South Korea: Social Stigma

This time around choosing a book was easy for me. I have wanted to read The Vegetarian by Han Kang since it came out in 2016. It has won an impressive amount of literary awards, and I have seen it been discussed in many places, but because I knew that I wanted to read this book for this reading challenge, I decided I did not want to know anything about the book until the day I actually started reading it.

Yeong-hye and her husband live perfectly ordinary lives in Seoul. Suddenly Yeong-hye states she is a vegetarian and she will not eat meat. This is not common in South Korea. The culture is strictly following social norms, which means her not eating meat is found to be quite shocking. She claims she has had horrible dreams and after that she simply could not touch meat again.

The book is short and written in two parts. The second part takes the reader into a different setting. Yeong-hye becomes the muse of her artist brother-in-law. The third part takes the reader to the sadness what became of Yeong-hey. She is in a mental institution, and she has schizophrenia and anorexia.

This book left me hollow. The culture is extremely different from mine, and I understand that people are expected to act in a certain way. However, we live in the 21st century and people are allowed to make many choices regarding their own lives. I wish that most people would be accepted the way they are, at least not pressured into changing themselves against their will. In addition, mental illnesses are slowly being more accepted around the globe, which means there should be a growing understanding regarding these issues. The lack of even trying to understand that there might be something terribly wrong with your family member simply annoyed me.

There are many underlying issues in this book, and in a suppressed society where there are so many social norms and gender hierarchy, I love it that someone tries to break free. What I do not like is that it had to be done breaking down, going ‘insane’. It is a fast read, but a heavy read as well. I find it good that authors write about these issues. I wish I could say I enjoyed the book, but I did not. My main issue is that the story did not give me hope, and this bothered me. It was still worth the read, and I hope that it has opened up new possibilities for women and people with alternative lifestyle choices in South Korea.

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