“Why do you only have rice and kimchi? Do you not like Korean food?” A concerned teacher asks me this in Korean on my first day as I set down my nearly bare plate on the table.
Before I can respond, my co-teacher replies, “Monica does not eat meat. She only eats chicken.” Then, she turns to me and sighs, “You know, Monica, our cafeteria serves a lot of meat because without meat, these students will not grow well.”
“Oh I understand. It’s okay,” I say with a smile and with far too many enthusiastic head nods. It’s only my first week here, and I do not want to be difficult or annoying.
“Besides, my host mom makes delicious chicken and vegetarian food, so I eat a lot for breakfast and dinner,” I assure her, the other teachers and myself.
“Why is Monica only eating rice and kimchi?” Another teacher asks me in Korean later that week.
“Gogi anmeogeoyo[1. I don’t eat meat.],” I proudly reply with one of the most useful phrases I have learned in the past few days.
A few weeks have passed since the beginning of school, and I now dread lunch time. The cafeteria has become one of the most uncomfortable places for me in school. After carefully inspecting the meat in the orange sauce, I scowl at it. It’s pork, not chicken. Picking up my tray of rice and kimchi, I tread carefully towards the table, trying to avoid teachers I have not interacted with before, solely so I do not have to entertain…
“Do you not like the food? You didn’t take any meat or oyster soup.”
I sigh and annoyingly make eye contact with the concerned teacher behind me, “gogi anmeogeoyo,” I say in a tone harsher than I mean.
After a two-hour drive to our condo in Boseong, the five other English teachers and I drop our bags on the floor and check out our room for our English retreat. I take a seat at the dining table while the other teachers gather on the floor of the main room, a stone’s throw away from me.
“Seonsaengnimdeul![2. Teachers] Let’s eat raw meat for dinner tonight,” a teacher suggests at the sound of growling stomachs.
“Yes! The school is paying for this English teacher’s retreat, so we should indulge,” another teacher excitedly agrees.
“Okay, I’ll look for a good restaurant, so we can eat well tonight.”
The conversation is in Korean, but from experience, I already knew what is going to happen next. I feel everyone’s gaze shift across the room towards me, despite the fact that I am intently staring at the super interesting thing happening with my hands in my lap. Eventually, the awkwardness forces me to meet the assortment of pitying and slightly frustrated eyes. Though, their voices drop to a whisper, I can still make out the conversation.
“Oh, but Monica cannot eat if we go there,” a teacher sadly remarks.
“She can’t eat any meat? Not even pork?” another teacher says in a voice laced with disbelief.
“What about fish? She has to eat fish, right?”
With a sigh, “No, we should go somewhere else. Maybe we can find a bibimbap restaurant nearby or…”
“Aww I really wanted to eat raw meat tonight.”
“This is too bad…”
We ended up at the raw meat restaurant.
I convince myself to endure the awkwardness and feelings of being burdensome at school. It’s okay, I tell myself, because I can always eat everything served at home. My host mom makes kimchi jjigae[3. Stew usually made with kimchi, pork belly and tofu] without sausage, japchae [4. Glass noodles with stir-fried vegetables and meat] without ham, and bibimbap[5. Rice with mixed vegetables, beef and red pepper paste] without beef. However, I feel like this comfort and food security at home will not last long. Day by day, I notice it slowly escaping my grasp. For example, lately, my host mom has been making more meat dishes. Today, as I was picking out the ham from my fried rice, my host brother asked me, “Teacher, why don’t you eat meat?”
“I was raised Hindu, and Hindus believe it is our duty to God to not harm God’s other creations, including animals. For us, eating meat is like committing an act of violence.”
Before my host brother can ask why I eat chicken, I add, “When my parents immigrated to America, they found it difficult to be completely vegetarian. So, they raised my brothers and me as semi-vegetarians—vegetarians who eat chicken.”
I look at him with squinting eyes wondering what he is thinking or if he even understands me. Feeling guilty and burdensome, I apologize for my dietary choices. “I’m sorry. I know it must be hard to feed me. It seems that there’s a lot of seafood and meat in this area.”
“Oh teacher, you should not say sorry. You come from another culture. I think it is important that we respect other cultures and lifestyles. It’s important to understand other people,” he reassures me in broken English. I was touched. I’m not sure his mother or my co-teacher share the same sentiment, but now I feel like at least one person understands me.
Charlie and Kingsley, two of my Fulbright friends, are visiting my placement city, Naju. My host mom has unexpectedly planned the entire weekend for us. I’m a little hesitant, but I suppose she will do a better job of showing off Naju than I will.
Our first stop is the neighboring town of Yeongsanpo’s famous Hongeo row—a line of restaurants that serve fermented skate fish. The smell wafting in the streets should have been enough warning, but we felt it impolite to protest. We did not want my host mom to think we were unwilling to immerse ourselves in a new culture. As we walk in, two older men point and laugh at the absurdity of foreigners trying the local dish. My friends and I exchange concerned glances—hongeo is a delicacy few people I know actually enjoy.
My brave-souled friends accept their first portion from my host mom and politely chew for the following ten minutes dismissing my many questions with little grunts and mmms. All the while, my host mom is strongly encouraging me to take a bite. Out of respect, though mostly weathered by her insistence, I decide to submit. She prepares a lettuce wrap for me with sauces, garlic, the pungent fish and pork. Despite the fact I am willing to try the fish, I still am not ready to compromise my religious values that much to please my host mom. She eventually removes the pork with a slight eye roll, and I stuff the whole wrap in my mouth submitting my olfactory system to one of the most torturous experiences.
My teeth broke into the fish, which unpleasantly triggered a feeling akin to wasabi at the back of my throat and sinuses. With another bite, pains shot down my nose. Chew faster, I ordered myself so that I could end the pain. Unfortunately, I swallowed everything that had made the fish taste bearable leaving me with my worst enemy (the fish) sitting alone on my tongue, everyone at the table staring at me and the guy in the back of the restaurant laughing like a madman.
“Masisseoyo?[6. Is it delicious?]” my host mom asked.
“Yes, yes” I ordered myself to say out of respect and politeness, but I was so distracted by the taste that I could not form the words. Shaking my head and still chewing vigorously, I looked in her in the eye as if she was the hongeo slowly bringing me to my death and repeated, “No, no, no.”
My host mom’s Naju tour ended with a famous gomtang—Naju’s beef stew specialty—restaurant. Cows are sacred in Hinduism, so usually even meat-eating Hindus avoid beef. My host brother expressed concern over the lack of options for me at the gomtang restaurant, but his mother dismissed him. Ignoring my hunger pangs, I assured him (and myself) that I would eat later.
The waitress placed a full bowl in front of me. My friends and I jumped to remind my host mom, but she waved a hand and distractedly said mine didn’t have meat. Unable to communicate fluently in Korean, I was used to blindly trusting others. My hunger told my mind to take a rest, and I brought a spoonful to my mouth—it was definitely not vegetarian. Charlie peeked over at my bowl and confirmed my fear: “That’s beef.”
What do I do? Just play dumb and eat it. Overwhelmed, I stared at my lap forcing myself to try and smile to no avail. I felt my host mom’s glare and heard Charlie and Kingsley come to my rescue. I tried to be thankful because I am an ambassador, but I couldn’t. I felt like someone had just sucker-punched me.
Then I heard my host mom explain to them in Korean,” Monica decided to come to Korea. She will learn how to eat meat. Eating meat is an important part of our culture, and she needs to accept it if she wants to learn Korean culture.”
My gaze flew up, but I couldn’t meet her eyes. Her words had delivered the final blow. I excused myself to the bathroom and released my frustration and tears there.
I thought about the meat powder I knew my host mom put in every soup I ate (something I forced myself to deny until that moment) and the meat in my meals that I’ve had to pick out. Every thought brought more tears. Rage overcame me. Anger was the only thing I could think and feel.
On the surface, I was angry and frustrated at my host mom. Even after explaining my beliefs and motivations, she had not accepted my way of living. Her comment made me feel that there was no sense of understanding or acknowledgement of my effort to learn Korean culture. More importantly, we were not participating in a cultural exchange. My culture, values, and lifestyle were not being understood or respected. By rejecting my dietary choices, she wrote off an important facet of my identity.
After working through the anger and frustration, I encountered sadness and vulnerability. The worst part of this was that I had permitted my host mom to put me in this situation. She pushed me to make a choice against my will and therefore suppress a part of my identity. Semi-vegetarianism has been a part of my lifestyle since I was born, even if it was inconvenient or difficult at times. I am proud of it. In that moment, I had abandoned my religion, ethics and my deep-seated beliefs to be accommodating. And that was not okay. That left me miserable, powerless and weak.
However, I still had a job to do. As an ambassador, I should teach American culture and engage in Korean culture. I hold an immense responsibility as a representative of cultural understanding. Politeness, respectfulness, and composure are key in handling and enduring difficult situations and frustrations concerning stark cultural differences. Even if I want to cry, out of pride for my job of cultural exchange, I must fight and smile.
But, how far did I have to go?
Grasping the vanity for support, I swallowed hard and forced myself to open my eyes and look in the mirror. My thoughts raced, and I could barely comprehend them. Was I mad at her? At myself? Could I block this from my memory? Maybe it didn’t really happen then, right? Did I have to pretend everything’s okay? I had been in the bathroom for too long already—I knew that. I signed myself up for this. I needed to be able to handle these cultural differences. I needed to get myself together. I needed to preserve my pride. My sense of responsibility momentarily conquered my grief. I drew a finger under each eye and flicked off the tears. I opened the door, hesitated for a moment to plaster on a fake smile, and returned to the restaurant.
Monica Mehta is a 2015-2016 ETA at Naju High School in Naju, Jeollanam-do.