Words by Madhu Narayan
Illustration by Jonathan Burrello
Life in Korea can be challenging for foreigners. As a life-long vegetarian, I find life here twice as challenging. I often tell people about my vegetarianism in hushed, apologetic tones, like I am the bearer of profoundly shocking information. Many people are sympathetic: “Oh you poor thing! How do you survive here?!” they exclaim, as if I have an incurable disease. Others are disdainful. They don’t bother to respond; they merely look away and refuse to make eye contact. And then there are those who don’t understand what vegetarian means. “No meat? Really?” they ask. And then they ask, “What about fish? Surely you eat fish!” When I respond that I don’t eat either meat or fish, they stare at me as if my very existence is a mystery, a violation of nature’s rules.
Of course, Seoul is home to excellent vegetarian restaurants where I can consume everything on the menu, but there are times when I am in restaurants where I cannot order a single vegetarian item. I found myself in this position last weekend at a Mexican restaurant in Hongdae. When the waitress asked for my order, I requested two soft-shell tacos with no meat. “Chicken?” she asked helpfully, in case I had made an error. I responded that I specifically did not want meat. She stared me down in silence for a few seconds and then walked away. I wondered if asking for a meal with no meat meant that I was not getting a meal at all. She returned a few minutes later with a young man in a blue sweater who I surmised was the manager. “What exactly would you like to order?” he inquired, his brow furrowed in suspicion. Embarrassed by all the trouble I was causing, I explained that I was a vegetarian and would like two soft-shell tacos with no meat. “What about fish tacos?” he asked, looking hopeful. I shook my head and said: “No meat, no fish.”
He nodded as if everything suddenly made sense and walked away confidently. I looked around at my dining companions and apologized profusely. At that moment, my vegetarianism felt like an inconvenient flaw in my character that I wished I could fix. I felt lonely, the sole plant-eater in the midst of so many meat-loving carnivores.
My dinner was eventually delivered by the manager himself. He had personally conveyed instructions to the kitchen and the meal was meat-free. “Trust me,” he said with a confident glint in his eye. I thanked him and enthusiastically picked up one of my hard-earned tacos. It was not a good taco. Apparently in addition to the meat, the chef had vindictively decided to leave out all the seasonings as well. It occurred to me that I could ask for salt, but I did not want to appear ungrateful, so I quietly ate my bland tacos and decided that perhaps this particular restaurant did not warrant another visit in the future.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://10mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Madhu-Narayan_BW.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Madhu Narayan lives in Northern Seoul. She is a writer, runner and knitter. In her spare time, she searches for vegetarian restaurants in the city.[/author_info] [/author]
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://10mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Jonathan-Burrelo-a.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Jonathan Burrello is a cartoonist and comedian living in Korea. Follow his descent into madness in real time @biginsanehappy and explore more of his work at biginsanehappy.com.[/author_info] [/author]
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