Featured Issue 7 Nonfiction/Literary Criticism

Vegan, No Matter What – Kim Han Min

Vegan, No Matter What

By Kim Han Min

Translated by Ji Won Park and Eugene Kim

The Other

This book is about the other. Let us begin with the poetic words of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas:

I mean to say that

A truly human life

Does not remain life satisfied in its equality to being, a life of quietude.

A truly human life

Has to be life constantly awakened by the other. 

I subscribe to his humanism. Indeed, I believe that true life begins when my focus shifts from oneself to the other. The moment the story of the other becomes my own, the other is no longer outside of us, and so begins the curious concept of the collective “we.” 

The other presents itself to me – without warning, incessantly, and in various forms. In the face of the other, the brain calculates: is this unidentified figure on my side? If the brain concludes they are not, it “otherises” them. The so-labelled figure and I stay strangers forever. In the case of another chance encounter, the brain recalls the stored decision to make the judgment even faster. Once we otherise, we rarely re-evaluate. 

Have you seen YouTube clips of kids refusing to eat meat? Do check them out if you haven’t. They’re worth watching just because they’re so cute. When they realise that the chunks of meat on their plates have been harvested from the adorable animals they saw in picture books or on farms, their reaction comes as a surprise to us, the adult viewers. They exclaim, “Mum, how can you eat this? There is no way I’m eating this, you monster!” These kids haven’t yet otherised the animals.

As they grow up, otherising will come more naturally to them. They will develop a neat filing system where the pet puppy is categorised as the family and the farm pig as the other. They may develop this system on their own, but those around them enforce it, no doubt. For a long time, throughout history, this instance of otherisation has been deemed a normal part of growing up.

When otherisation becomes a risk

What does it mean to otherise? It means to build a wall between me and the other, between them and us. We decide to identify with a group and distance ourselves from the other. After we throw the other group over the wall, we rebuild it even higher.

From then on, the concerns of the other become irrelevant to us.

There are two directions to otherisation: upward and downward.

Upward otherisation takes the form of jealousy or idolatry. We attribute their success to superior quality and assume that the difference between them and us has been set in stone like one’s class. Finding an explanation for the difference in effort would be too painful, so we decide to blame circumstances beyond our control. The qualifiers we use to describe accomplished people reinforce this viewpoint. The ill-bred me/well-bred others, me born to the wrong parents/others born to wealthy parents, the ordinary me/extraordinary others. 

Downward otherisation trivialises and excludes. The most common pattern is animalisation. When we strip people of human-like qualities, otherisation becomes easy. We find this pattern in all kinds of derogatory terms likening people to animals. The Nazis cast the entire Jewish group as less than human. 

My thoughts anchor on the concept of animalisation. With slavery disappeared in most parts of the world, animals occupy the lowest rung in society. Suppose there is a way to elevate animals’ status by just one rung and include them in the domain protected by ethics. Wouldn’t animalisation lose its efficacy as a dehumanising tactic? Suppose respecting animals becomes the norm. Suppose the phrase “treat someone like an animal” conjured up kindness rather than violence. Wouldn’t our whole ethical system improve in turn? As idealistic as this may sound, semantics can go a long way. 

The phrase reminds me of a culture shock I experienced as a kid. Though born in Seoul, I moved with my parents to Sri Lanka and Denmark and spent my childhood abroad. I was in the second grade when I came back to Korea. 

At the back of our classroom was a shared pencil sharpener. It frequently broke because it was passed around by a bunch of kids. Seeing this, the homeroom teacher put up a sign saying, “Take care of shared items like your own.” The phrasing shocked me. According to what I have learned by then, only the opposite message would have made sense: “Take care of shared items like they belong to others.” 

To me, common sense dictated that one must treat other people’s items or shared items with more care than you would your own. I remember rereading the sign multiple times, thinking I had misread it. This episode came almost as a Copernican inversion to me at a young age. In retrospect, it was a warning signal for all I would experience in Korea in the coming years. Whenever a parent uses the endearment “my little baby” I get reminded of that pencil sharpener. How great would it be if society treated “other people’s little babies” in the same precious way they would treat their own? 

The Most Otherised Class

The place of the other in this country is quite nuanced. Koreans are acutely conscious of how they may appear to others. But this does not mean they are considerate of others. It seems there are two extreme forms of the other. One form of the other is that we expend excessive time and mental energy to ingratiate ourselves. The other form of the other is whom we think we can mistreat and dismiss as if they didn’t exist. The former other often includes family, friends, and coworkers – people capable of affecting your success and well-being. The latter other consists of those who lie squarely outside the intimate circle: strangers on the street and foreigners, especially those from underdeveloped countries who are irrelevant to me. While we pander to the former group, sometimes at the expense of our own values and aspirations, we mistreat the latter.

One anthropologist once argued that Westerners are goal-oriented, whereas Easterners are relationship-oriented. The word “relationship” doesn’t quite capture the sense. I would add that modern Koreans are benefits-oriented. We are willfully blind to the sufferings of those who, in our judgment, would not provide immediate practical benefits. In particular, we dismiss as irrelevant the underprivileged minorities – immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ individuals. 

Given the state of our moral position, it goes without saying that animals are the last ones on our minds. Even those who purport to be progressive on issues surrounding minorities are indifferent to animal rights. Animals don’t even fall under the “others” category; they are objects or meat. I have a soft spot for animals, the most otherised class of beings.

Connectedness

Connectedness is the antithesis of otherisation. We are born with it. A child refusing meat can effortlessly make the logical connection that, just as the pet dog is an animal, so are pigs slaughtered for meat. For the child, just as mommy is a person, so is the house help who happens to be a foreigner. In their eyes, some things may be less familiar than others, but they do not take the lack of familiarity as a license to discriminate. Society destroys this natural ability to make empathetic connections by teaching children to otherise. It first cuts the sense of empathy into pieces, disabling the ability permanently. Thus, all types of connectedness are no less than the recovery of destroyed connections. The attempt to recover what is once destroyed is difficult but not impossible. Now, I would like to share the stories of those who act for connectedness.  

Veganism- what is it?

Veganism does not simply refer to dietary choices like vegetarianism. It refers to a movement and its supporters who refuse to consume animal products. Not only do they refuse meat, but they also do not eat fish, eggs and dairy, including cheese and milk. They do not buy products made of leather, fur, wool, crocodile skin and ivory. Strict vegans even refuse honey as it is a product gained by animal exploitation. They reject the idea of dolphin shows for the same reason. Food plays the most significant part in their lifestyle, so it is not utterly wrong to understand veganism as an extreme dietary preference. 

Are you connected, too? 

We rarely care about animals. For an average Korean who does not have dogs or cats, the length of time a day they spend on the welfare of animals would be 1-5 seconds, I assume. Say, when they walk while keeping their distance from the street pigeons because they are ‘filthy’, or when they catch mosquitos? But no one leads a completely independent life apart from animals. Animals are analogous to water or air. We can never live without them, but we don’t really care about them as they are all too self-evident. 

But animals are neither water nor air- they have consciousness. They have emotions. That’s why we can’t abuse elements yet can abuse animals. We can even abuse them as we wish. There is a school that offers an explicit lesson about how the modern human race bullies animals. I call it the best tuition-free university of the century: YouTube. You can find endless playlists that show how we treat animals by otherising them. I bet I have watched enough videos to ‘complete’ the coursework on animal subjects at that YouTube University.  

Rows of comments are made under videos that shock or touch the viewers. Someone comments, “I became a vegan after watching this,” followed by welcoming replies. People form solidarity and exchange useful information. A sentence recurs in the comments thread: “Are you connected, too?”. I’ve often seen that comment, and it reminds me of the romantic scene from the film Avatar where the Na’vi tribe people are connected around the giant Tree of Souls. No other sentence cannot fully contain the idea of veganism than that sentence. The core of becoming vegan is not in the refusal; it is in the connection. One’s becoming vegan is a way of participating in a social movement where common citizens recuperate the essential and intuitive connections through their own awakening and willingness. It’s restoring the ties they used to have when young, so abundant until industries, countries and soulless experts took over and intersected. 

There’s an interview with an American vegan on Youtube who runs a sanctuary for cows saved from the slaughterhouse. He encourages the visitors to touch the cow. He confesses that he himself has never had a chance to touch the creatures after all the years of eating countless portions of cattle meat. He can’t forget the first moment he held the cow in his two arms while laying his cheek and ear on the cow’s ample body. He says, at that moment, words of apology –I am so sorry– almost came out of his mouth unwittingly as all the terrible things he did to such kind and warm creatures flashed before his eyes like a blinking light. His confession made my nose tickle with sympathy. I felt a deep connection with the cow, or rather all the cows, and the American vegan living on the other side of the planet, if not all the people out there who would feel as I do after watching the video.      

Animals came to me 

Like everybody else, I once regarded an animal as the other. Though the animals in picture books and my imagination fascinated me, it was rare for me to connect them in continuation with my daily life. Then something happened. 

In My Room, a Comet (2008), I made a number of strange theories, and I named one of them as M.C. (Media Curriculum). Out of the countless media we counter in our life, sometimes we get an odd impression as if they send us some kind of signal. Let’s take an example of Fernando Pessoa, an enigmatic poet. 

Suppose you keep noticing the name Pessoa in a newspaper. You catch a glimpse of it on a book cover in the bookshop. Or you hear it from a radio programme about books. All seems to be a coincidence at first, or not- you are confused. As you follow the trail of signs as Hansel and Gretel follow the breadcrumbs, you get to learn unexpected lessons and a piece of advice you were desperately looking for to save your life. Looking back now, it feels like someone has designed a grand curriculum for my learning journey; that is a brief overview of my M.C theory.  

Animals are one of my M.C.’s. They started to be in my sight. They appeared here and there; once as a stray dog in a bin, and a hedgehog dying on the highway, and a sparrow fainted on the street, and then a tortoise abandoned on a crosswalk… just like that, they caught my sight without warning. 

Or I should say they ‘disturbed’ my sight. Though I endeavoured to look after them or bury them after deliberation, on most occasions, they came as a burden. Above all, the food I used to consume without thinking started to appear to me as a creature. I had a dog at that time, and one day I realised the food I fed my dog was also made of an animal. What does it make of the fate of an animal if it is destined to feed another animal?   

That thought system in me, meticulously built up by otherising animals, started to crack. I kept ignoring it, which was not hard. After all, we all ignore it. But something still lingered in the corner of my mind and bothered me until an incident happened in 2010: the culling of thousands of pigs. The incident disillusioned many Koreans; they could no longer otherise animals. In fact, it’s impossible to stay behind the illusion unless your heart is stone-cold. If you know someone who would not be shaken by the hellish sight of it, I am sure they are, at least, the last person you would want to meet for coffee. 

The trigger of my awakening was not the sight, though. It was a government officer’s post on the Internet. They were in charge of the culling, and employed by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. After burying the pigs all day, he stayed in the office for night duty until he heard mysterious noises outside. What he found was a couple of pigs, putting all their effort, had dug up to the surface to breathe. Their supervisor ordered them to smash the pigs’ skulls with a shovel to bury them under the ground again. Traumatised by his own murderous action, in a deep self-hatred, he confessed how appalling it was to do his job. 

What would have happened to him whose soul was still alive? Would he have given up on his job or pork? Or would he have carried on with his life as if nothing had happened? At least for me, I couldn’t feign anymore. I didn’t want to be part of the whole insanity, and I made up my mind to quit eating pork for the rest of my life. However, it took longer than I thought to maintain the mindset and develop it for the welfare of other animals. Why? Looking back now, it seems I only had sympathetic sentiments for animals. I felt pity for them and thought something was definitely wrong. While I value human feeling and sympathy as a cornerstone of veganism, I also believe in philosophy, logic, information and science as the supporting evidence for my faith. I hope this little book can help offer the least of the sources to you.  

Epilogue

I am on holiday at my parent’s house who live by Bukhan mountain. The plan was to get away from the summer heat and finish my writing. But the temperature here is as hot as in the city. Even mosquitos seem to have appeared from nowhere to annoy me every night. My parents call them ‘contract mosquitos’ hired by someone in the livestock industry who wanted to sabotage my writing. 

Unlike other vegans who are bound to face conflict with their family members, I am fortunate. Although I rarely meet them after my pravrajana– the term reminds me of the first time I went home after several years of living abroad. “Please take it as if your son became a monk,” I said to my mother. No other explanation was needed between us; she has been supportive ever since, as she always was. She used to be a vegetarian already, and she is now even more avid in the vegan lifestyle than before. My older sister, too, brings a vegan cake for anyone’s birthday party I attend. My little brother, whose least favourite activity is cooking, sometimes makes vegetable fried rice for me. My father, a life-long Buddhist, leads a Buddhist activist group against factory farming and slaughterhouses despite being in his 70s. Having such a considerate and inspiring family is the greatest luck in my life.

Not long ago, my mother, an avid environmentalist, was appalled to learn that only less than 10% of recycled plastic material gets reused. She was struck by disappointment, thinking, ‘after all those years of effort…’ It was impossible to console her as the nature of the incident was almost a national conspiracy. Therefore, it came as a surprise to me when I visited my parents house the next time. Peeling all the labels on the empty plastic bottles, she told me, “They are not recyclable unless the labels are completely peeled off, and I just got the hang of it. Who else would do it if I don’t do it?”

I felt ashamed listening to her. In fact, I myself used to be a proud activist for the environment. Still, after hearing the news, I was giving up, thinking that from then on, I would only recycle half-heartedly since my effort would make no difference unless the system changed. Perhaps for some people, their endless energy can outlast temporary discouragement. Or, could it be called the strength to rebel against the cult of ‘it won’t make a difference’? Anyway, that is how my supportive family lives. Come to think of it now, I can say the most supportive member of the family who inspired me to write this book is our dog Nanhee.

Nanhee had to live with kidney disease from a young age because of maliciously mass-produced dog food. Nevertheless, her optimistic, sprightly character always shone through for her entire life, even when our family went through its darkest season. Whether an animal has a soul or not was not even a question to consider as I witnessed her enduring pain and battling disease until the end of her life. 

Anyone who has had animals as a companion in their life comes to a moment of realisation. A realisation that their will to live, their awareness of pain and emotion, and the affection for their offspring are never less than that of humans. It might seem to be a common truth, but my faith in them has become even deeper through the very being I had named, cared for and watched with affection for their entire life. No death is futile; it makes those left behind change their behaviours. Nanhee made me change too. Pigs confined in the stalls, swordfish caught in the net and chicks born only to be killed… all of them were Nanhee. It wasn’t hard at all to admit that all those creatures deserve to be loved and that nobody has the right to harm them. Accordingly, accepting change in my life was natural. 

Many others enter the world of animals through their dogs, as I did through Nanhee. My brother, a primatologist, once told me that primates are like “an ambassador of the animal kingdom” who connects the human and animal worlds. I think dogs can be that as well. Once you empathise with dogs, you soon open your mind to other animals, which explains why the majority of animal rights advocates get triggered by their beloved dogs (or cats). Sadly, however, the story in Korea and China is never the same, as this method runs aground on the giant reef called ‘dog meat’. In a country where people eat the stepping stone of the movement, we are bound to hover around the same spot continually without being able to make progress. The implication embedded in the culture is much more brutal than it seems. It is that people can kill and eat the creature who is the most loyal and closest to them; it is that they still regard the creature as a delicacy decades after eating dogs might have been justified for survival. And finally, it is that nobody feels uncomfortable about classifying the creature as both pet and meat for the sake of human convenience. None of these matters can be pardoned through “cultural relativism.” 

Although it seems we still have a long way to go, and history feels as though we’ve taken more steps backwards than forwards, the truth shows us that more and more people, little by little, express sympathy for the matter. When the world feels darkest, we must do our very best to hold the faintest hope that shines from time to time. 

I learned the lesson from a dog in a market in China. The dog was rescued after having already been skinned and was about to be thrown into the boiling water at any minute. An animal rescue activist seated her in their car next to the driver’s seat and rushed to the nearest vet. Soaked in blood, she sat there and kept blinking her eyes in pain, but there was no anger on her face. Her face was rather one of incomprehension, asking why such unbearable suffering happened to her. 

After all, weren’t the rescuers also humans, the same species as those who nearly killed her? It would not seem strange at all even if the dog tried to attack any human in the car. I don’t think she was sitting there because she was not smart enough or too weak to protest. I believe she could distinguish between butchers and rescuers. A surprising number of news reports confirm that there are many similar cases: the story of a harpooned whale that didn’t attack the person who came to rescue it, the story of a shark repeatedly visiting the fisherman who rescued it, and so on…

Sadly, the dog died in the end due to excessive bleeding. But I learned a tremendous lesson from her attitude that clung to goodness in the evil abyss. I mourn the death of one beautiful soul with my whole heart. I also mourn the deaths of countless non-human animals, innocently sacrificed every day for the sake of simple human tastes.    

As the feeling of sympathy for them rises, the faces of those I should thank also rises in my mind. They are the faces of human animals. My former lover who joined me without complaint when I first decided to become vegan. My best friend who ripped the fur hood off her jacket immediately after I confessed to her about my agony in watching the whole fur fashion trend in Korea- she is the one who informed me about the cult of ‘Things won’t change.’ My colleagues and considerate friends in Portugal who respected my choice whenever we went out for a meal. My mother, brother and his wife who accompanied me to provide support when I was living on a boat in the Pacific Ocean to participate in the ‘Save the Dolphins Campaign’. Lastly, I would like to express my gratitude to the ever-supportive editors who have gone and will go through this book’s whole journey together with me. If this book can become a starting point for a change in someone’s life, they are the ones who deserve the credit. 

END

Kim Han Min is a writer, activist and graphic-fictionist. Born in 1979, he is the author of several graphic novels, including Dear Euripides, Comet Study, Kafe Limbo and The Book Island, and Experts of the Low Season. He wrote an illustrated essay based on his autobiographical account, “When Voyage Becomes Image.” He also translated Fernando Pessoa’s prose and poetry into Korean. His other works storybooks for children: My Amphibian Dream and Ungo, the Pink Dolphin and his collaborative project with his biologist brother, Stop! series and Behavioral Ecology for Children. Currently, he is a member of the marine environmental organization Sea Shepherds and is working both as an environmentalist and writer.

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