I recently read a popular article on how saying no to things that do not align with your goals, or ‘mission’ as Warren Buffett, the billionaire CEO and financial business chairman phrases it, is an important part of being successful in achieving your aims (ref 1).
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
This especially resonates with my stories of attempting to be vegan in Korea. Even the vegetarian lifestyle that I have managed to maintain for the last 8 years here has been a story of more ‘no’s than ‘yes’s in the dining department. And I’m unapologetic about that. Those who have problemetised my vegetarianism have drifted away for various reasons; moving out of Korea, and/or becoming too busy with work and family life being the main ones. In engaging with their disdain or negativity, why was I trying to gain the respect of someone who was trying to undermine my self-respect and values? Loyal friends can see the bigger picture that, whilst friendship bonds are often re-newed at the dinner table, true friendships are developed over time through shared interests and beliefs quite aside from the contents of our stomachs. The ‘bread of life’ is human contact, not a hastily scoffed sandwich.
At the 3rd Vegan Festival in Seoul Sunday May 21st 2017, I was excited to walk in and say ‘yes’ to everything, within reason. The ground rules were clearly laid out. Packaging was also to be regulated. Excellent.
Trash here is a constant source of dismay to me. New things are still valued as better than old. Especially with clothing and anything that others will see when you are out and about (phones, cars). Appearance is status and vice versa. I lose track of the amount of perfectly wearable items I have got out of the clothing bins and bags of clothes cast aside.
I will admit that, due to limited access to shops that do not over-package, I can barely keep my own refuse under control. If I buy an apple, it is swathed in plastic, dammit. It was refreshing to see young people making re-purposing cool, yet when I freely opened up to the young stall holder that most of the items I was wearing were second-hand, she was a little surprised.
For me, vegetarianism should be as much about nutrition, as it is about consumption, or reigning in over-consumption in alignment with the yoga covenants of non-greed and non-hoarding (ref 2). Certainly, I’m all for de-normalising conspicuous consumption, and by this I mean, prioritising labels and brands regardless of quality, shopping as a past-time or retail therapy, regrettable shopping sprees and ‘sibal biyong’ (f**k it spending) (ref 3). I was ill-prepared, but I tried to follow the rules. I brought a re-fillable plastic bottle, my own wooden chopsticks, and tote bags. I believe the only thing I left behind was the cardboard box I was given after Karuna’s yoga class which contained my macrobiotic vegan sushi (pictured) , plus the inevitable dead skin cells and stray hairs.
It was particularly exciting for me to be in Korea enjoying an unabashed celebration of alternative lifestyle choices. There was a tail-back line for the vegan ice-cream. People drifting around munching from rented plates. A genuine appreciation for handmade items. Followers of Hari Krishna were whipping up a musical storm. A girl on guitar was entertaining the appreciative crowd.
It was indeed a mini veggie utopia, an insight into possibilities worthy of Simon Amstell’s vegan mockumentary “Carnage” (ref 4), in which the writer and director portrays the year 2067 as a vegan paradise.
I reflected that, amongst Korean friends, the dietary landscape, or dietscape, if I may use a made-up word is a changing one. As with most areas of Korean life, I can see huge shifts with my very own eyes in less than a decade. My first encounters with opinions on vegetarianism were generally disbelief and alienation. “That is something that foreigners, not Koreans do. Meat eating is Korean culture” Or, “I would like to try that sometimes for my health, but my family would never make that a possibility.” Then, I started to see more people dabbling away from the galbi (barbeque ribs) and samkyapsal (grilled pork belly) restaurants. Koreans sneaking into Loving Hut, the international vegan restaurant chain, for lunch with one or two close friends, for example (ref 5). Female friends particularly have started to show bolder interest. Again, there are a lot of misunderstandings that vegetarianism is only for weight loss, and that it is somehow putting yourself through a temporary period of hardship until you ‘let yourself’ eat meat again, like giving up chocolate for Lent. In the last 5 years alone, there has been a tidal wave of yoga studios opening up, mostly as an off-shoot of the health and fitness industry, with the spiritual teachings conveniently largely overlooked, but still, this has brought some understanding of the parity between what you put in your mouth and what you expect your body to do.
On an interpersonal level, I notice a marked difference from the original disdainful “crazy foreigner” response: “Oh, you can’t eat meat. What a pity”, to seeing a vague recognition that there could perhaps be a correlation between plant-based eating, an active lifestyle, and a youthful appearance that is held in such high regard in Korean culture. Unfortunately, eating veggies won’t make your face any smaller, though. Perhaps that’s why vegetarianism has been so slow to catch on here.
There is still a long way to go to normalise non-animal diets in the eyes of the Korean general public. Walking out of the festival, I was asked by a student reporter from Korea National University, “What is the difference between vegetarianism and veganism?” I was shocked by the naivety of this question, and thought it might be some kind of joke. “What? You are at the vegan festival, and you don’t know the difference between veganism and vegetarianism?” I replied. “No, really. I don’t know. Can you explain it to me, please.” …..Wow.
- Why saying ‘no’ will boost your career March 14th 2014 http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20140314-just-say-no
- from Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga: the 5th yama ‘aparigraha’ अपरिग्रह which can be translated to English as non-possessiveness, or not wanting/coveting.
- Sibal Biyong: Spending Toward Meaning of Life, Koo Se-Woong, May 17th 2017 https://koreaexpose.com/sibal-biyong-spending-meaning-life/
- Carnage: Swallowing the Past. Amstell, Simon (dir), March 19th 2017 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/VN3BnwnWKCytkfzhxL1BB4/carnage-the-facts