I was eleven when my father, a Korean immigrant in the U.S. army, tried to drag me to a psychiatrist. My symptoms? Unusual thoughts, erratic behavior, filial disobedience: I suddenly refused to eat meat.
It was the late ‘80s- before restaurant menus listed vegetarian options, before mainstream supermarkets stocked tofu, before Hollywood millionaires flaunted vegan lifestyles. Growing up in a culture where nonconformity is often shunned, I knew I was doing something wrong. So I did it in the only way I knew how- quietly, furtively. I ate only banchan with plant origins. I pulled my plate away when my parents leaned over to heap bulgogi onto it, encouraging me to eat, eat more. Our household was often chaotic, but one thing was stable: every night we ate dinner together in silence. The meal remained unchanged: a mountain of steamed white rice, an even larger portion of meat, and a few vegetable side dishes.
Instead of saying “I love you,” my parents expressed love by showering me with food, making sure I never met hunger. This food was often meat. When the Korean War started, Umma was seven and walked south for days with her family, who transported belongings on their backs with growling stomachs. Appa, at age six, scavenged U.S. military base dumpsters for scraps of Spam and hot dogs that Halmoni transformed into chiigae for a family of nine. If my parents were lucky, they consumed meat every few months when they were growing up. Appa worked hard to ensure meat was on our table at each meal.
Meat served as the basis for our father/daughter bonding. He never expressed love or praise verbally. Instead, he often returned home exhausted from work, shouting, “Goo-ray-ee-soo-yah! Ga ja! Let’s GO!” I would leap up, abandoning my homework. He never revealed our destination. I always squealed when we arrived. We devoured hot dogs with Heinz ketchup until my stomach ached, selected steaks that he grilled into feasts just for the two of us, or filled baskets with dried cuttlefish at a Korean market for our living room tournaments of Connect Four. His tense face broke into a broad grin as store owners and customers noted our physical resemblances—sharp jawline, wide nose, wiry frame, sparse yet unruly eyebrows.
Although it was never my intention, my vegetarianism translated as a rejection of my father’s love. Appa became baffled, then tried to quickly remedy the situation. He scolded my mother, accusing her of selecting inferior cuts, “She doesn’t want to eat!” He assigned himself to scrutinize meat racks to select only the highest quality. When the meat remained untouched, he became alarmed. He made long distance calls to Korea to strategize with aunts, uncles, and cousins who remained faceless voices to me. They were unfamiliar with this foreign illness; they had never heard of a person refusing to eat meat. As war survivors who had endured famine, it was inconceivable. As muffled whispers escaped from my parents’ bedroom, Appa would emerge shaking his head, muttering and sighing heavily, “Something wrong with her brain.”
My reason for becoming vegetarian was simple: I cared about animals too much to eat them. As a child, I declared my desire to become a veterinarian so I could heal animals in pain. One afternoon, while pretending to do my homework, I saw television reportage of a slaughterhouse. I put down my pencil and nearly vomited. The images haunted me. I had never really considered how animals were killed for human consumption. I began making the connection that what I put into my mouth was once a living, breathing being that had a mother and father. I resolved never to eat meat again.
I had always had a soft spot for animals. As a military family, we were uprooted frequently and with little notice, found ourselves trying to navigate unfamiliar lands and establish community. The only constant companion I had was my dog, who flew with us across international borders. In the first grade, when we lived in Korea, Appa took me to a toy store. I stopped to stare at a plastic farm set, complete with tiny dogs, horses, cows, and piglets. I pictured myself grown up, walking barefoot through soft green grass with a bucket, feeding and playing with my animal pack. I looked up into Appa’s military-issued, black plastic framed glasses and announced, “Daddy, I’m going to be a farmer when I grow up.”
“What?” he jumped, looking around to see if anyone had overheard. Quickly, he dragged me toward the next aisle, shaking his head vigorously and hissing under his breath, “Don’t say that!” He tried to talk me into selecting a Cabbage Patch doll, but I shook my head, tossing my messy ponytail from side to side. From a young age, I was keenly aware that money was scarce and that my parents believed that if we had more of it, we would lead happier lives. It was rare that I asked my father for material objects and he generally indulged my requests. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset about the farm set.
In 1976, my parents boarded a flight in Seoul with Chicago as their destination. My father insisted that they move to the U.S. This was a land where his children could have opportunities they never imagined for themselves, leaving behind humble roots as descendants of farmers. Umma laughed as she rattled off the contents crammed into two suitcases—shrimp paste, perilla leaves, dried cuttlefish, squid. “We don’t know if we can find Korean food in America so Mommy hiding all kinds food inside suitcase.” I imagine that Appa weighed the suitcases with his arms, lifting them up and down to gauge their weight as he does each time I visit. Grinning and sucking air through his teeth to signal the close call, he exhales, “Yes ma’am, almost 50 pounds! You lucky.” My father’s arms are a surprisingly accurate scale. When he drops me off at airports, he explains his secret to me and staff at baggage counters: “I know by feel. Rice bag is exactly 50 pounds. I carry it many times in my life.”
One of my earliest memories is my parents asking me, before I could barely write my own name, if I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. I answered, hesitantly, “Both.” I wanted to make them happy. They threw their heads back and laughed, gleeful at my youthful ambition.
Heavy with the burden of debt that could never be repaid fully to my parents, I did my best to please them. I presented them with stacks of certificates I earned as “Math Student of the Year,” “Best English Student,” “Citizen of the Month.” I practiced piano and violin although I knew I would never become the prodigy they hoped would open the doors to Harvard or Julliard. I stayed out of trouble. Yet when I became vegetarian, Appa told me repeatedly that I was bad, a disobedient child. “You think you American, can do whatever you want?” he would shout. I became frustrated. Why did he think my refusal to eat meat was criminal?
To my parents, my vegetarianism was a radical act that could only invite trouble. In their experiences, defending nonconformist beliefs resulted in harrowing consequences. It brought back terrifying memories of massacres of student activists and political dissidents in Korea, government surveillance, clandestine executions of extended family members of the nonconformist. For a child to be capable of dissent on ethical grounds, a conscientious objector of meat, was alarming.
It was the first time I stood up for my beliefs to my father. I felt immense guilt for causing my parents so much grief. Everything they did was a sacrifice for their children. My father owned only two pairs of shoes, his sneakers and his church shoes, and a handful of shirts that he rotated for years. My mother often claimed she wasn’t hungry during meals; afterward, I would find her standing over the kitchen counter eating our leftovers so not one grain of rice was wasted. We only ate out once a year, on Halmoni’s birthday. In addition to their full-time jobs, my parents worked seasonally as janitors on golf courses, something I didn’t find out until after college graduation. Money was only allocated towards food or education; everything else was an unnecessary evil.
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as the situation grew tenser each day. Umma sobbed, asking God what she had done wrong. Appa cornered me repeatedly and demanded to know, “Who tells you stop eating meat?” He feared I had become involved with the wrong crowd at school. Growing up on military bases, I didn’t meet another vegetarian until I went to college. Each time he asked, I shook my head fiercely and held my ground. For years, Appa had interrogated POWs during Vietnam. He could be insistent. I had to be even more so. He finally confided, “I knew somebody like that in army, long ago. She cannot eat meat because religion. She look really sick, so skinny, like she gonna die tomorrow. She real strange.” He shuddered, “Don’t…be…like…that,” before leaving me with my chin resting on two fists.
After a week of calls all over Korea, Appa’s phone card ran out of funds and he turned to Plan B: his coworkers. They were Americans, experts on all things American. The soldiers explained to him that in this country, children experience something called “phases.” They advised him to ignore it and assured him that the problem would soon resolve itself. Appa became hopeful. How long did I intend for “phases” to last—“One, two days, one more week?” Instead of the truth (“Never”), I gulped, “I don’t know.” Bulging veins popped along his forehead as he snarled, “What you mean, you don’t know? Who know, then? Who?” He threw up his hands and ordered my mother to bring me a plate of meat.
Appa’s temper flared along with his nostrils as he fledged a full-on battle: “If you don’t eat bulgogi by 16:00 hours, I kick you out!” “I give away dog unless you eat hot dog!” They were feeble threats. He was incapable of letting me out of his sight as he oversaw a strict regimen of studying and violin and piano practice; my mom often huffed that he cared for that dog more than her. When he saw the plate untouched, he ranted about what a bad daughter I was. “In Korea, I can never eat meat! You never appreciate anything Daddy do for you!” Threats continued as weeks stretched into months, then years. I wondered if I would ever be able to smile around him again.
Appa became convinced that the SPCA was responsible for my deviance by encouraging my compassion toward animals. For years, I volunteered every weekend as a dog walker and tabled at special events. He forbade me from nearing the SPCA’s property for as long as I lived and refused to drive me. I was furious.
In the U.S., vegetarianism is generally associated with health consciousness. To my immigrant parents, lacking meat in one’s diet was synonymous with death, disease, poverty, and suffering. Everything they came to this country to escape.
My parents fretted that I would die of malnutrition. They pleaded with me to eat bulgogi, a cheeseburger, steak- “just one bite!” Appa ranted that I was destroying the family. Because I had selfishly gone vegetarian, we could no longer enjoy family dinners together. How could a parent eat meat while their child watched? It was despicable to Korean parents who grew up in famine, in a culture where parents would starve so children could eat.
One afternoon, I heard Umma chopping vegetables. She brought a tray with a steaming bowl of chajangmyun, my favorite dish. It had been ages since I’d tasted it. I shook my head- I was familiar with the recipe. She reassured me that it was 100% vegetarian. After shoveling a huge chopstick full into my mouth, I immediately spat it out. I could taste the flesh, the meat I hadn’t eaten in so long. I screamed and peered closer into the bowl. Tiny dots speckled the noodles-finely chopped ground beef disguised by dark sauce. Furious, I assumed my father was her accomplice, but the look on his face when he approached told me that it was completely my mother’s doing. Umma insisted she had no choice—if she couldn’t trick me into eating meat, I would soon die of malnutrition. He scolded her, saying it was not right to lie to one’s child. I was stunned. For the first time in years, he was on my side.
A few days later, my dad told me we were going for a drive. He no longer came home shouting my name and yelling, “Let’s go!” so it took me by surprise. I wondered if he was trying to take me to the military psychiatrist again to correct my dissident thoughts. I bit my lip as we drove along the foggy coastline and pulled into a small store lot an hour later.
Inside, the prices were so high, we gasped. The cashier glared as Appa shuffled through each aisle with his hands clasped behind his back, me trailing behind him. On the shelves were strange foods labeled with unfamiliar words: quinoa, bulgar, kasha. Appa pulled a carton off the shelf marked with the words, “rice milk.” It was more expensive than regular milk, which came in a bigger bottle.
When we got home, Appa ordered me to drink the entire carton like a shot of liquor. It was good for “people who eat vegetables,” he said, his term for vegetarian in Korean. An American coworker had told him about this strange product. He supervised as I took my first sip, then gagged. It tasted grainy, like chalk that had been pressed through a broken blender. This was before there were abundant varieties of nut milks to choose from. We were unaware that just like regular milk, it tasted better cold. He sucked air through his teeth and narrowed his eyes, ordering me to finish the rest before it was wasted.
Though my introduction to nut milks was unpalatable, it served as a major turning point. As the years passed, he realized that I would not relent and his reaction to my vegetarianism slowly softened. He still asked me when I was going to start eating meat again, but the intervals between his inquiries stretched longer. He stopped shouting that I was single-handedly destroying our family and everything he had worked hard for. By the time I finished college, Appa began making homemade soy milk. Instead of joyrides involving meat, he took me to produce stands where he stocked the trunk of his beat-up car with boxes of Fuji apples, mangos, strawberries, and grapes.
On my last visit home, my parents asked me the question they ask most: “What you want to eat?” “Chajangmyun,” I replied. My dad ordered my mother to assemble the ingredients on the kitchen counter and then step aside. He stood barefoot in his pajamas, smaller than I remembered him, preparing a vegetarian sauce heaped with onions and zucchini, topped with crisp julienned cucumbers. Half an hour later, although I was standing only a few feet from him, he smiled and yelled the words that made him happiest, “Goo-ray-ee-soo-yah! Bap muk jah! Time to eat!”