When I decided to make the move from the US to South Korea, I knew I would have to adapt to the country’s culture in many unforeseen and unanticipated ways. One area where I hoped I would not have to compromise was in my vegetarian diet. It took no more than a plane ride to Incheon to foreshadow future food-versus-culture related problems.
On the ride, the seat next to me was occupied by an old Korean man who proclaimed he was also a vegetarian. I was therefore surprised and confused when several hours later he ate a beef-filled roll without hesitation.
As I thought about why a kind and seemingly open Korean man would “lie” about his choice of cuisine, I soon discovered the difference between an American understanding of vegetarianism and that of a Korean.
After several painful weeks of struggling against language barriers and cultural clashes concerning what constitutes good-eating, I discovered an entire subculture of vegetarians on Jeju who had stories of their own and better yet, suggestions for where to get satisfying and healthy vegetarian food.
Rebekah Lesher, a Veggie Meat Up member, joked about her experiences.
“When ordering kimbap, we would ask for no meat, but it would still come with ham. ‘It’s not meat right?’” she said. “Or after asking for recommendations on vegetarian food, we’d still end up eating meat without knowing it.”
The Veggie Meat Up group, started by an EPIK teacher from Canada, is now maintained by seven administrators on an active Facebook group page with over 60 members. Many more have heard of the group by word of mouth or through the Yahoo group Rhymes with Jeju.
My vegetarian friend Anja Mondragon and I went to our first Veggie Meat Up lunch to find a room packed with foreigners and a few Koreans with similar dietary needs, who were enjoying vegan sujaebi, a delicious and filling soup made of green tea noodles and perilla seed cream. We were able to exchange stories of horror and hilarity as well as an excellent meal.
One of the current organizers of the group, Cerise Andrews, commented, “The Meat Up isn’t as much about the food at the time, but is more of an opportunity to share about food and restaurants.” Getting together to eat is wonderful, but it isn’t always practical for people because of conflicting schedules. Therefore the group functions largely by a “teach a man to fish” approach, introducing people to restaurants and exchanging recipe ideas rather than just sharing an isolated meal one day out of the month.
Of course, the Veggie Meat Up is not the only means to meet with veg-lovers on Jeju.
While feasting on a homemade vegan bean dip, Anja, Alex Lepinski, and I sat in Anja’s apartment musing over how we have more support here because of our sizable vegetarian network.
“Being a vegetarian here is much more of a conscious thing. It’s much more openly discussed,” Alex said, as I questioned her. She explained that in Canada there are a plethora of options available at grocery stores and many restaurants, so the point of her vegetarianism didn’t need to be brought up as much.
Reflecting on the tension between the Korean meat-oriented culture and the choice to remain vegetarian here, Anja commented that she sometimes felt left out when Korean friends and co-workers went out to eat.
“Food is a bonding experience,” she said.
Though another small aspect of cultural separation between imported English teachers and Koreans, vegetarianism has proven to be a unifying point for some foreigners who arrive as complete strangers, but quickly find common ground over soy beans and salad.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
All materials on this site are protected under the Korean Copyright Law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published without the prior consent of Jeju Weekly.
Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org | Phone: +82-64-724-7776 Fax: +82-64-724-7796
#503, 36-1, Seogwang-ro, Jeju-si, Jeju-do, Korea, 63148
Registration Number: Jeju Da 01093 | Date of Registration: November 20, 2008 | Publisher: Hee Tak Ko | Youth policy: Hee Tak Ko
Copyright ⓒ 2009 All materials on this site are protected under the Korean Copyright Law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published
without the prior consent of jeju weekly.com.