Coming Out as a Vegetarian in Korea
Coming Out as a Vegetarian in Korea
  • Reporter Lee Suh-young
  • 승인 2011.05.04 12:12
  • 댓글 0
이 기사를 공유합니다

“If you don’t eat meat, what do you eat then?”

Most often, the “Vegetarian Spotlight” is a cause of discomfort. When I eat with someone I meet first, I dread the moment when the conversation turns to my dietary choices. One day, during break time, my project leader realized that I did not eat the pizza or chicken that he ordered for his team members. After asking the stereotypical question that most Koreans might pop, he made a face and forced me to have some; from his point of view, he ordered foods for team members, and I, as a member of the team, should at least pretend like I’m eating some, for the sake of the team.

The hardest part of living as a vegetarian in Korea is not trying to achieve a healthy balanced diet but the social stigma of sticking out from the crowd. According to Korean Vegetarian Union, which is Korea’s only registered, non-profit vegetarian organization with up to 17,000 members, many vegetarians in Korea have a difficulty with their personal food preference, especially in their jobs. In the worst case, some people quit or break off relationships because being vegetarian made them a sort of pariah.

Although there is no official data on the exact number of vegetarians in Korea, the industry estimates the Korean vegetarian population as less than one percent of the country. That’s compared to around three percent across the world, around five percent in the US and around eight percent in UK, according to the same sources.

According to JoongAng Ilbo’s university rankings conducted in 2010, the foreign exchange students in POSTECH are up to 2.39% and many of these students come from cultural areas where eating meat is considered as taboo. In POSTECH, it is natural to eat together their lunch with their lab members. However, these exchange students are easily alienated during that time. “At first, we tried to go to a restaurant where he could eat. However, it is unrealistic to eat veggies all the time when we go out for dinner. Now he does not participate in the get-together at all,” said a professor of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“Simple as it might seem, the bottom line to solve these problems is understanding.” said a MS candidate student of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “When our professor invited an Indian professor for a seminar, we could easily solve the problem by asking another dish for him.” Likewise, many vegetarian experts advise, “Don’t be angry.” They explain that there are few better ways to make a bad first impression than to skip all social occasions in which meat is served or show up at a dinner party toting a Tupperware tub of your own food.

Indeed, there is a certain group mentality in Korea, in which people tend to follow the way which everyone else is doing. Once you decide to become a vegetarian in Korea, be sure that you are determined to keep your belief and ask for understanding. It is time to accept the difference.