Feed on

Food, especially the Korean attitude towards food, is a large part of The Vegetarian.  It is also one of the many example of how Korean culture impacts the novel.  Food is a very important part of Korean culture, and we see this early on in the first section.  Kang writes:

I couldn’t think of her family without also recalling the smell of sizzling meat and burning garlic, the sound of shot glasses clinking and the women’s noisy conversation emanating from the kitchen. All of them — especially my father-in-law — enjoyed yuk hwe, a kind of beef tartar. I’d seen my mother-in-law gut a live fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken into pieces with a butcher’s cleaver.

This passage is one of the many that is telling of how important food is to Korean culture.  I think it is easy for Western readers to question the outrage that Yeong-hye’s family and friends express when she becomes “the vegetarian.”  It isn’t uncommon for people to be vegetarian or vegans, but in a culture where food is this important, that outrage makes sense.  In Korea, confucian ideals of how society is supposed to work are still heavily rooted in everyday life.  It is expected that members of society are to work as hard as they can.  Those who work the regular 9 to 5 in offices are called “salary men.”  These people do nothing but work and when their shift is over, they gather with their friends at food stands and sit in little plastic chairs outside restaurants.  They do this for several hours, visiting several different establishments.  The meals often contain meat and lots of alcohol. It is a tradition, a way to socialize and gather with those around you.  By not eating meat, Yeong-hye is in a way shunning tradition and beginning her strange transformation.  She detaches from the world around her with just this one simple act.


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