Vegans of Color

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

Hi from Seoul, land of 10,000 meat restaurants January 2, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — minneapoliseoul @ 9:51 pm

I’ve been terrible at writing here, and in all honesty I am sometimes intimidated to write to such a large audience. My style of blogging tends to be more of my random thoughts and observations, so I appreciate those who are blogging about news bits and generating discussion around them.

I just thought I’d write about my last 4 months of living in Seoul, Korea. I was born in Korea, but sent to the USA soon after to be adopted. I am now 30 years old and for the first time seeing what it’s like to live day-in and day-out in the country of my birth, the one place on Earth where everyday I am surrounded by massive amounts of people who share my ethnicity. A feeling completely unfamiliar growing up in mostly white Minnesota…

Anyway, I have met a few vegetarians along the way, and even fewer vegans, but most do not live here. They come and go, after a short vacation. In general, I am finding myself still on the outside of a social circle. Growing up, and even in college, it was sometimes due to my race, but here I am finding it is because of my chosen attempt at being a vegan. The common experience here is to go out with a fairly decent sized group and socialize over meat cooking in front of you on the table, while lubricating the conversation with soju, an alcoholic Korean specialty. Not eating animals or being much of a drinker, it can leave me feeling weary about going out with big groups, especially since a lot of the restaurants are not fond of individual eating habits. I guess being in Seoul makes it a little bit easier, for I have had many of the staff at restaurants try to accomodate, but in general it has been difficult to dine out.

I have a certain dissonance living here, in a place where I fit in more than I have in various places in Minnesota, and yet I also continue to feel like the “odd ball.” I so want to ease into this foreign culture that was my once my birthright, and yet the love for meat and seafood makes it difficult when it comes to the social aspect – especially since eating and socializing go hand-in-hand here.

I am a total foody and so into good health that I hope I can find somewhere in North America where there are a lot of open-minded, friendly vegans of color, and awesome vegan/vegan-friendly restaurants where I can feel more at ease. Wherever that is, let me know so I can move there! I went to a vegan “event” in the Twin Cities a few years back and felt totally out of it there, where nearly all the vegans were white and quite frankly, a bit uptight and not seemingly aware of some of the issues that touch my life as a person of color. Maybe that scene has changed, but I’m not sure since I’m not currentlyliving there.

Anyway, just writing to say hi and to ask if others have ever experienced a similar feeling to what I have – which is a longing to fit in in a new environment, perhaps one that is of your native roots, and yet being vegan seems to prohibit that?


9 Responses to “Hi from Seoul, land of 10,000 meat restaurants”

  1. Tamara Says:

    Hi there –

    Thanks for posting. It is interesting to hear your perspective. I am Caucasian, as is my husband, and we have a 3-year-old Latino son (adopted). I sometimes feel that my veganism hinders my attempts for our family to spend more time with the local Latino community – so many festivals and events, or even just restaurants, are so focused on yucky flesh foods. We plan to take our son to visit his birth country in 2010 and while I am really looking forward to seeing his foster family again, I worry quite a bit about how they will respond to my veganism. (My husband is pescetarian (sp?) and our son is nearly vegan.) I worry that they will think I’m a bad mom because they won’t understand that I am meeting his nutritional needs without animal products. I also wonder sometimes if I am saddling my son with yet another ‘otherness’ (veganism, should he choose to continue once he is old enough to decide for himself) to contend with, on top of the fact of his adoption and our trans-racial family…

    I hope you can find some like minded friends there in Seoul – do they have over there? 🙂 And even if it’s not going perfectly, I’m happy for you to have the experience of living in your birth country and being surrounded every day by people who share your ethnicity. I would love to hear more about what that has been like for you if you ever feel like sharing, although perhaps it’s not applicable to this blog since it’s not vegan related!

    Better stop rambling and go to bed.

  2. Metz Says:

    Totally can relate. It happens all the time…even at home! When I visit the holy land (Mexico) it’s very hard not to find some meat up in your food. But there is this cute little ‘cenaduria,’ which is like a little hole in the wall restaurant spot they have the best vegan ‘gorditas.’ I think the hardest thing is trying to make others in your family and culture try to understand your decision to be vegan. In the end, what it comes down to is, we need to stop killing ourselves and take control over our lives because the type of food that this white society shoves down our throats is like a weapon of mass destruction. If you look at the way we used to eat B.E. (before European contact) there was a balance (in our diets) and we weren’t dying from cancers, diabetes and heart disease due to stuff you find in their nasty diets. Finally, I want to argue that if you look hard you CAN and WILL find something culturally relevant that you can eat or easily veganize. I do it all the time. I can still eat cactus salad, corn, squash, beans, tacos, veggie enchiladas, mole, and even pozole. I am really not “missing out” on anything. It’s doable. You can be healthy, eat cruelty-free, and still feel like you are not letting go of a part of your culture. It’s pretty easy. And if feels good!

  3. johanna Says:

    Hi Serenity — good to hear from you! Random thoughts & observations are good fodder for blogging here, too (as long as they’re related to VoC themes, of course) — so feel free!

    The fact that social networks revolve around meat & drinking sounds really frustrating. I’m sorry it’s contributing to your cultural dissonance. I have had a vaguely similar experience in Filipino circles — what, you don’t eat adobo? (& while I’m at it: you don’t go to church? you don’t [really] speak Tagalog? And why is your hair so short?) In my case I feel like it’s compounded by being mixed-race, so there’s this implied feeling like that’s WHY I don’t eat animal products, b/c somehow that’s not Filipino at all!

    Metztli — I really want to learn more about “B.E.” (as you put it) dietary cultures, b/c as you said, I’ve heard that eating meat & animal products was much, much lower & I really want to learn more about how this ties in w/colonialism. It’s just something that has been on my “one day, when I get my life in order, I’ll look this up” list (sigh).

  4. johanna Says:

    Oh, & I love this blogger‘s quest to veganize common Filipino foods — maybe there’s someone out there doing that w/Korean foods? Wouldn’t help w/restaurants, but maybe you could invite folks over for vegan eats?

  5. haldana Says:

    I recently moved to Denmark to be with my partner, and while we’re both white and I tend to pass on the street until someone tries to speak to me (I don’t speak Danish), I think being here is more overwhelmingly difficult than being in a small town in the U.S. (where I grew up). Here, it’s almost like I have to “out” myself as a vegetarian/vegan every time I eat in public (they don’t understand the difference between those words and think vegetarians eat fish). I can’t just quietly order something without animals in it…because it isn’t even on the menu. When we eat with my partner’s family, his mother has no idea how to handle me. She tries to cook vegetarian food, and I end up feeling I should be grateful and accept instead of trying to explain veganism to her. She’s never met a vegetarian in her life.

    Denmark is a country very invested in their meat and dairy industries. The people can also be pretty reserved, so it doesn’t usually work well to start talking to someone about animal rights in the context of veganism – people don’t just sit around and discuss these things (they’re too politically charged perhaps). But it’s a double-edged sword, much like it sounds for Serenity. If I try to go out, everyone has to work around me and I have to explain myself. Or, I can stay home and remain mostly friendless (and so far, the latter has been my choice). Either way, I’m an immigrant and an alien, and being a sensitive type, I’d rather keep it to myself.

    Good luck Serenity, and thank you for writing so honestly about your struggle.

  6. Tamara Says:

    Relating to Metzli and Johanna’s mentions of ‘B.E.’ eating, there is a recent Vegetarian Food for Thought podcast (by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau) about Native American foods, new and old, that I found to be quite interesting –

    [audio src="" /]

  7. serenityinseoul Says:

    Just want to add since I didn’t write much about it in my post, that I am slowly but surely making my way to the vegetarian restaurants here in Seoul as I find them. I found the Purely Decadent Soy Delicious cafes which was fun, as well as Sticky Fingers Bakery, and a few traditional Korean vegetarian restaurants, too. Most are rooted in religious beliefs. There are places here, and I do cook my vegan food at home…but indeed, as most all of us vegans of color know, it is not always easy to be the minority in a group.

    Oh, and Tamara, you can check out my personal blog to see more of my random thoughts on living in Seoul. Right now it’s a lot of lists because I’ve been taking a break from writing real blog posts, but it’s still something to chew on.

  8. Not a rare experience for vegans of color in the west returning to their ancestral countries. The prestige of meat is big out there. My experience in Ghana two years back wasn’t bad (I lived there for half a year – my folks are Nigerians though) and I made some of the most sincere friends and benefactors there, despite my veganness. But I was never having a big crew or looking for one. Where I stayed at initially the grandmother often made vegan groundnut stews for me. When I went up the road to a Ghanaian hostel I befriended someone in there and we shared much banter and some food ideas over the issue. At U of Ghana I met a brotha – grad student like me from the US – who physically showed me Accra’s vegetarian restaurants. I only met one person at U of Ghana who had anything negative to say about my diet choice. Other than that in a way veganness made some folks more curious about me, and regardless of that I didn’t really feel too much more isolated around my dietary choice there than I do in the US since I don’t organize my social life around it – Although I’ve been vegan almost ten years I still don’t even have other vegetarians in my personal sphere, except for some who are off and on vegetarians and/or are pro-vegan but non-practicing. Nigeria was spent around relatives so it was a different experience but still supportive overall. Since then I’ve become a fruitarian/ raw vegan so I imagine that on the one hand getting plenty of fruit and such to eat in equatorial Afrika should be quite easy when I next go, but being social around that would be much more challenging. Indigenous black intentional vegans and vegetarians on the continent are very few and far between at the moment (they exist though – tiny groups and orgs). But I’m not waiting and am not too interested in the organization of social life and related emotional attachments around food. It hasn’t yet been practical to do so around here so I’ve learned not to try. Maybe in the future.

  9. Dasha Says:

    My husband and I moved to the US 7 years ago and we’ve been vegans for a year now (vegetarians before that). And what can I tell? It’s so easy to be a vegan here (Seattle) that sometimes I feel guilty when I read about other people struggle in not so veg-friendly places.
    Serenity, if you’re looking for such a place to move into I would definitely recommend Seattle, WA, Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, Vancouver, BC. What a mix of cultures! Tens of vegetarian/vegan restaurants. And I really doubt anybody would stare at you because you’re Asian. Well, in some restaurants they would even serve you sooner 🙂

    I’m glad you could find some vegetarian places in Seoul. Good luck!

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