Vegging Out With “The Korean Vegan”
If anyone can convince you to consider going vegan, it’s Joanne Lee Molinaro, aka The Korean Vegan. I told her I’ve been really thinking hard about going vegan for a while now, in large part because I’m so enthralled by her cooking videos with family stories woven in that pull at your heartstrings. We live in a world in which social media holds such power that can affect our well-being. At times, in a negative way. However, there are reasons why I refrain from telling clients to completely stay off it. Reasons like The Korean Vegan’s TikTok and Instagram videos.
“The Korean Vegan” is a New York Times bestselling cookbook that was published in late 2021 but it started out as a blog in 2016 chronicling the start of Joanne’s vegan journey. She started the blog to ensure she stayed rooted in what she refers to as her “Korean-ness.” She was adamant about not losing that as she explored and later came to “veganize Korean food.” As Joanne ventured into the world of veganism, it was all about elevating being Korean American, which is why she has such passion to “Koreanize everything else.”
The Korean Vegan began its journey on TikTok in July 2020, because Joanne was inspired by the “power of collective action” that she saw in the TikTok community. With that inspiration, she posted a video cooking Korean braised potatoes, while her husband played the piano in the background, and shared some stories. It went viral. The rest, as they say, is history, and Joanne now has over 4 million fans across her social media channels.
Jeanie: So much has happened since you first went viral in July 2020. How has it been for the last couple years?
Joanne: It’s been unexpected, very rewarding; it’s been very eye opening and transformative. I think there are a lot of different ways to convey my experience over the past couple of years. When I started TikTok, I had no intention of giving up my practice. I was a trial lawyer at the time and had just come off a trial. I was looking for my next new big thing and very focused at that time on making the best out of my legal career and working hard at the time.
Fast forward two years later, and now I’m writing emails to my colleagues saying, “Hey, I’m moving to LA in a couple months, so can you just come over to my house so that I can see you guys before I leave? And by the way, I totally don’t miss not going into work.”
Jeanie: Wait, so you’re moving to LA?
Joanne: Yes, I’m moving to LA. I still have to check my email because I still work for the firm on an of-counsel basis. But I’m not drafting briefs and arguing motions. I don’t miss it at all. I love that I’m able to do what I’m passionate about right now and I think that that’s a huge change in anybody’s life. It was a very unexpected one in mine.
Sometimes I feel guilty, that I get to do what I love every single day because I know that most people don’t. I remember I had to sit down with my therapist at one point and ask, “Should I really go for this? I feel like I’m not allowed to because I’m supposed to be like my parents. I have to work really hard, and I have to hate my job, and I have to struggle and suffer nine hours of the day. Then get a couple hours where I might be a little bit happy, but really tired and that’s supposed to be my life because that’s everybody else’s life. Why should I have a totally different life?” My therapist was like, “No, you get to do this if you want to do it.”
It’s a huge move and there are a lot of reasons. When people make big life decisions, there’s one thing that really pushes them. For example, people always ask me why did you go vegan? I’m like there are 70 reasons why I went vegan and it’s not one thing. Fitness and health are really important to me and my husband. It’s nice to be in a place like LA where I can find anything I want to eat within a stone’s throw, whether it’s Korean food, whether it’s vegan food. It’s just so much easier than Chicago. Finally, of course the weather. Plus, it would be better for my career where things are headed. I was like, let’s do it! It’s an adventure. I’m 42 and have never lived anywhere else other than Chicago. Let’s try it!
Jeanie: I’d love to delve deeper into the meaning behind your tagline you “veganize Korean food and Koreanize everything else.” What was your identity journey like?
Joanne: Everybody’s journey is unique, of course. I’m not saying that my point of view or my experience is the only legitimate one or even prevalent one. But I think that it is, in some ways, one that many people can relate to.
I really didn’t understand my “Korean-ness”; it was taken for granted. Korean was the first language I spoke. I didn’t know how to speak English even though I was born and raised in Chicago. I was raised by my grandmothers, who didn’t speak English, so I didn’t speak English.
As soon as I collided into “whiteness”, I was very unhappy that I didn’t conform. Why don’t I look like everybody else? Why am I not speaking the same language as them? Why am I eating weird random food? Why am I not wearing the same clothes? I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be just like everybody else. I think that is a very natural feeling for young people.
In my house, my parents didn’t want me to stick out either and encouraged me to assimilate in many ways. For a good chunk of my childhood I didn’t have a connection with my Korean-ness. I slowly stopped speaking Korean and only spoke English, which was heavily encouraged by my parents because they wanted me to do well in school. We were only watching English-speaking television, but we still ate mainly Korean food at home. At school, I wanted to eat ham sandwiches and bagels and croissants and French fries and pizza and all these horrible things for you.
It wasn’t really until I got to college when I started really missing my home and all those things that I had taken for granted. It was then I realized they were incredibly valuable to me. I minored in Asian American studies in college because I realized that being Asian is a much bigger thing to me than I had ever given it credit for.
Jeanie: What is the “why” behind “The Korean Vegan”?
Joanne: “The Korean Vegan” came about because in many ways I felt that my decision to go vegan might threaten my Korean-ness, and I didn’t want that. I was adamantly opposed to it.
I asked myself if it’s possible to live a more compassionate life and have a more compassionate diet, while also maintaining my connection to being Korean. I said I’m going to try it. That is why I veganize Korean food.
I Koreanize everything else because number one, it’s more culinary. I can’t help but add Korean ingredients to everything that I make because I just feel like everything tastes better with some type of jahng. Anything that I make is inherently going to have some Korean in it because I’m Korean. It just flows through my fingers, and I can’t prevent that nor do I want to.
Jeanie: You talked about by going vegan, you didn’t want it to take away from your “Korean-ness.” I’d love for you to explain more what you mean by that.
Joanne: I know that there are some people out there— whether they’re rude enough to say it to my face or won’t say it to my face because they’re typically Asian and won’t confront me with it— who don’t think that I’m very Asian or very Korean. Basically, they think I’m colonized and that my diet is whitewashing, or in some way a weird sort of cultural appropriation of my own culture. I know that there are people who believe that because they’ve told me.
I think that’s so frustrating because since college, I’ve spent my whole life trying to eradicate racism and create more representation for AAPI members. My decision to adopt a diet (that was more consistent with my views on my own health, climate change and my love of animals) shouldn’t have anything to do with cultural appropriation or whitewashing. But I know people think that because not only have they said it to me, but I admit to thinking it, too.
When my white boyfriend told me he was going to go vegan and said, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if you went vegan with me?” I was like, “I can’t go vegan. I’m Korean. What are you even talking about? And by the way, how insensitive of you to ask me to give up my culture. You might be okay with giving up your culture, but I’m not okay with giving up mine.” We got into a lot of fights about it.
I think it would have been totally different if a Korean person had asked me to do that because then I would have said, okay this person understands what they’re asking me to give up potentially. It did cause a big rift between my husband and I, but I felt at the time that I valued him in my life more than I valued a fried chicken sandwich. So, I decided to try going vegan because it would help with our relationship.
Jeanie: So much has happened over the last couple years with the pandemic and anti-Asian hate. I’ve seen our identity narrative shift for many folks. How has it been for you?
Joanne: When I started “The Korean Vegan” in 2016, it was a hobby. But everything changed in at the end of the year when the administration shifted. I just was so heartbroken and angry and scared of what the votes meant about my country. I was just so naïve. I loved being an American and I love my country. This, I inherited from my father, and I really believed in my father’s dream of democracy and justice and thought that’s where I lived. I remember I went into my bathtub, and I just started sobbing and sobbing when I heard that Donald Trump got elected. It was traumatizing, especially as a woman of color because we had more to lose.
At that time I decided I must do something because I’m one of those people who, when I see something happening, I start obsessing over it. I was so mad and so sad and didn’t know how to react. I started thinking, maybe I should start telling stories about my family.
I started telling stories about my parents with the hope that… the people (who are so willing to erect the wall, who are okay with seeing children in cages, who are totally on board with sending Americans back to other countries across the world) might pause because they heard a story that opened their heart for a moment. That was the objective I had and that’s what I wanted to use my platform for. I’m always trying to figure out more effective ways to represent the Asian American story and to root out racism in every single heart that harbors it.
Jeanie: As a content creator with millions of followers, how do you handle the pressure? Also, how are you navigating the cultural norms we can struggle with as Korean Americans such as saving face, trying to be perfect?
Joanne: It is always a struggle. I think that some people think, “Oh Joanne is so strong, she has everything together.” I’m not going to lie; I have some of my sh$t together and I can be very organized about things and be type A. But I’m also just a big kid in many ways. I don’t have children of my own and sometimes I feel like I’m just a 12-year-old masquerading around in a 42-year-old body. I’m still learning.
I approach life that way, that there’s a lot more that I don’t know than what I do know. For instance, learning to deal with toxicity, gaslighting, negativity on social media was an area of great humility for me. I thought, I’ve been doing The Korean Vegan for four and a half years I know what I’m doing.
When TikTok blew up and my account started getting a lot more attention, I started getting more negative attention as well as more positive attention. I thought I would be totally prepared for it, but I didn’t realize that the more vulnerable you are, the more prone you are to getting deeply wounded. People take that vulnerability and use it against you, and that happens regularly.
I discovered that sometimes I instinctively don’t want to share anything. Sometimes, it is hard for me to think about posting again on Instagram because I know it will at some point it will be met with gaslighting and toxicity and trolling. It’s inevitable. I cannot stop it. The instinct is to curl up and protect yourself from that and not stick your toe in the water because it’s going to burn.
From a mental health perspective, what I like to do is stop feeling guilty for taking breaks. I’m over this whole, “you have to work 15 hours a day in order to be proud of yourself.” I’ve spent 17 years of my career working my heart out and I’ve paid my dues— if those dues were in fact owed. For now, if I only work four hours a day, fine. If I don’t want to post anything for a week, and I can afford to do that financially and otherwise, then I am going to allow myself to do that.
If people want the best for me (and from me), then I need those breaks from all the scrutiny that I get. It can be very difficult and it’s a continuously evolving process. There are other aspects of my struggles that I’ve made very openly clear on my social media such as body dysmorphia, disordered eating, or self-harm. As a mental health professional, Jeanie, you understand there are some illnesses that cannot be cured. You just have to learn to treat them, struggle with them and cope with them for the rest of your life. I truly believe that.
Jeanie: You talked about how your work surrounding “The Korean Vegan” has transformed your life. How has it transformed you to benefit your mental health?
Joanne: I read a long time ago that one very good way of resisting depression is to think less about yourself and think more about how you can serve other people. I always thought that that was very interesting because the instinct when you are sad or going through depression is to curl inwards and constantly think about yourself. I remember I went through one very bad depressive incident where all I could think about was my own brain. I was obsessed with it, and it was horrible. That was probably the closest I ever came to being very mentally fragile.
I do think there’s some wisdom in this idea that it’s helpful to just forget about yourself and think about other people. I think that’s what “The Korean Vegan” is. For a long time, it was about me and what I can do. Even with this idea about sharing my family stories, I did that for me because I was so depressed about what this country was in 2016. I needed to heal from that wound, and this was my way of doing it.
After the Atlanta shootings, I felt sad and very numb. I was like that for the first 24 hours, not feeling anything until the sheriff gave that horrible press conference saying it was the result of a “bad day.” That’s when I felt everything. Rage, sadness and despair. I felt this immense need to protect my parents and posted about it.
I recall receiving so much feedback from the AAPI community, and it was then that I realized I shouldn’t just speak for my parents. I have to speak for a lot of people who either don’t know how to or are scared to, or don’t have the platform to be heard. That was when I first had an inkling of what representation can profoundly mean to a community that has been so underrepresented as to make it, in essence, invisible. It made me so angry and that fills me with a great deal of humility.
I’m always wondering to myself, are you doing something that’s adequately representing your community? Are you doing it fairly, responsibly, thoughtfully with the noonchi that is required to do this in a way that’s productive and protective? This has been a completely new aspect of “The Korean Vegan” in the past year.
Jeanie: You used my favorite word, noonchi! Thank you so much for sharing this. So, what are some of the things that keep you going on your toughest days?
Joanne: There are a couple of things that inspire me to keep going on my toughest days. I was talking to another content creator the other day about how to deal with negativity and she told me to take screenshots of the good comments, the really enriching ones, and save them on your phone. Or even post them up on the walls where you can see them when you’re brushing your teeth as a reminder. I think that’s a great idea. Some of the stories that other people have been generous enough to share within our community are just astonishing. We learn so much from them.
I didn’t start TikTok as a content creator. I started TikTok because I read an article by Taylor Lorenz in the New York Times about how TikTok disrupted the Tulsa, Oklahoma Trump rally. I just thought that was exciting and brilliant and beautiful. Our kids are so engaged! They want to do the right thing! They want this world to be better and they’re working in these beautiful creative, clever, exciting, and disruptive ways to do that. The power of collective action when it’s channeled at something good, and also the humor underlying it! I was so impressed by that and just had to get on TikTok. I wanted to see what these kids are doing. I was inspired by their activism.
Every day I go on TikTok and it’s very easy to get sucked into the vortex, but I’m so inspired by other people, other content creators. It’s hard not to be inspired by so much brilliance. Hats off to TikTok because they have radically changed what social media can really mean and can do for somebody’s life.
Jeanie: You know that I use K-Dramas in my work to help people understand their mental health and identity narrative. I’d love to hear your perspective as a Korean American on the phenomena surrounding K-Culture.
Joanne: It’s a double-edged sword, right? Representation is great, but representation can also turn into misrepresentation very easily. I think that’s the struggle. It shouldn’t be representation at all costs because then we start to stretch into misrepresentation or a flattened representation. Scaling of representation is something that nobody really thinks about when you’re in such a mad dash to be seen at all.
You see this phenomenon where everyone is just obsessed with BTS, K-Pop, K-Dramas, Parasite (the Oscar award-winning movie), Squid Game (the most-watched Netflix show of all time). It is so freaking exciting as a Korean person and it’s bizarre, too. I took for granted that we wouldn’t be on TV, so then to see us on TV is like, “I don’t even know how to feel about this. It’s jarring at first, but it’s exciting, joyful and wonderful.”
But then you start seeing the fetishization rearing its ugly head, the dehumanization. Such as, “Korean people are all kalbi and bibimbap.” There’s this kind of instinct to flatten, which happens when human beings are grappling with trying to process too much information in a very short period. That’s exactly what I feel like is happening.
When we step out into this world of representation, where the landscape allows more AAPIs to be visible, I think it’s important to do that with more intention. It shouldn’t be about racing to be out there with the mindset of, “I don’t care if this movie is totally racist and full of stereotypes, it’s got a bunch of Korean people in it.” That’s my concern. With my TikTok and “The Korean Vegan” that’s always something that I’m thinking about, “Don’t just fall for the tropes, don’t just give them what they think that they want. Sometimes you have to give them what they also need.”
Jeanie: I love your beautiful cookbook, “The Korean Vegan”. When I was flipping through it, I told myself, “Okay, I need to pray about being a vegan!” These are my favorite Korean foods, and you make me believe from your videos and this book, that I can do this. You make it real, Joanne!
Joanne: It’s so beautiful to hear you say that because I think that there are a lot of people who like me, originally thought, “No, I can’t be vegan; I’m Korean.”
Jeanie: What are some of your future projects?
Joanne: I’m working on a second cookbook. I’m going to try and change up the aesthetic and push myself creatively, maybe experiment with different aesthetic styles for my photography. I don’t know what it’s going to be called, but I’m toying with the “Ask Gohmo” which is based off my ‘auntie or gohmo’ videos because those are very popular. The cookbook is going to be 100 plus recipes, very easy plant-based comfort foods. They’re not necessarily Korean, although there will be a heavily Korean influence. I’ll include “auntie/gohmo” advice doled here and there like my videos.
Jeanie: Last but certainly not least. What do you do to take care of yourself?
Joanne: My self-care is some type of physical activity regularly. I like to run. Sometimes I run a lot more than I want and probably need. After training for half marathons and marathons, I’m taking a break and running for fun. I’d like to do yoga, Pilates, or weight training. I love reading and been reading a lot of books lately. I also love watching Korean dramas. These are the big pillars of self-care for me.
Jeanie: Alright, you went there. I have to ask, what is your favorite K-Drama? We’ll end the interview on that note!
Joanne: “Kim Sam Soon”! I also love “Crash Landing” and unexpectedly cried a lot at that one. I love “Mr. Sunshine”, but honestly that one made me so angry that I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was just so upset by that ending. I also liked “My Love from Another Star” and “Itaewon Class”. It’s “Okay to Not be Okay”, I really liked that one. “Mr. Sunshine”, as much as I loved it, the ending was so bad and took me down this path of reading everything about that time in history. Then I read “Pachinko”… We could talk about K-Dramas forever.
But I have to say, back in the day, there was nothing more romantic to me in the K-Dramas than when they started speaking bahn-mahl (informal speech). Or when they touch or the hand on the shoulder, I love that. I find K-Dramas inspiring, especially the ones featuring badass women.
The Korean Vegan’s Joanne Lee Molinaro will be a keynote speaker on April 30, 2022, at the Saigu@30 Leadership Conference hosted by The Council of Korean Americans and the Korean American Coalition of Los Angeles. The event is being held at the Line Hotel in the heart of Koreatown. For more information please go to https://councilka.org/cka-events-mecal/los-angeles-30th-anniversary-of-saigu/
Jeanie Chang is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Clinical Trauma Professional and Certified Integrative Mental Health Professional, specializing in grief and trauma. Jeanie is an AAPI mental health expert, executive coach, and a global speaker who talks about the intersectionality of mental health and identity in the workplace. Jeanie hosts the YouTube Channel, Noona’s Noonchi, where she deep dives into Korean dramas from a mental health perspective. In March 2021, she published a memoir called “A is for Authentic: Not for Anxieties or for Straight A’s” which outlines her childhood experience as a second generation Korean American.