know what caused it, but she was revived by a defibrillator in the ambulance after CPR on the scene didn’t work. To put it simply, Yi says, “I died and was brought back to life.”
This marked Yi’s third chance at life, after starting a new career in her late 30s, surviving her subway accident, and leaving her stable job and ex-husband. And the entire experience — her cardiac arrest, the pandemic, and the past seven months of recovery — has made her appreciate her entire support system: her family, her now-husband James, her close friends, and her community on Instagram.
“I’ve lived,” she says, emphatically. “I needed to get rid of those unhappy parts of my life to find what I needed to do to live well. I have trouble falling asleep because I’m so excited for the next day, and I wake up at the crack of dawn with a smile every single day, because I’m so happy to be alive.” And, most importantly, to see what she should eat next.
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