The Korean Vegan Is the Inspiration I Need This Year

Hannah Sung talks to the lawyer/influencer about going viral, breaking down walls and the importance of telling your whole story.

I recently stumbled on an Instagram post that stopped me in my tracks: A TikTok tutorial for budae chigae by The Korean Vegan. It wasn’t your average recipe video.

For 60 seconds, I was mesmerized by the chopping, sizzling and hands sprinkling gochugaru as a woman’s voice told the story of her father’s life as a teenager in Korea, amid the politics, protests and tear gas. She ended the minute by quoting her Dad: “Don’t forget to vote” (it was during the countdown to the U.S. presidential election).

There was so much story in one minute, I was dizzy. And by the end, there she was, calmly devouring a chigae I wanted to be eating, too.

The Korean Vegan is the epitome of what has been inspiring me in 2020.

Many of us know what it’s like to compartmentalize our work lives and our personal interests, our politics from polite company. Some of us have to do this more than others. If your food was perceived as “weird” growing up, you know what I mean.

But at the start of the pandemic, people began to delight in dogs and babies Zoom-bombing work calls as a reminder that those walls we build can come crashing down. There’s no work self or home self anymore (unless you still have the energy to wear lipstick in which case, I salute you!).

We’re rediscovering what it feels like to be more real about who we are. At least I am. Many of us know what it feels like to need to code-switch or compartmentalize to survive and thrive at school and work.

Some of us need to keep code-switching because not every space is safe. The internet isn’t safe. The world in a pandemic isn’t safe, either. But given the stakes, I am inspired by people like The Korean Vegan who recognize the extent of their power and privilege and own it to use a super-integrated, hyper-unique personal and political voice.

So I reached out to The Korean Vegan, whose real name is Joanne Molinaro. She is a successful Korean-American lawyer in Chicago who runs marathons and loves to eat. When she became vegan in 2016, she started The Korean Vegan as a blog but it wasn’t until this year that she went viral after her TikTok account went from zero to a million followers in three months (yeah, read that again!).

Given her massive popularity, I guess I’m not the only one who saw this account and felt like: “Where have you been my whole life?”

I caught up with Molinaro over Zoom, to talk about the privilege, and price, of being so real.

After all this time, why do you think you’re going viral now?

It’s definitely TikTok. I was posting random stuff. I did a gamja jorim recipe that was just me chopping potatoes, with my phone propped up against the kitchen tile, my husband teaching a piano lesson in the background, you know, banging away on his piano. No voiceover. And it had a million views. That was my first viral post. And it just went from there.

So your first viral post didn’t even have you talking? That’s what I love.

No, it was your typical, “Hi, I don’t know what I’m doing and I just have a phone,” you know? It had captions like, “One potato.”  

My second viral post wasn’t even related to food. It was a rant about a really unkind comment on one of my posts, and I went, you know, orbital on her. That was my second viral post. I had to delete it because my law firm found out and they were not happy.

After the conversation with my firm, I was like, alright, I’m just gonna stay away from politics and anything that’s not safe. I was just doing food and hit a stride. And then it’s only recently with the election where I was like, I have to be honest with myself. And politics is important to me. That’s a part of who I am. And they’ve been supportive. 

I was blown away by you when I first saw a video because in 60 seconds, you could talk about politics, your Korean family history and be very pointed and sharp and have strong statements, all while making a recipe. I thought, “Oh, my God, you have no walls.” And I loved that. How has that road been, combining all the aspects of your life?

That has been very interesting. There’s this book I heard about in a podcast that takes down the notion that you have to spend 10,000 hours to be good at something, to the exclusion of doing everything else. According to the author’s research, his conclusion was no, that’s not correct. The better way to do things is to try and fail, try and fail, try and fail and do lots of things so that by the time you’re in a position where you gain maturity and perspective, you have many tools at your disposal. And what you are is not an expert at one thing, but you’re an expert at being your unique self. And I just thought that was such a crazy idea.

 And so when you look at my 60-second videos, especially nowadays, it’s really an attempt at saying, “Hi, I’m Joanne, and you’re not going to find someone like me anywhere. Because I’m the only Korean, American-born, from North Korean immigrants, vegan chef, food blogger-slash-lawyer.” And that’s the beautiful thing about it. 

Everybody has things that make them unique, but there can be barriers. Some of the things you’re talking about are real hot buttons, like politics, racism, or even veganism.

Yeah, for the first few years of being vegan, it was difficult, especially being Korean, because I felt people were like, “Oh, you’re not actually Korean. You’re just white.” And there was overt hostility to veganism popping up on my Facebook feed. But also, I think there’s definitely a problem with white veganism.

So there was that tension I felt I was in the middle of, and I had to be very careful to explain to people who are rightfully outraged by the racist narrative that some vegans are putting out there, while also trying to explain, yeah, but can you understand why it might be offensive to me to see you roasting a pig on my Instagram? 

Have you learned about your family or Korean culture and history through becoming vegan?

Yes! And it is the great irony, right? People tend to look at The Korean Vegan and assume that I’m whitewashed and complicit with colonialism. Especially when they know that I’m married to a white guy. That just all fits their narrative, right? But in actuality, I was so anxious about losing my Korean identity when I went vegan. That’s why I created The Korean Vegan because I was like, No, you’re not gonna take my Korean food from me. And I couldn’t find many resources out there that veganized Korean food so I was like, fine, I’ll do it. 

But if you’ve tried cooking anything, you don’t just pick it up and do it. You have to learn. And when the people you’re counting on as sources for that information are your mom, your waisokmo or your eemo (aunts), sometimes even your dad, they’re going to tell you, “Oh, when I made these mandu, your grandma would trick us into folding them!” They come with these beautiful stories.

I love that your mom used to get tricked into folding mandu.

Yeah! My grandmother had five girls. And she would bring the girls together to wrap mandu and they hated it because it takes forever, especially if you want to make enough for the entire village. But my grandmother would be like, “Oh, your mandu is so beautiful!” to trick them into making more and working harder. I didn’t learn that until we were all sitting at the table wrapping mandu together.

The action unlocked the memory.

Exactly.

What are goals for a Korean vegan influencer lawyer? Where do you take your very unique, public self in the future?

You’ve caught me at a time where I have no idea. Everything’s so in flux. My legal career is probably more successful today than it ever has been. I feel like I’m finally gaining some confidence as a woman of colour at a large law firm, and a partner at that. I’m literally a unicorn at my firm. I don’t think there is another Korean-American partner at my firm and we’ve got 1,000 lawyers. So I honestly have no idea but I’m very grateful for all of this. 

This interview was edited and condensed.

Hannah Sung’s column appears monthly(ish) on Best Health. It adapted from her (excellent) newsletter, At The End Of The Day.  If you’re interested in reading more, sign up for it here.

Next: Christa Couture: ‘I Decided to No Longer Be In Disguise’

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada