My first experience with how things work in Korea was late in the afternoon on the Friday before my scheduled 7am Monday morning flight to Seoul, when I sat on a bench in the Korean consulate in Toronto staring at the consulate officials and willing them to process my visa in the final hour before closing time. Of course, I had received the necessary paperwork from my school on the Tuesday of that same week and gone immediately to Toronto, only to be told by the consulate that they would take a week to process the visa, and then ordered by my school to make my Monday flight. But anyway, after sitting for an hour staring at the officials in a most uncharacteristically Canadian, but actually very Korean show of ‘I’m not giving up until you do this for me damn it!’ manner, they finally agreed to process my visa and sent me to the ‘library’ so they didn’t have to deal with my evil eye stares. It was there that I read a book on the history of kimchi and learned not only that I was going to have to love this fermented and spicy cabbage if I was going to live for an extended period of time in Korea, but that I was also going to have to accept the fact that most forms of kimchi are made with some form of fish paste or fish sauce. I didn’t know at the time about temple restaurants or white radish kimchi that is not typically made with fish, and I didn’t know about different regional recipes, some of which rely less on fish as an ingredient, but sitting in that consulate library just days away from my now certain departure date, I had my first realization that being a vegetarian in a country where you do not speak the language or have a vast knowledge of the local cuisine was going to be more challenging than I had initially thought.
I was lucky in that my first job in Korea was at a large adult institute with about 25 Westerners at our branch, most of who had been in Korea for a year or more and could help me to navigate around some of the food intricacies. One co-worker immediately started taking me out for meals and writing down dishes she thought I could eat. A few months later, R, a fellow Canadian veggie, arrived at work, and we quickly became friends and we explored the city and our food options together. However, a few additional issues I had never ever considered quickly came to light. For instance, when something says ‘vegetable’ ie. ‘vegetable bread,’ ‘vegetable kimbab,’ ‘vegetable pizza,’ it does not mean that it is vegetarian. It simply means that it has more vegetables than other similar menu choices. I learned this pretty quickly, but in the early years, I was constantly having to educate other well meaning but nonvegetarian and thus veggie-clueless people who would order food for the group. This problem was compounded by the fact that, when rolled in kimbab, a California roll, a piece of Korean ‘bread’, as part of a sandwich, or some other sort of concoction, egg, fried tofu, and fish cake all look exactly the same. So there were countless times when someone would say, ‘I brought you a vegetable_______’, and I would bite into it only to find that the egg/tofu was really fish.
Another rather large challenge for vegetarians from the West is that there is no all-encompassing word for ‘meat’ in Korean (there isn’t in English either, but there’s a general cultural understanding that animal flesh=meat). ‘Gogi’ means ‘meat,’ but linguistically it is used to say ‘cow-meat,’ ‘pig-meat,’ ‘fish-meat.’ But words like ‘ham’ (actually SPAM), ‘sausage,’ ‘squid,’ ‘clam,’ do not include that very important ‘gogi’ in Korean; thus, I have had endless conversations that go like this (in English or Korean) ‘Please have some’ (a lovely person giving me some kimbab with a piece of SPAM in it). ‘Thank you so much, but I don’t eat meat.’ (confused look) ‘But there’s no meat. It is ham kimbab.’ ‘Yes, ham is meat.’ ‘No, ham is not meat.’ ‘It comes from a dead animal.’ ‘Oh really? Yes…I guess it does.’ The problem is further compounded by the fact that Koreans love to put meat in things Westerners would never ever imagine meat would end up….like bread…I can’t count how many times lovely wonderful people have bought me rolls, baguettes, or bread type items (cause I’m a Westerner, I must want bread right?) which had tiny pieces of SPAM, chicken, or minced pork in them. (And one time in Japan, I found a piece of ham in a baked potato). None of these things are inherently wrong on the Korean side, it’s just that there’s a learning process that often has nothing to do with language, but rather has to do with learning how other cultures perceive food, ingredients, or even the interpretation of your own food. And of course also in the Korean context, so many English words have been incorporated into Korean, but are used differently than native English speakers might use them; thus, the vegetable/vegetarian distinction that is important to know.
Then, there’s cultural aspects to take into consideration. Western and Korean concepts of service seem to be looking glass opposites of each other. Most North Americans complain endlessly about North American service on airplanes, especially after experiencing Asian airlines, and one of the most glorious things in Korea is finding out you have some sort of home/computer/car etc problem on a Sunday night, and then being about the find someone or someplace to fix it for you on the spot. But then when it comes to service in many restaurants, the opposite is true. Korean restaurants love set menus…and they are…set. Recipes are…set. And this is especially true when the server (often the owner in a small restaurant), is older than you. No, it would not be easier to omit the spoon of ground beef on your bibimbap, it would be harder…it would take an extra 10 minutes instead of saving time, it wouldn’t taste right, it wouldn’t be right, or it’s simply not possible. Part of the cultural disconnect here is that communal culture extends to what you eat and how you eat. When you go out with your Korean team, the boss decides what everyone is eating, and then everyone eats that meal. There’s no individual ordering, and often there’s no individual plate. Everyone is eating off the same grill, out of the same bowl, off of the same plate. There might be different kinds of fish, or different side dishes, or different cuts of meat, so it is possible to avoid something you don’t really care for, but it’s not possible to avoid the meal and choose something different altogether. Of course, this is changing a bit with the introduction of more Western restaurants and a growing trend toward choice, but still, when I go out for Western/Indian food with students or a group made up of predominately Koreans, they are ordering individual plates to be shared together, and everyone is eating that food collectively.
So back to how this relates to vegetarians, there is less of a concept of individual likes or dislikes…or at least a lack of ability for younger people especially to be able to express these likes, dislikes, food issues with people who are older (including servers/restaurant proprietors). Even when the sever is younger, they have to go back to the older cook who may disregard their menu item changes, and thus, because the job and the Korean manager are more important than the crazy Western one-time customer, they would rather deal with the wrath of the Westerner trying to express herself in broken and hilarious Korean.
But even when it is a Korean doing the ordering…and on older man doing the ordering, they themselves have to learn how to be more explicit, more demanding, more forceful. Mr. Lee had several occasions at first where he would order something for me and say, ‘no gogi’ only to get something with fish eggs or shrimp in it because those aren’t ‘gogi.’ And my father in law, during his 70th birthday party (a big deal here in Korea), tried to order bibim naengmyun for me without the piece of meat on top (it was a galbi restaurant), and was shocked when the server totally disregarded his 70 year old male order and brought….a bowl with a piece of meat on top. After that I felt a bit better actually, like it wasn’t just my Korean skills or my face…it was just a different culture of understanding meat, ingredients, service, and choice.
But it’s not all bad. I used to go to the local Kimbab Cheonguk (a ‘Korean diner’ chain), near my first work, and after one time of telling the kimbab rolling woman that I wanted a ‘ham kimbab without the ham,’ she totally got it, and by the 5th time, she started rolling my own kimbab as soon as I would walk in the door (ordering a vegetable kimbab would have gotten me a ham kimbab with lukewarm mayonnaise, and the other options were beef, tuna, or kimchi, kimbab, the later which also had SPAM). Her co-worker, a woman I suspect to be a bit dim on the best of days, could not, after two years, understand ham without ham. I would stand beside her constantly reminding her or telling her to take the SPAM off after reminding her….and still, she would make mistakes EVERY SINGLE TIME even with the good kimbab woman coming over to yell at her. But the good kimbab woman was my primary kimbab maker, and she would always put an extra piece of egg on the roll for me. It’s the same with my current work, and the woman who makes my egg, cheese, and ham sandwich with an extra piece of egg instead of ham for me. She sees me coming, and those two pieces of egg go on the grill. She’s my sandwich angel. And that’s not to mention my Korean family who have also been ridiculously supportive. My mother in law makes special soup for the holidays just for me without any beef broth. My brother in law’s wife always has something set aside in a Tupperware container just for me. My father in law lightly chides me to eat bbq pork and then happily pops the piece into his own mouth. And everyone always passes down the salad or veggie side dishes to my side of the table.
The other benefit of living here is that while nobody understands the why of being a vegetarian, they mostly accept it as a ‘weird foreign thing.’ I’m sure the fact that I am white-Canadian-weird not another ethnicity/race-weird helps a bit, but there is some understanding that other cultures have other practices, and people should be kinda/sorta okay with that. I’ve never experienced any real backlash to my vegetarianism from Koreans although I’ve been badgered, scorned, and ridiculed by countless Westerners, especially men. Two specific individuals at my first job here used to make some sort of bacon/sausage/pork/living cow/whatever joke EVERY SINGLE MORNING as we started work at 6:50am. And when I say ‘joke’ I mean ‘mean spirited or ridiculing comment.’ There is also, from certain individuals, (again, almost always males), a need to change my eating habits through force, and thus win the ‘right’ to say that they have made me a meat eater again. I’ve never experienced this in Korea from an eating perspective (drinking is another matter). I suppose that’s partly because group pressure is less direct and relies more on playing on the guilt of the person not participating in the activity (eating, drinking, etc) and fear of ostracization. Being an ‘outsider,’ I care less about not being part of a group through eating meat together, and of course there are fewer consequences when it comes to not following the group’s lead.
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