Unusual Suspects: A Seoulite Veg

When the organizers of the Unusual Suspects Festival first approached me to participate, I knew I wanted to take the opportunity to share myself with Seoul. I’ve been living in Korea for a year now, and as any foreigner will tell you, we often feel like just that- foreigners. I’ve met foreign residents who have been living in Seoul for over 10 years, some of whom speak Korean and work at Korean companies, and yet they still feel out of place. I thought that the Unusual Suspects Festival could be a place for me to share my values with my community.

One major problem — was the session going to be in English or Korean? Even though my Korean is far from fluent, I decided that the session should be available in both languages to ensure that all participants felt included, and could actively contribute. On that note, I’d like to thank my co-facilitators 성다은 (Sarah) and 김송연 (Rachel) for making the session, “Veg Life” possible.

The intention of hosting ‘Veg Life’ was to offer a space for dialogue for recent vegetarians, people who are curious about or considering becoming vegetarian, and those trying to better support their vegetarian friends and family. While we had a general idea of what we wanted participants to get out of the session, we wanted to provide a personal space where participants could define for themselves what they wanted to get out of it.

For two hours, ten of us sat around a table and let our minds and hearts wander. We flowed through discussions about habits and consumption, our personal identities, and our relationships with family and friends. With deep listening and patience, we translated each sentence between Korean and English. We laughed, and there were moments where we sat on the brink of tears. The two hours flew by. Here, I’d like to share the three most memorable aspects of the experience of hosting Veg Life.

Being ourselves and being present for others

Not everyone at the table was vegetarian. Some of us were non-vegetarians with no intention of becoming vegetarian. Yet, everyone felt comfortable to be honest with themselves and everyone at the table. While we couldn’t always relate to one another’s stories, we chose to participate. We shared experiences, asked questions and offered advice. In our daily lives, we often feel shy or think it impolite to ask personal questions, but there, we felt safe. We could be our authentic selves, which allowed us to empathize with one another.

The choice of the individual

For the vegetarians at the table, we were various types of vegetarians. We ranged from flexitarian to pescatarian to vegan. Each lifestyle chosen for different reasons and followed to varying degrees. For myself, my reason for becoming vegetarian was largely health related. It offered me a method to build discipline and align my values to my behaviours. For someone else, it was about the environment. She said that she was a vegetarian who didn’t like vegetables. For someone else, she feared the psychological costs of being a vegetarian. She questioned whether exercising too much control over food would trigger other obsessive tendencies. We confessed our small truths. We realized that each of us had our own reasons. Our own struggle. Our own path.

The web of stories and relationships

Through the conversations, we realized that our choice with food has implications beyond ourselves. Food is intersectional. It relates to who we are, where we come from, what we aspire to be. It manifests in our consumer behaviour, our cultural expectations, our family structure and ties, etc. We discussed the historical persecution of Buddhists under the Joseon dynasty, and how that might explain the lack of vegetarianism in Korea despite the Buddhist tradition. We shared about how our relationships with our loved ones changed with our lifestyle choices. Our mothers not cooking for us. Our grandmothers trying to fool us into eating meat during the holidays. Our friends not being comfortable inviting us out on a Friday night to enjoy chimak. Our choices, as personal as they are, are intertwined with the things and people around us.

It was a Friday afternoon I will remember for a long time to come. Thank you to the people who showed up, and the people who made it all possible.


Zahin [자힌]