When I was filled out the registration form for my homestay several months ago, I indicated that I was vegetarian and listed “meat, fish, and seafood” as foods that I avoid. The homestay coordinator assured me that whichever host family I selected would accommodate my vegetarianism as best they could, but I prepared to turn a blind eye in some situations. In general, Korea is a notoriously difficult place to be a vegetarian because some animal-based products sneak their way into almost every component of the meal.
Decapitated anchovies for stir-fry or broth….
However, when I arrived at my homestay, it quickly became clear that my family was unaware of my dietary preference. (Oh, hi, beef!) At first, I thought they just didn’t “get” vegetarianism. To be polite, I ate the dishes with meat, though I did explain that “in America, I try not to eat beef because…I don’t like it.”
In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that I didn’t speak up more clearly, but I was (am) terrified of offending my host family. After all, they opened up their house to a complete stranger for twelve weeks and cook for me every day. And what I eat they eat, so I didn’t want to inconvenience them terribly. Since I’m relatively new to vegetarianism and actually do enjoy the taste of meat, I toyed with the idea of being an omnivore in Korea until my return home in August. This made me feel very uncomfortable.
Salad that I made myself for lunch.
This morning’s breakfast was a breaking point though. I did not want to eat an egg sandwich with a huge slice of processed ham and a Kraft single on it. I tried to eat my sandwich as slowly as possible and wait until everyone left for work/school so I could pick out the ham and cheese. Then, as always happens, homestay mom decided that she gave herself too much food and unceremoniously removed the ham from her own sandwich and put it back in the fridge.
Meanwhile, I had forced myself into a corner with a ham sandwich as a companion. Awesome.
After everyone left, I cried about this on Skype with my mom and received a really reassuring pep-talk from a fellow adoptee and “sister vegetarian” on Facebook. [Susie, if you read this, I <3 you!!!]
When life hands you processed ham, eat peanut butter bagels.
I sent an email–half in Korean, half in English–to the homestay coordinator asking her advice. Fortunately, she works with homestay dad at the same municipal office, and she immediately made him aware of the situation and apologized profusely…even though this whole thing is my own fault.
I was so nervous to come home tonight because I anticipated a barrage of questions and accusations: But you’ve been eating meat! But you said everything was delicious! [This, for the most part, is true.] Why did you eat chicken the other night?!?
When homestay mom came home though, her arms were loaded with fresh produce, and she immediately started making dinner. When I started to help, she eventually said, “So you’re vegetarian? I’m so sorry! This must have been so hard for you! You should tell me if there’s something you don’t eat.” and apologized several times. [Obviously, this was in Korean, so it's possible that I misunderstood her.]
Stir-fried peppers. Unsurprisingly, this dish was spicy.
I feel foolish that I didn’t speak up earlier, and I feel so relieved that I got this out in the open, even using my terrible, limited Korean.
Even more than speaking up for myself though, I learned an important lesson about how I’ve been viewing my homestay family.
I think it’s dangerous to use culture as a blanket justification for every “strange” behavior and interaction we have with someone from a different country. For example, some of my ESL students are unfamiliar with the importance placed upon intellectual property in American academic culture, but that in no way excuses them when they commit blatant plagiarism. And saying “Well, their culture doesn’t have that concept” just reduces them from people to ambiguous products of their “culture”…whatever that actually means.
Likewise, when something weird happens to me here, it’s frustrating to hear “Oh, that must just be how Koreans are!” I mean, some people are just weird. If a non-American met me, would s/he think that I represented “how all Americans are”?
Yay, meat-free dinner!
[I told homestay mom that I was fine picking out meat from certain dishes.]
Here’s the thing though: by martyring myself, I was effectively doing the same thing to my homestay family. I was desperate not to offend them because I had heard that Koreans “don’t understand vegetarianism,” but I wasn’t actually seeing them as the kind, generous people that they are. I wasn’t even giving them a chance to try to accommodate me; instead, I naively assumed that they would be incapable of or unwilling to deal with a vegetarian. Certainly, some Koreans might be this way, but my homestay family seems eager to make me feel comfortable and at-home.*
*Except I think homestay sister is rather upset about this new development. She loves meat. I’m going to try to buy her lots of ice cream….
If you’ve made it all the way through this long post, congratulations! Your reward? More pictures.
This is apparently how you move out of the apartment complex, via mechanized cart:
This is our teacher today, after inflicting corporal punishment on a classmate for not knowing the difference between the “to” and “at” particles.
Edit (6/25/12): I was just served kimbap for breakfast containing tuna, fish-based fake crab, and ham. I assume homestay mom forgot, but I really felt uncomfortable saying something. I just picked out the animal products, but I don’t think she saw me.