Written by Maddy Miller
As foreigners, there are lots of things we implicitly observe without really understanding. One of these is the typical Korean response to mental health issues. I’ve known for some time that mental illness is not something generally understood or accepted, more so here than in the States, and that it is even sometimes vehemently rejected by one’s social peers. And, being a teacher, there have been times I’ve complained to co-teachers about “problem” students, guiltily wondering if I am justified in complaining about them or if it isn’t actually the student’s fault. Sometimes you just know there is some deeper issue but can’t quite put your finger on what it might be, and the current educational system here often does not allow for support and diagnosis because of parents’ rigid maintenance of their child’s “normalcy.”
Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian depicts how important being “normal” is in society and that, as a deviation from “normal,” mental health problems are something to be stuffed down and hidden, something to be ashamed of. Various family members’ thought processes on, and reactions to, the main character, Yeong-hye, developing schizophrenia, demonstrate how a Korean family may try to safeguard against any behavior that does not conform to “normal.” Even so, as the main character’s condition becomes more serious, it becomes clear that she cannot live a “normal” life.
Crossing boundaries becomes a recurring theme for Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye. In-hye wonders whether she would have experienced greater freedom, knowing and being honest to her true self, if she had rejected the constraints society places on “normalcy.” In-hye feels a great burden of responsibility towards the family as the oldest child and desperately tries to salvage “normalcy” in her marriage when her artist husband cheats with Yeong-hye. Several months later, as she watches her sister devolve into a non-responsive state, In-hye considers whether or not her sister may have experienced greater freedom by throwing off their family’s expectations.
A third idea that runs through the book is that of marriage and family within Korea. Generally, the older generation expects that their children will comply with the demands of society; if the children are not “normal,” parents believe they should “normalize” them. This is shown in a pivotal scene in the first third of the book during which Yeong-hye’s family confronts her about her recent declaration of vegetarianism. As her mother attempts to force-feed her some meat, her father slaps her for rejecting said meat and for insubordination. Later on, when In-hye divorces her husband, a greater rift is created within the family.