It’s not just that Koreans are big meat eaters – which, yes, includes dog stew – it’s the extreme reaction to someone who doesn’t eat meat. I was often greeted with a blank stare, followed by a twist of the head and then a steely-eyed glare. Sometimes I would be asked ‘why not?’ ‘do you have an illness?’ By illness, I suspect they meant allergy. Eventually, I would fib and say ‘yeah, it’s like an allergy’ just for peace of mind. As a vegetarian who lived in Seoul between 1995 and 1998, I can relate to Han Kang’s award-winning novel, The Vegetarian, set in Seoul in the early 2000s.
That’s not to say there aren’t any vegetarian dishes in Korea – the national dish, Kimchi, which can be eaten at breakfast, lunch or dinner is basically pickled cabbage and peppers. But too often at restaurants in Seoul, I would order a vegetarian side dish like kimchi but as a main dish, only to have it served with meat. I lost count of the number of times I’d ask for a vegetable soup, which would be placed in front of me with strips of beef surfacing to the top like pieces of driftwood. It turned out that the chef, seeing the white woman, assumed that I hadn’t realised that I hadn’t ordered any meat and had decided to do me a great favour. On occasion, a colleague would go into Korean on my behalf to explain to the baffled locals that I simply didn’t eat meat. At the time, there was no word in Korean for ‘vegetarian.’
In Kang’s novel, a young Korean married woman is terrified by a dream that causes her to become a vegetarian. Yeong-Hye’s conversion to vegetarianism isn’t depicted in anecdotes about the life of a vegetarian in Korea. This is a much more serious and complex story, where becoming a vegetarian, scandalous to her family, triggers a string of events that are dark, violent, sexual and surreal. The writing beautifully describes these consequences in patterns that develop into motifs and metaphors.
But the problem with Yeong-Hye isn’t so much her vegetarianism as it is her mental illness, even though the two are linked by the other characters. Once she is put into a mental institution, her husband leaves her. The reader is put into a position of wondering if the family’s reactions to Yeong-Hye’s eccentricities are what created her madness. This suspicion is heightened when her brother-in-law, a conceptual artist, also pays for his individuality and a brief extra-marital encounter with an arrest and an attempt to have him institutionalised.
Though it was a couple of decades ago, I do recall (and probably wrote about) a conversation I had with one of my Korean colleagues who spent many years in America. He explained to me that unlike Americans, Koreans do not celebrate the individual, the person who is too different. He said, ‘Same is good for us. Maybe…’ Korean’s use maybe a lot…’Maybe it is safe that way.’ Safe from what exactly was never explained, and after nearly three years there, I never figured it out.
For me these challenges to the individual were intimated in Kang’s novel, though another reader could legitimately see it as a struggle between traditional beliefs and a modern-reaching society.
Reminiscing about my time in Korea and coping with being a vegetarian there, I’m reminded of the ironic fact that one of the best restaurants in Seoul was the vegetarian one – the only one in those days. Run by a group of Buddhist monks, it was technically speaking vegan. The food was served on wooden platters with bamboo utensils to customers seated cross-legged on floor cushions. Writing about it now, I can smell the gentle aromas. If you find yourself in Seoul, the restaurant is Sanchon in Insa-dong.