“Jangchung Elementary’s lunch today: Mixed rice with carrot and possibly pickled daikon radish, miyoo-guk (seaweed soup), cabbage kimchi, apple slices, and OMG delicious fried shrimp! Thanks for making a lunch I can finally eat!” -Claire N., South Korea
One thing that is incredibly difficult for foreigners to relay to a Korean co-teacher or Vice Principal is the importance of dietary needs or restrictions. Some people cannot eat spicy food, or have a food allergy like peanuts or dairy, but asking for the lunch to be changed to accommodate one’s limitations is near impossible. The attitude Korean teachers take is, “If you can’t eat it, then don’t.”
For anyone looking to teach in South Korea or wondering about being vegetarian or vegan, I will just say this: do not expect any kind of sympathy or help with school lunch. I have heard of a few exceptions, but they are very rare cases, and usually in rural areas where foreign teachers have lived and worked for 3+ years at the same school. And even then, they are given permission to leave the school, not given a special meal.
Vegetarianism is easy in South Korea *IF* you don’t mind eating only seasonal fruits and vegetables. Here it is difficult to find a wide array of vegetables and spices, and fruits are incredibly expensive in any form: frozen, dried or fresh.
Veganism is near impossible unless you live in Seoul (or perhaps Busan). Big cities have a bigger foreigner influence and cater to more specific dietary needs.
I am looking to become gluten-free, and the only place I can find gluten-free flour, rice, or noodles is online. Even in Seoul city, it is difficult to find some things necessary for a special diet.
Please do not despair. It is not impossible! But it is something that is very important and should be considered before moving to the RoK. Dietary “problems” or “restrictions” are frowned upon and shooed away. “Who wouldn’t want to eat meat?” someone will probably ask. “Why keep out the egg in Bibimbap? I don’t understand.” Expect these kinds of attitudes when asking for a substitute or change in the menu. Korea is not like your home: they just do not have many vegans or vegetarians here. Also, seemingly no food allergists. I recommend printing out a card written in Korean that explains your sensitivities clearly so that there is no misunderstanding.
And maybe carry an epinephrine injector with you at all times, just in case.
Until next time, enjoy your lunch!