The Vegan Connection
In a country full of samgyeopsal parties, galbi dishes, and the popular fried chicken and beer combo (chimaek), herbivores must wonder, “Is it possible to be vegan here?”. I can tell you that I’ve both asked and answered this question a thousand times in the past few months as a vegan living in South Korea.
Korea, the ultimate vacation destination for meat lovers, is unfortunately known as one of the worst countries for a vegan (just ask Huffington Post). Thankfully, this is changing, albeit slowly, as more people become conscious of the anti-meat trend. With fun events like the Vegan Festival, and with all the new vegan cafés popping up everywhere, plant eaters here are beginning to feel less isolated.
Isolated. It’s a word that brings back many memories – both good and bad – of my first months in Korea.
I was fifteen when I denounced all meat and animal by-products from my diet. After staying active with a variety of sports throughout my life, I was really into health and fitness, and loved the idea of a wholesome, cruelty-free diet. In Portland, Oregon, I was thankful to live in a city that embraced such lifestyles.
Just under a year later, I moved to Korea. Confused and muddled by the cultural shift, I began to wonder if it would be possible to stay vegan. Veganism became a slippery concept; everything seemed to have meat in it. Between the galbi dinner parties and asking whether or not anchovies were used in the soybean soup at the restaurant, I almost lost my grip on veganism. So what did I do? I did exactly what brought me to veganism in the first place – I scoured the Internet.
I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t alone. There are actually quite a few vegan Facebook groups, and websites where people can leave reviews about veggie restaurants around town. I became eager to visit the vegan cafés I found, and got the idea to start documenting my discoveries.
With this in mind, I started my YouTube channel in February 2016, not long after moving to Seoul. As a lifestyle/vegan channel, I upload a video every other Friday morning. My videos, which are all self-made and produced from my home, range from talking about life in Korea, to skits/short films and travel vlogs, to my favorite – episodes for my Vegan’s Guide to Korea segment.
A Vegan’s Guide to Korea is exactly what it sounds like. Each episode, I venture out to a vegan café with my cameras. I usually try to order the most popular items on their menu, set up my camera to face me from across the table, then talk about the food (partly so I don’t look like a total loner, and partly so viewers can feel like they’re there with me). I’m just thankful to have an excuse to go try all these vegan treats! And let me tell you, some of the vegan eateries here are home to some of the best desserts I’ve ever had. I hope that through these videos, I’m able to help other vegans who are in – or coming into – Korea feel more welcome. Though I may only have around 300 subscribers as of now, I get a great sense of accomplishment whenever I help even one person.
Each time I upload a VGK episode, I also write about it on my blog (http://heysoohyun.tk). “Hey, Soo Hyun” originally started as just a way for me to keep my friends in Oregon updated. But as viewership increased, I began blogging more about veganism and fun places to visit around Korea.
Though not for A Vegan’s Guide to Korea episode, I also recently attended the first ever Vegan Festival in Seoul. It was a public event held at the Seoul Innovation Park, hosting a multitude of booths set up by vegan bakeries, cafés, and restaurants. So many people came by to try delicious food, buy treats to take home, and to meet more people who are also living off plant-based diets. It truly became an eye-opening day as I connected with Korea’s vegan community.
I interviewed a handful of people for the event video I was shooting for the festival. The one question I asked everyone was, “What do you think about having a Vegan Festival?” It was a lighthearted question, and I had not anticipated the deep responses I got. Most commonly, people answered that meeting like-minded people helped them feel less alone. In Korea, where it’s still uncommon to follow a meat-free diet, we often feel isolated. As one vegetarian mentioned when asked if he would go vegan, “In Korea, it’s still a difficult situation to be vegan”. As I skimmed through the footage, one answer caught me in particular: “To do something like this, that shows a sense of community and shows a sense of normality to being vegan, makes it easier…”
It’s amazing how one event could bring so many people together. So, Korea may not have easy access to soy yogurt, mock meats, and every vegan cheese brand, as I had in Oregon, but I’ve learned that there is a lot to be said about the delicious vegan cafes, and the ever-growing, passionate community. There may not be many of us, but I’ve come to appreciate this tight-knit group, and can’t wait to see where this plant-based road leads us.