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Truth & Diplomacy: Defending Veganism Without Offending the Locals in Rural South Korea

Photos Helen Feliciano-Bailey and Ahimsa Kerp Originally published in Driftwood Issue One

The smiling Korean grandmother handed me a bowl of steaming broth. Lacking a common language, she suggested slurping from the bowl. It was clear what she expected. It was equally clear that there were tentacles bobbing in the liquid. I didn’t have the Korean language skills to begin to explain why I couldn’t eat their soup, or their galbi, or even their kimchi (typically made with shrimp).

I came to visit because they lived close to the beautiful Jirisan mountain. My friend Jin had been telling me about his family’s place in the country, and it was a chance to visit Maedong, a town off the beaten trail. I ate some rice and wild mushrooms and was content, but his family did not understand. They continued to ask about me. I knew this because the word for foreigner—waygook—was repeatedly used.

Jin explained the best he could. The smile on his grandmother's face disappeared and she now looked sad, deflated. She and Jin's mother discussed it some, and though I didn’t understand the words, it was clear that neither was very happy. Eager to keep the peace, Jin asked me if I could just take the tentacles out.

"I can't do that," I said. I wondered if "can't" was the word I wanted to use. Perhaps I meant "don't." Or maybe the most accurate contraction I could summon was "won't."

Jin lost a bit of patience. “Come on, man.” It was hard for him to be caught in the middle, and I empathized. But I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t. All I could do was shrug. In the end, he explained to her that I was allergic to seafood. This interesting form of communication, this lying to tell the truth, is one that comes up the more you travel, and it suggests a lot about the nature of language. And of truth, of course.

We finished dinner without further mishap. I had Pringles and apples in my backpack, a cache of calories set aside for just this eventuality. The meal was far more awkward for them than for me; not being able to eat what someone else has cooked is hardly a novel experience for me. After dinner, talking to his family gave me insights into the Korean culture that my job teaching English to elementary school students could not. The decline in the Korean population worried them, especially as reunification with North Korea grew more likely. The modernization of South Korea was another interesting topic.

“Koreans have taken to the Western culture very quickly,” his mother said to me through Jin. It was a thought that struck me as laughable at first, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the trappings of the West, at least, are everywhere. Coffee shops are more than ubiquitous; they’re practically omnipresent. Large grocery stores, fast-food burger places, and Italian restaurants can be found anywhere in Seoul. The latest craze is churros, with dozens of people routinely queuing for their fried bread habit. The rich area of Seoul called Gangnam—made world-famous through the song which shall not be named—was even in the mid-’80s an undeveloped countryside.

All of this has come to Korea in the past 20 or 30 years.

I had quite a lot of time to think about this while climbing up part of a 300-kilometer pilgrimage trail named Jirisan Dulle-gil to a small mountain the next day. As South Korea is 70% mountainous, hiking typically means going uphill. On the way up the mountain, a steep, rocky trail that involved absolutely zero switchbacks, was an area with exercise equipment. Just in case you wanted to take a break from your sweaty hike to pump some iron. After a couple of semi-grueling hours' ascent, we reached the peak. It seemed like I was the only person sweating.

The view at the top was hard-earned and pleasant, if not strictly beautiful. We were greeted by a panorama of green pine trees and red maples and looming gray boulders, distant asphalt ribbons filled with tiny glittering cars, the matching neon jackets and pants and shoes of the other hikers. The sound of trekking poles and cicadas filled the air. Someone had carried up food—on their back—and was selling ice cream, ramen, and hardboiled eggs. Looking at the food reminded me of the night before.

I was still wondering what I could have done differently. There is an oft-cited school of thought that vegetarians and vegans must ignore their ethics when traveling abroad in order not to be rude. Some truth slumbers in this maxim—many of the people you meet and who invite you into their homes are much poorer and less educated than you. They have no idea why killing their healthiest chicken for you isn’t an honor. What’s more, in many places, factory farming doesn’t have nearly the presence it has in developed countries, deflating some of the righteousness from the choice of veganism.

It’s not an easy issue to be definitive about. Later, I would turn down invitations from families in Myanmar and Vietnam to avoid general awkwardness. If veganism is about compassion, it’s strangely counterproductive to risk offending or hurting the feelings of strangers in strange lands who have extended hospitality to you. Food, in so many countries, is about far more than taste; it is a social lubricant. To many, rejecting food with animal products is rejecting society itself. Rejecting kindness itself.

When asked about being a vegan now, I try to emphasize three things: my own health (this is the most difficult, as the health benefits of animals and their products are well ingrained in the minds of many people), the well-being of the animals (this is one people from some countries are blasé about, which reminds me that empathy toward animals, as with other core values, is a social construct), and the health of the world itself. It’s this last one, surprisingly to me, that most people concede to be true. Any one of those reasons, to me, is probably good enough to become vegan. The three together are resounding, though of course cultural and habitual forces are strong motivators.

I never make a fuss about other people’s habits or ethics. But while traveling through Scandinavia this past summer, I stayed with several people via CouchSurfing, friends, or friends of friends. In an effort to be a good guest, I volunteered to cook: things like banana pancakes in the morning, couscous and veggies for lunch, bell pepper fajitas for dinner. I have since found out that by simply stating my reasons and providing clear examples how easy it is to cook vegan, two of the people I stayed with became vegan. This was as unintentional as it was rewarding. A belated epiphany: People are more responsive when I am open about veganism rather than avoiding the topic. Though, of course, common culture and especially language plays a large role here as well. I found avoiding the topic altogether actually led to more awkwardness. I have developed a travel etiquette, which at first seemed counterintuitive, to be open about my reasons and commitment to being a vegan.

A vegan is one who often straddles that finest of lines, tolerant and empathetic but also undeviating morally.

Of course it’s not ideal when your decision ruins the night of your coworker’s grandmother, but ultimately her unhappiness is her decision, not yours. I hadn’t made these revelations yet back in Maedong. We climbed back down the mountain with shaky legs and got a ride into town, where we could catch a bus back to Seoul.

That was in 2012. Not long after, I left Korea to go on walkabout. I’ve recently returned and found an increasing number of vegan options while visiting Seoul. Just in the city itself, there are a half-dozen of everyone’s favorite Supreme Master cult restaurant, Loving Hut. A Korean-American has opened a restaurant called Plant in foreigner-heavy Itaewon, and the food is good if, to my eyes, small portioned and largely priced. The online shop iHerb will deliver things like nutritional yeast, quinoa, maple syrup, and Yogi teas. The Loving Hut restaurants have mini stores, which include vegan ramen, frozen mock meats, and dairy-free chocolate. And if you customize your order, bibimbap (without egg and sometimes ground beef) and veggie gimbap (without egg or Spam) are readily found almost everywhere.

Seoul is a big city and finding, either by accident or purposeful quest, a new vegan place can be an exciting discovery.

Make no mistake, South Korea is crazy for dead animals. If coworkers go out to eat, I can either munch on lettuce or go home and cook. Many former vegetarians and vegans eat meat here because they are unwilling or unable to renounce their social life. If you want to stay here for a year or more, you have to get crafty.

The adventure is in finding fresh produce, and it’s not going to be as easy as walking into a corner grocery store. Many North American favorites, like Daiya, tempeh, Vegenaise, fakon, and Tofurky are unavailable. (Of course, avoiding processed foods isn’t a bad idea.) My meals are veggie dominated, including mushrooms I haven’t seen anywhere else eaten with rice, udon, or pasta. Vegetables in supermarkets can be expensive, but in most neighborhoods you can find back alleys filled with little produce stalls. Many subway exits have impromptu markets as well. Best of all, trucks laden with melons or oranges or tomatoes roam the city and will happily stop and exchange tasty produce for your cash.

Compared to the wondrous restaurants in London or Austin or Portland, it sounds simple. It is simple. But that's what makes it so great. Here is a world where roasting garlic and juicing carrots and baking banana bread are truly exciting activities. Discovering a new café is occasion for joy. Live simply so that others may simply live, as the bumper sticker reads.

Now that I have been back in Korea for a few months, I am talking to Jin about returning to see his family. I have no wish to make them feel awkward again, but I have learned more about myself, more about the world since then. Should I return to their small mountain home, I will be more clear about my reasons and my ethics. More importantly, I will cook and bring something along with me—something like banana bread or oatmeal cookies. The adage of “show, don’t tell” isn’t just for writing, after all. And using food is another, more delicious, way to tell the truth.

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