The Vegetarian by Han Kang

by Stella Yoo

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I’ve never read a book written in the Korean language. As a native speaker of the language who has lived in the United States for over a decade, I can say this with modest shame, but I can’t help but feel guilty. I lost a large chunk of my ability to read Korean quickly enough to actually experience a book in the language and thus never had the chance to explore the Korean literary canon. But upon seeing the translated version of The Vegetarian on numerous bestselling lists and receiving critical acclaim, I finally decided that the novel, written by Han Kang and translated from Korean, might be a good place to start studying my own culture through a literary lens.

The Vegetarian follows the story of a South Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian after having a series of disturbing dreams about meat. Giving up meat in such an abrupt fashion worries her husband, along with her Yeong-hye’s parents and siblings. As her body increasingly grows limp—her “complexion resembled that of a hospital patient”—Yeong-hye’s family attempts to convince her to start eating meat again. When words do not convince Yeong-hye enough, her family resorts to physical measures, exacerbating her already fragile mental state. But Yeong-hye never quite recovers—if anything, she seeks refuge in her own severed reality and finds a kind of distorted comfort in it.

The story is divided into three parts: the first part is Yeong-hye’s story told through her husband’s perspective, the second through her brother-in-law, and the third through her sister. Each part juxtaposes varying angles of inner turmoil and the desires that plague their everyday lives; for some, they are radically salacious and for others, anhedonic.

When Yeong-hye turns vegetarian and stops making meat dishes in the household, this brings an immense level of anger to her husband. He broods and whines about how she once used to make such delicious dinners, and how he too is so limited to only plants and rice as a result of her diet. But this anger and lack of support for his wife is also a classic patriarchal notion and exemplifies the broken social system that Korea is built on. It’s the way I, and a million other people of my culture, I assume, grew up. Though being exposed to a more modern Americanized culture did teach me that there were visceral problems with Korean obligations on becoming a stay-at-home wife, Kang forced me to face it as candidly as possible. The extent of Yeong-hye’s husband’s criticism ranges from the superficial— “Were you really going to go out looking like this? Do your makeup again.”— to the more explicitly self-righteous— “There’s nothing wrong with keeping quiet; after all, hadn’t women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?”

It also made me examine the collectivist attitude that Korea and so many Asian countries run on. While America fosters individualism, the Asian cultures that I know of are greatly collectivist and do not encourage or much appreciate those who appear to follow their own proverbial “path.” I couldn’t help but remember the Asian proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” as Yeong-hye dipped deeper into her own suffering and her family members began to react negatively. It made me wonder how my own parents, who have maintained a quite traditional culture, would react if I were to display such an act of dietary defiance, or any other kind of unforeseen acute defiance for that matter. Would they think I’m selfish and unreasonable, like Yeong-hye’s family did? It could come off as bizarre to proclaim since Yeong-hye’s story is so unsettling and disturbing, but there were so many sides to her story that I could deeply relate to.

But Kang’s most notable cultural criticism is decidedly on the Korean perspective towards vegetarianism. Like many other cultures, food is a vital part of Korean life. Since food was a rarity in the poverty-stricken areas of Korea, most people only ate what was available—there were no such things as preferences in diet. This cultural mindset is something that I believe has endured for decades—seeing The Vegetarian tackling such a sensitive topic aggressively was refreshing to see.

Furthermore, Kang’s writing style is exquisite. Her words are sharp, sophisticated, and cut deep into the heart. Every sentence she wrote was provocative and immediately something to examine. I repeatedly found my mind wandering while reading the book not because I found it unengaging, but because I found myself lost in my own thoughts and questions as I read on. Kang’s poetic prose as she writes about Yeong-hye’s contorted dreams perfectly captures the disorientation and fragmented structure of a dreamlike state—“Suddenly, everything around me began to slide away, as though pulled back on an ebbing tide. The dining table, you, all the kitchen furniture. I was alone, the only thing remaining in all of infinite space.” The next day, you’ll wonder whether the dream you remember was through paper and ink or you had the dream yourself.

All in all, The Vegetarian offered me so much insight on my own culture and the issues in the more traditional ways of life that the older generations still enforce. There were numerous aspects of the novel that made me rethink so much of Korean ways of life, including my own, and I thank it for that.

— Stella Yoo is a seventeen-year-old student hailing from Los Angeles. When she's not reading or attempting to learn Portuguese, she can be found writing for various publications and corners of the internet. Writings by Junot Díaz and Banana Yoshimoto sit in a cozy nook in her heart. She hopes that she can ditch the horrors of humanity and move to outer space one day, but for now you can catch her on Tumblr @weaverfestival.