Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Heading back “home” July 7, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — minneapoliseoul @ 4:25 pm

I’m an adopted Korean.  There are an estimated 150,000 of us spread across the USA and another 50,000 or so in Europe, Canada or Australia.  I am one of the many who grew up in Minnesota.  But now, as I enter my 30s I am moving back to the country I was born in.  I leave in 3 days.  I’ll spend a few weeks in Europe and then at least a year, if not more in Seoul, South Korea.  I’m really excited!

One of the major areas of concern, as always with traveling outside of my comfort zone here in Minneapolis is finding vegan-friendly food, clothing, products, etc.  I don’t speak or read enough Korean yet to surf Korean websites with ease to find these places, but I am pretty sure that I can find some of these types of products.  South Korea, though known for it’s grilled meat restaraurants and for eating dog does have some vegan-friendly restaurants and I know from my first trip back in 2005, they even sell vegan ice cream at some of their more specialty grocery stores.  So if desperately craving, I know I’ll find something there.  Maybe not as much as I do here at my favorite co-op in Minneapolis, but still…

I spent a year living in southern semi-rural China a few years ago and there were NO vegan options outside of rice and green veggies.  And often, at least where I was located they added bits of meat to nearly all the dishes, even the tofu ones.  I guess I assumed that with the potential for lactose-intolerance it would be rare to see so much dairy, but sure enough, most corner stores sold tons of dairy ice cream and other dairy desserts.  I made it through that year, but being a vegan living where I did in China was difficult.

Now returning to my Korean roots and to a much larger city – Seoul I’m not so worried…but maybe just a little bit.  Most people assume that it’ll be extremely difficult to live in Korea since their perception is that Korean food is just a lot of barbecued meat and tons of seafood, but I am going with the hope that with extra effort I can find the tasty and healthy vegan food, which really is just how most Koreans ate for centuries anyway.  Lots of fresh vegetables, hardly any dairy if at all, tofu, etc.  As South Korea became more westernized, more and more meat and fast-food chains were introduced to the culture.

Also, I am definitely going to explore the temple vegan food there, derived from the Buddhist way of life and maybe even learn more on how to cook it at at home.  While eating out seems to be relatively inexpensive and convenient for most Seoulites, I’m going to try and learn how to cook some of the healthy veggie dishes of Korea. 

On more than one occassion I’ve heard fellow Korean adoptees claim I cannot get a “real” experience in my birthcountry if I “cannot” eat meat or seafood.  It’s the mentality that in order to get a “true” cultural experience, one has to sacrifice being a vegan.  It’s this aspect of being a vegan that tends to be most difficult for me – dealing with everyone else’s reaction and judgements.  Learning to cook Korean vegan food likely won’t be difficult at all – it truly is a country with amazing roots, vegetables, etc.  Sure, sitting around dead smoking meat is a very social experience and a time when friends bond and enjoy each other’s company, but that does not mean I cannot have a “real” Korean experience in my birth country.

As both a vegan and a Korean adoptee, I have found that people want to tell me what my experience is.  As a vegan I am told how limiting my diet is and as a Korean adoptee I am told how lucky I am to have not grown up in an orphanage, etc. I have heard these statements more than I can count now.  I realize that in going back to Korea and embarking on this journey I will need to stay strong and remind myself daily that I DEFINE and choose how I go about this life as both a vegan and an adoptee…no matter where I live.


14 Responses to “Heading back “home””

  1. Great post. Thanks!

    I agree with you that
    “It’s this aspect of being a vegan that tends to be most difficult for me – dealing with everyone else’s reaction and judgements.”
    I, too, find omnivores’ prejudices to be the most difficult thing about being vegan 😉

    By the way, there are some Korean vegan dishes in “The Asian Vegan Kitchen” by Hema Parekh.

    For you or anyone traveling, you might want to consider the vegan passport:

  2. meerkat Says:

    Good luck and I hope you have a great time in Korea. I’ve never been there, but I would like to visit someday after I have learned more of the language. They told me you couldn’t be vegetarian in Japan, much less vegan, but they were wrong. It’s just a matter of finding the right restaurants and stores (or cooking yourself, but I’m not very good at that). Here is a website that helps me a lot, and it looks like they have plenty of entries in Korea:

  3. Good luck with your quest! I really commend you on your resoluteness & agree that you have the right to define how you live your life.

  4. emfole Says:

    great post! People are always telling me that I can’t truely experience various cultures, including my own, without compromising being vegan. This is such a lie because all over the world, people as groups and individuals make the decision to walk lightly on the earth and think of the suffering of those whom we eat. It is not selfish or American to be vegan, but a part of being a thinking and sensitive individual. I find your analysis and resolution to be beautiful and inspiring. Good luck in Korea!

  5. tuimeltje Says:

    Good luck. I hope you’ll have a great time and will find satisfying food.

  6. Nate Says:

    Hey there! What an inspiring post on veganism and how that impacts your life at “home” and everywhere else for that matter. I can only imagine all the great Temple Food you’ll find there. Any meal with 30 vegan dishes cannot be a bad thing 😉

    Way to define yourself, because you are the best suited to do so!

  7. johanna Says:

    Serenity, thanks for this amazing first post.

    Though I am not an adoptee, I feel like I’ve encountered some of the same “you can’t have an authentic experience w/our culture if you don’t eat animal products!” as a half-Filipina. I already feel like my validity as a “real” member of the Filipino community is challenged (something I’m guessing that may come up for Korean adoptees sometimes, although I could be totally wrong) because I’m only half (while simultaneously I get compliments on my light skin & stuff — barf), & then my “weird” diet on top of it, sigh.

    Best of luck on your trip. Once you get settled, I’m sure we’d all love to hear more about it here on this blog if inspiration strikes!!

  8. serenityinseoul Says:

    Thanks everyone…flight leaves in 13 hours and I WILL post again soon. I’ll be in Denmark for almost 5 weeks (boyfriend and friends are there…let’s just say Denmark has over 8,000 Korean adoptees) and then in Seoul in mid-August. Very curious to see what my vegan options will be in Denmark, too…

    Anyway to address what you said in your comment Johanna, yes indeed my validity as being a “real” Korean is challenged constantly. Not having grown up there, or with Korean parents at the very least, and most definitely without exposure to the language, people often view me as an imposter (and so many of the rest of us Korean adoptees – KADs.) Come to think of it, one of the first ways many KADs begin to feel any connection to anything Korean is through the food – by taking a chance and trying the local Korean restaurant they heard about. The ingredients added to meat in Korean dishes is admittedly delightful (only been vegan since 2002, so I still remember the taste….) but the key for me is that it’s the INGREDIENTS. When people are like “How can you survive without bulgogi!?” (most popular beef dish) I just say, I can add those same ingredients to tofu or mock duck and it still tastes great.

    Anyway I’m rambling (delirium from packing all week), but my point is that yep I am challenged also and I think transracial, biracial, and/or multiracial folks especially are constantly battling with being unwillingly placed in categories to make it *easier* for others. BLAH.

  9. I also wanted to add what a great post this is. Have a safe and wonderful trip!

  10. Ico Says:

    Totally off topic, but Johanna, you are half-Filipina? I am biracial, too. Half-Korean, actually. The daughter of a Korean adoptee. 🙂 Hi SerenityinSeoul! Your trip sounds like a lot of fun. I actually think Korean food, when I’ve had it, has been more vegan friendly — or at least more vegetarian friendly — than a lot of American or European foods. At least there are a good variety of vegetable dishes.

    Online I usually self-identify as “mostly white” because of my mainstream upbringing — IRL I don’t look especially Asian, so I get treated with so much white privilege it seems disingenuous to identify as a POC. But it’s something I have trouble deciding. What category to fit into, I mean, as someone who is biracial, but was raised “white” (white family, white school, white city, etc)

    So in a place like Ireland, I’m Asian because they don’t get a lot of Asians over there. But in America, I’m white, because even white people don’t think of me as a “real” POC.

    But anyway, SerenityinSeoul your comment about being regarded as not a “real” Korean by others interests me. It’s quite different from the experience I had. See, at the university where I did my undergrad, I’d be invited to go somewhere or hang out, and I’d just be talked to by Korean students a heck of a lot more than the white folks were. They could usually tell I was a mix, and as soon as I said it was Korean they were very friendly to me. This always baffled me; I always felt like a bit of an imposter if I hung out with them, because I had nothing more in common with them than the white students did, except for Korean blood. But then I never did get very close to that community; I’m sure if I had I would have experienced something more like what you did. There’s definitely a weird in-between place for biracial folks. And adoptees.

    So where do biracial folks, or adoptees, or whomever outside the easy categories fit? Personally I think it’s to each her own. 🙂 I hope you have a good time in Korea. And if you learn any awesome vegan recipes, please do share!

  11. cheryl Says:

    Hi, maybe this is a bit late, but I’m a vegan, and I live just outside of Seoul (or in it on the weekends) and being vegan is a breeze. So that’s one less thing for you to worry about! Good luck!

  12. serenityinseoul Says:

    Hi Cheryl, glad to know it is a breeze. Any suggestions on places I must go to?

  13. Daniela Says:

    Nice post. I recently went to Minneapolis and ate vegan pizza two nights in a row at Pizza Luce’s. Hopefully you’ll have yummy food ahead in Korea. I’ve heard there’s quite a lot of vegan food, but it looks like you knew that already. It’ll be interesting to read future posts about the food you eat in Korea.

    And I also empathize with people judging you because you’re vegan. People always feel uncomfortable talking about food around you, and especially if they are kind and want to offer food and before I decline they say, “Oh wait, you can’t eat that…” I just have to smile and say, “No thanks.” It’s not that we can’t, we CHOOSE not to eat animals and their byproducts. It’s really liberating when you look at it that way.

  14. tracie Says:

    what a great site you have here! i will bookmark it and i look forward to hearing how your veganism goes in seoul after you arrive here.
    i am a foreigner living in south korea for over a year now. i was vegan before i came but now a vegetarian. i found i was realllyyyyy hungry and needed to add some dairy to my diet here.

    i look forward to hearing about vegan places you shop at and eat at so that i too can track them down and try them!

    word of caution….most koreans i meet here have no concept of why a rational person would be a vegan. this, of course, is understandable because the bulk of their diet is made from meat and things from the sea. i’ve been tricked more than once into eating seafood (good things i don’t have allergies!). they think i’m a strange bird but that’s okay with me. 😉

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