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The Vegetarian is a novel that contains many aspects of Korean culture. Of course, this is the case, as it was written by Han Kang, a South Korean author, originally in Korean. The storyline surrounds Yeong-hye’s choice to no longer consume meat after having dreams of the abuse animals face at the hands of humans, and the negative impact this has on her life. The story is told not from Yeong-hye’s perspective but in three parts from the perspective of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister.

There are numerous ways in which the Korean culture is presented to the reader throughout The Vegetarian. The way in which emotions are discussed is one of them, as Asian societies have different societal norms than Western cultures do when regarding feelings and reactions. I was able to recognize the Asian influence within the text almost immediately, as I have experienced living in China and have traveled through Asia extensively (an explanation as to why I found this component of the story all the more interesting). A fascinating example which embodies how this specific culture responds to events differently than Westerners would is found when Yeong-hye and her sister, In-hye, are at the hospital.

“The nurse unlocked the door to the six-person ward and led them in. Yeong-hye remained composed as her sister greeted each of the nurses in turn…You will not be weak, In-hye told herself, her lips pressed tightly together” (149-150).

In-hye suppressing the tormented feelings she experiences while admitting Yeong-hye to the hospital is a perfect example of the common low-arousal emotions Asian cultures tend to present. (A person who experiences low-arousal is less reactive to events happening around them than one who experiences high-arousal.) While she is obviously upset about the circumstances that surround her and her sister, In-hye composes herself in a calm and collected manner. The only sign of distress that she allows to be seen is her lips tightening. Nangyeon Lim writes about this cultural difference specifically in Cultural Differences in Emotion: Differences in Emotional Arousal Levels between the East and the West:

“In Western or individualist culture, high arousal emotions are valued and promoted more than low arousal emotions. Moreover, Westerners experience high arousal emotions more than low arousal emotions. By contrast, in Eastern or collectivist culture, low arousal emotions are valued more than high arousal emotions. Moreover, people in the East actually experience and prefer to experience low arousal emotions more than high arousal emotions.”

Of course, there is still emotion present throughout The Vegetarian. The novel addresses many difficult topics, such as child abuse, suicide, unfaithfulness/betrayal, and more. Yet the emotional reactions to these events are demonstrated in a way that rings very true to how members of this culture show how they are feeling. Another example of this comes from Yeong-hye’s husband’s point of view, after witnessing his wife sitting outside the hospital, naked, with blood spilling from her slashed wrists:

“I thought to myself: I do not know that woman. And it was true. It was not a lie. Nevertheless, and compelled by responsibilities that refused to be shirked, my legs carried me toward her, a movement for the life of me I could not control. “Darling, what are you doing?” I murmured in a low voice, picking up the hospital gown and using it to cover her bare chest” (59).

Even though seeing your wife in that state could be a traumatizing experience, Mr. Cheong acts and responds in a way that is mild and, by definition, low-arousal. It is odd to think what a westerner would do if faced with this and the differences in emotion which would be displayed.

It is captivating to revisit through a text a culture with which I am so familiar, and even more so interesting to me to be able to recognize these differences between the East and West cultures. While there are many ways to explore the aspects of Eastern culture presented in The Vegetarian, I felt that the expression of emotion was one which isn’t as obvious but is extremely important.


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