PORTRAIT OF A VEGAN: JOANNE LEE
[In PORTRAIT OF A VEGAN, I meet with vegans who inspire me beyond the scope of veganism and we talk about their stories & what they’re passionate about]
The first words that come to mind when I think of Joanne Lee are “intense”, “intriguing” and “captivating”. When I first came across her Instagram account, The Korean Vegan, over a year ago, I was immediately drawn to her somewhat dark yet incredibly beautiful photography style, as well as her mouthwatering, veganized Korean dishes. I started watching her Instagram stories and reading her captions, always thinking, “I need to meet her.” She has a way with words that makes you want to soak up every single paragraph and then read it over and over again. I ended up meeting her in person at a conference in Baltimore last fall and we’ve been friends ever since. Joanne is one of those people you just can’t stop listening to and who make you see things differently and inspire you to be just a little more honest with yourself. Recently, we spent some time together in New York, cooking and talking about her Korean roots, veganism, her lifelong struggle with weight, and finding one’s passion. My hope is that this interview will give you even just a glimpse of the uniqueness that is Joanne.
ON GOING VEGAN
Kim-Julie Hansen: When and why did you go vegan?
Joanne Lee: I went vegan a little over two years ago, in January of 2016, because my then boyfriend, and my now fiancé [editor’s note: by the time this interview will be published, Joanne and Anthony will have just gotten married], had just finished reading Rich Roll’s book Finding Ultra, which inspired him to adopt a plant-based diet. I knew at the time that our relationship would not survive if I didn’t join him. I didn’t want to join him, I didn’t want to be vegan, I made fun of him about going vegan, and I very much resisted.
“I didn’t want to be vegan.”
After resisting it for a while and Anthony showing her numerous vegan documentaries on ethics, the environment and health, Joanne came across an article linking veganism to weight loss, something she’d been struggling with her whole life, and shortly thereafter, her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Some of the documentaries she had watched had addressed the issue of higher rates of prostate cancer in Asian men switching to Western diets. So she decided to at least give veganism a try.
KJ: Was it difficult?
JL: It was not as difficult as I thought it would be. I grew up on a very non-vegan diet, eating pork belly and fish, shrimp, kalbi, which is short ribs, and egg soufflé, so I thought it would be impossible for me to go vegan and still eat all the foods that I love to eat, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected. I think the hardest part, at that time, was giving up cheese, particularly cheese pizza, because I love cheese pizza. Today, I would say the hardest thing about being vegan is walking into a Korean restaurant. I stopped going to Korean restaurants because I knew I couldn’t eat 99% of the things in there. I made the mistake of going to a Korean restaurant a year into going vegan, and it was probably the most tempted I had ever been in my life to completely stray from what I’d been doing, so now I just don’t go to Korean restaurants.
“[F]or women in Korea, that’s part of their job – being skinny, being pretty, being beautiful. That’s very much a part of being a woman in Korea.”
KJ: Do you know if there is any kind of rising vegan movement in Korea?
JL: The thing with veganism in Korea is that it’s very much tied to being skinny, which, for women in Korea, that’s part of their job – being skinny, being pretty, being beautiful. That’s very much a part of being a woman in Korea. So if there is a rise of veganism, it’s probably not a function of ethics or environmentalism, it’s more a function of, “well I’m gonna get a nose job, but I might as well go vegan too in order to make sure I stay lean.” I’m speaking in generalities of course, I haven’t been to Korea for almost two decades so I can’t really speak from firsthand experience, but my sister-in-law, she’s from Korea and she just immigrated here a couple years ago, and from what I understand, that’s really the only reason anybody would go vegan there.
ON NORTH KOREA
“I didn’t want to associate with being Korean, I wanted to be American, American, American, American.”
“When I was in public and I was at school, I was American, I spoke English, perfect English”, Joanne says when I ask her about what it was like growing up in a Korean household in Illinois, “I wore all the same clothes that my American friends were wearing. I tried to fit in as much as I could, but then when I was at home, we only spoke Korean and we only ate Korean food. We had very strict rules at my house about studying and homework and television, and even friends and things like that. I was not happy about being Korean for a very long time when I was younger, because when you’re little, you just want to fit in with everyone else.
I felt so much on the outside, I had black hair, not blonde hair. I had this yellow skin, not white skin. I wanted to be like everyone else. I didn’t want to associate with being Korean, I wanted to be American, American, American, American. I was bringing the wrong food with me to lunch sometimes. There were just too many things that were different, and I really was ashamed of that. Now, my mom tells me ‘Look at how much kimchi you’re eating. When you were little, you would always tell me, ‘Mommy I’m not Korean, I’m American’, and now look at you, you’re more Korean than I am.’’
Joanne says that it’s wanting to be so American that made her show not much interest in her heritage and so it wasn’t until after graduating from college that she found out that her family was actually from North Korea, not South Korea as she had always believed. One day, her father decided to get out his camcorder to record his story for Joanne and her brother. “It was sort of his weird way of wanting to connect with his children, but he’s so bad at it that it was just awkward”, she remembers and adds “so we watched it and I thought ‘Oh my god, my dad’s from North Korea, not from South Korea’, which was very surprising to me because every time we went to Korea to visit my family, it was South Korea, for obvious reasons, but it just never occurred to me.”
“I wanted to be from the Korea that was associated with the United States, with capitalism and freedom and liberty and democracy, not the Communist state of North Korea. So I just didn’t tell anyone.”
A few years later, she found out that her mother, too, had been born in North Korea, a place that, at the time, Joanne described as “the place of evil people, the place of the bad Koreans, for lack of a better way of saying it” and so she decided not to talk about where her family was really from. “I wanted to be from the Korea that was associated with the United States, with capitalism and freedom and liberty and democracy, not the Communist state of North Korea. So I just didn’t tell anyone.”
“I come from a line powerful women, women who made some of the most difficult choices a human being would ever have to make, and how could I, how dare I be ashamed of that?”
The turning point came when Joanne’s mother told her the story of how she came to South Korea from North Korea: “It’s a fantastic story. I’ve written about it before and will continue to write about it because it was so inspiring. What it boils down to is that when she was a baby, her parents were fleeing North Korea. They got on a boat and were starving, and my mother was starving to death before their eyes, and they couldn’t bear seeing her die, so they decided that they were going to mercifully kill her by drowning her in the river.
They figured that would be a much better way to die than to just starve and whittle away to death. Obviously, it was a very emotional decision for them and they were crying, and these two American GIs figured out what the heck was going on and gave my grandparents chocolate Hershey bars, and that chocolate is what saved my mother’s life. It was because of that that they, A, didn’t drown her, but B, were able to nourish her for the remainder of the trip so that she survived. When she told me that story, I was very ashamed of how ashamed I had been of my heritage. I come from a line powerful women, women who made some of the most difficult choices a human being would ever have to make, and how could I, how dare I be ashamed of that? So after that, I was very open and started saying “I have no problem telling people that my mom and my dad are from North Korea, and fuck you if you’ve got a problem with it.”
“I have no problem telling people that my mom and my dad are from North Korea, and fuck you if you’ve got a problem with it.”
ON WEIGHT LOSS
While Joanne now embraces her heritage, certain parts of her culture, namely the pressure to be thin and beautiful (which is present in so many cultures across the globe), led to a lifelong struggle with her self-image.
“I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel that pressure, certainly always the pressure to be pretty.”
KJ: You mentioned a focus on being skinny in Korea. Did you feel that pressure growing up?
JL: Yes, definitely. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t feel that pressure, certainly always the pressure to be pretty. I wasn’t a naturally lean person. There are some women, like my mother, who are just gifted with being able to eat cream puffs all day and still be thin, but I’m not one of those. My parents were very vocal about it, telling me “You need to lose 10 pounds. Just lose 10 pounds. You’d be so pretty if you were 10 pounds lighter.” They were always very proud of my grades, but they weren’t always very proud of the way that I looked.
I had that growing up my entire life, and when I went to college and I gained my ‘Freshman 35’ [laughs], not even just my parents, but my aunts and my uncles and my grandma, they were all just constantly railing on me about how I was too fat and not pretty enough. I was at my heaviest in 2009, I was close to 190 pounds and I’m only five-foot-one, so that’s morbidly obese. I was steadily making my way there in law school and when I graduated, my parents were so proud of me. I was the first person to go to law school in my family, it was a dream come true for them.
“They were always very proud of my grades, but they weren’t always very proud of the way that I looked.”
They wanted to give me a really big gift, and I told them, “Well, I would love to go to Korea.” My dad didn’t say anything, but my mom said, “We’d be happy to send to you to Korea if you really want to go there, but, you know, we’re a little worried that you might be embarrassed if you go to Korea.” They didn’t have to spell it out, I knew exactly what they were talking about, that I was too fat and that I would be made fun of and that my family would look down on me and they would be ashamed of me, and my parents didn’t want me to suffer through that humiliation. So I ended up not going. I didn’t go, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed.
“I basically grew up believing my entire life that I can never be worthy of anything, of love, of happiness, of joy, unless I am smart and skinny.”
KJ: How did that whole mentality affect you in the years to come?
JL: It just got worse and worse. My family was so overtly ashamed of my appearance. When I was younger, it was like, “Oh you’re pretty, but you could be so much prettier if you would just lose 10 pounds.” By the time I was in law school, they were so overt about it, telling me “No, you’re just fat. You’re fat and you really need to do something about it”. I had always believed, even when I was younger, that my value as a daughter and my worth as a woman was about two things: my brain and my prettiness. For me, prettiness was always a function of skinniness, because I was never skinny enough.
I basically grew up believing my entire life that I can never be worthy of anything, of love, of happiness, of joy, unless I am smart and skinny. That’s something I still absolutely struggle with. I know that my blog is all about empowering women and positivity and sometimes I feel like such a fucking hypocrite, because I say all these things like “You should do this and you should do that”, but I don’t listen to my own advice. I don’t weigh myself anymore because it was becoming an obsession to the point of severe unhealthy habits. It’s directly related to growing up my whole life thinking I’m not worthy of being happy or having love, or having joy, unless I’m skinny enough.
“I know that my blog is all about empowering women and positivity and sometimes I feel like such a fucking hypocrite.”
KJ: Even though you say that you’re still struggling with it, it feels like you did change some things in the way you think about it now.
JL: I think about three years ago, I was on my, I don’t know, 50th diet, and it was exacerbated by the fact that I was just starting to date Anthony. He’s one of the physically healthiest people I know. I felt a lot of pressure to be as skinny as I could possibly be. I was on what we called “The Biscotti diet”. I would eat two biscotti a day in the morning, two at night, and coffee. And then on Saturdays and Sundays, I would scarf down the whole world because I was starving myself. I would weigh myself about eight or nine times a day and I remember one day I weighed myself and I hadn’t lost any weight, so I just started crying. I’m sitting there, kimchi squatting on my freaking scale, crying, thinking, “This is not normal. This is not right, I can’t live like this.”
“She told me, ‘You have to learn to love yourself. It’s the hardest thing you will ever do, but you have to do it.'”
So I found a therapist, and I’ve been working with her for two years now. She told me, “You have to learn to love yourself. It’s the hardest thing you will ever do, but you have to do it”, and I thought it was just a crock of shit and I said, “I don’t want to see you anymore if that’s what we’re going to be talking about. I know you’re gonna try and trick me into getting fat. I know that’s what you’re gonna do.” That’s what I really believed, but she was smart, she was very insightful, and she got me to continue believing her. When I told her I went vegan, she was very afraid. She thought it was another disguised mechanism for restricting myself, and you know what, she was probably spot-on. At the beginning, that’s probably what it was.
“No, your worth is not a function of your jean size. Your worth is not a function of whether or not you can zip that dress.”
But veganism became something so much more than that and now it’s probably helped me battle some of these disordered eating issues. But yes, it’s changed where I have to constantly mentally rewire my brain, telling myself, “No, your worth is not a function of your jean size. Your worth is not a function of whether or not you can zip that dress. There’s so many other things that you bring to the table that have absolutely nothing to do with how skinny you are.” It’s not an easy lesson for me to learn, I haven’t quite learned all of it yet, but it’s been years since I’ve actually undertaken any type of real diet.
KJ: I think it’s so interesting and important that you talk about that. So often we see the “before and after photos” of people, including yours, and just assume that once the weight has been lost, everything’s good. But the battle continues.
JL: Oh, it’s like a chapter two. Chapter one is the physical battle. I gotta cut out the soda, I gotta cut out sweets, I gotta start being more physically active. That’s a physical battle, especially if you’re not used to being physically active, which I wasn’t. It was hard for me to get into that habit, but building those habits, you’d be surprised. The human body just kind of adapts. […] I used to think my body was a total bitch. But over the past year, especially after I ran the marathon, I thought, “Oh my god, my body is like the best thing ever. I’m so lucky. After treating it like shit for 35 years, look what it’s still able to do for me”. That was a big game-changer for me. But in terms of just the daily struggle of it, your brain is the much harder thing to change. You can change your body with science, but the brain is a different story. It’s been two years since I’ve been working with my therapist, and I still have moments where I feel like I haven’t made any progress at all.
“[A]fter I ran the marathon, I thought, ‘Oh my god, my body is like the best thing ever. I’m so lucky. After treating it like shit for 35 years, look what it’s still able to do for me.’”
ON SOCIAL MEDIA
KJ: What inspired you to start sharing your journey publicly, with people you’ve never met?
JL: I don’t know if it was an inspiration so much as just being selfish. I’m very private in my home life. I don’t even tell Anthony 95% of my problems, because I’m ashamed or I don’t want to talk about it. My parents, especially my father, raised me to believe that sharing struggles was a sign of weakness, and that it was something to be avoided. So, I think the thing that I aspire to be more than anything in the whole wide world, ever, is a strong woman. That is what I want to be more than anything. Whether it’s right or wrong, my father taught me that being strong meant, “You don’t tell people your problems”, you know, at least not the people you love, because now you’re just burdening them. So I don’t like to burden my family. I don’t like to burden my parents, or even Anthony, with the things that are really troubling me.
“With Instagram, I found a willing audience, I found people who related to me, who got what I was sharing. Sometimes when I’m going through my deepest struggles, I know people will listen to me and they’ll get it.”
So, I hired somebody, my therapist, so that I could be like “We need to get some shit done because I don’t know what to do right now, this is not okay”. But at least I pay her to do it, you know? With Instagram, I found a willing audience, I found people who related to me, who got what I was sharing. Sometimes when I’m going through my deepest struggles, I know people will listen to me and they’ll get it. Now, I am careful about that. When I’m very unhappy, I can’t share it because it hurts too much talk about it. But usually, a week or two after when I’ve kind of recovered from the emotions of it and it kind of crystallizes into a lesson to me.
“[T]here are many beautiful things, but there are also things that are not beautiful, and it’s OK, because you’re not alone.”
It also shows these people that they’re not alone, just like I need to feel like I’m not alone. A lot of times I do feel very lonely because I don’t talk to people about things, but I know that there are so many women out there who go through so many different things, and they see my perfectly curated gallery and all these beautiful photographs and they think that I have this perfectly curated life, and I want them to know that no, there are many beautiful things, but there are also things that are not beautiful, and it’s OK, because you’re not alone.
ON FINDING ONE’S PASSION
KJ: Speaking of social media, I was very inspired by a post you wrote in September, the one about finding one’s passion. Can you describe what that used to mean to you, and what it’s come to mean now?
JL: To be honest with you, I still have a difficult time putting my thumb on what passion really means, at least to me, but I can definitely tell you what it used to be. There are two kinds of passion, there’s passion and love. When you’re in a relationship with somebody, that’s one kind of passion, and that wasn’t the one that I was interested in. I was interested in this other kind of passion, a passion for something, whether it’s a belief system or a movement, or an art, that kind of passion that didn’t involve another person, but that was an internal one, an internal fire, and I never really had one of those. When I started The Korean Vegan, I asked myself ‘what am I passionate about? What’s going to be so strong to push me into taking that risk?’
“I want to share that with every woman I meet; you could be so much happier.”
Eventually, posting food photos and all that stuff was fun and sharing my vegan story was also very important. But it wasn’t as personal to me as my story as a woman, my story of growing up as a Korean-American, my story of growing up with a lot of these body image issues, and then most impactful, my story of falling in love with my ex-husband, divorcing that man, and finding true joy. That is so important to me because I feel like there are a lot of women who just get lost in the humdrum, and for fear of not wanting to be alone, for fear of being uncomfortable, for fear of newness, for fear of being somewhere new. All of those fears, they don’t just go for it and reach for it, and that is something that I do feel passionate about. I want to share that with every woman I meet; you could be so much happier.
KJ: If you were to meet someone who is where you were then, what would you tell them?
JL: I think that if I were to speak to a younger person, at least a younger person who was like me, I would say to them, “Sometimes love is not enough”. I think that maybe we want it so badly, maybe we wish so badly that love could be enough, that we’re willing to brush everything else aside, all the warnings, all of the red flags and say, “I’m not going to look at those things because I want so badly for love to be enough.” We want to believe that so much and I think that obviously romantic comedies and Hollywood, and even to some degree, novels, that all feeds into this idea that love should be enough, but in my experience, it wasn’t. When I was 26 years old, I was engaged to be married to the only man that I had ever loved at that point, and my parents saw all of the red flags. I mean, they couldn’t help but see them because I was crying 50% of the time.
“I would say to them, ‘Sometimes love is not enough'”
Even my colleagues at work saw all the red flags and told me “Joanne, we really don’t think this is a good idea.” And my parents, they were so cute. I have a temper sometimes, so they were very afraid to confront me about this. So on New Year’s Day, I remember four months before my wedding, they made me this beautiful, big, hot piping bowl of tteokguk, which is the traditional New Year’s dish you eat in Korea. My mom hands me the bowl and says, “Here you go Joanne”, and then and she’s sliding across, very surreptitiously, a card.
So I open the card, and it’s this long letter, pleading, begging me, please don’t marry this man. We don’t think he’s right for you. I was outraged, and I was so mad. I remember crying and telling my parents, “I love him, no matter what he does to me, I love him, I love him, I love him, I don’t want to be with anyone else, I love him and isn’t that good enough? What else do I need if I love him?” I wish I could go back to that day and just say, “Love isn’t enough, it won’t be enough.” It certainly wasn’t enough for me because I loved him, I loved him so much, I still love him very much, I worry about him all the time, but it was killing me, and eventually it probably would’ve sucked me dry.
KJ: What’s one last thing that you would want people to know about you that might surprise them?
JL: Let’s see. Okay, I’m gonna end it with something funny. I am a video game nerd. I seem like such a nice, sweet, little girl on Instagram, and people at work are always like, “Oh god, I can’t believe you wrote that because you seem so nice”, but you put me in an FPS online game, and I will tear you to pieces. I will swear, I will trash talk you, I will go bananas on you. I can be a bit of a bully when it comes to video gaming, because I’m very competitive. I don’t like to lose, and the worst in me comes out when you see me lose. That’s not something you would gather from my social media.
Joanne in a nutshell:
Favorite vegan dish? French fries.
Favorite book? Probably Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; I read it every year.
Favorite quote? This one I’ve said many times. It’s going to make no sense and it’s going be somewhat depressing, but it’s from Lord of the Flies. “Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind’s essential illness.” It’s a sad quote, but it’s something that always makes me think that we can overcome beyond this, we can do it, we can get off the island.
You in three words? Structured, emotional, happy.
Joanne is currently a partner at a law firm. She admits that while she could have never envisioned doing anything other than that before, ever since The Korean Vegan, she’s started at least considering focusing on it full-time eventually. I’m sure that we’ll all enjoy seeing and reading even more from her if she does. I want to thank Joanne for sharing her thoughts and her food with me.
Lastly, this interview wouldn’t be complete without a delicious recipe from Joanne. Click here or on the image below to get her amazing Vegan Kimchi Mac’n cheese recipe. I’ll also add a live demo of her making it step by step to my Best of Vegan IG story highlights, which you can access by clicking here.
CONNECT WITH JOANNE:
Here’s one of my favorite blog posts by Joanne which perfectly exemplifies the writing style that captivated me when I first came across her page:
And here is the instagram post about finding passion that I referred to in one of the questions:
View this post on Instagram
“I keep hearing how vital it is to stoke one’s passions, to live one’s life in pursuit of fiery goals in lieu of things like money or fame or security. It causes me anxiety because I don’t have any passions. I’m not passionate about things like my writing or music or drawing or even my job. ▪️ “When I meet people who are dedicated to that one thing–whether it’s playing the piano or painting a portrait or taking the perfect photo–I feel like I’m talking to aliens. I’ve dedicated my whole existence to two things: my family and love. Everything I do, including writing motions and answering interrogatories, boils down to these two things. I wouldn’t be where I am without them and I wouldn’t do what I do but for them. ▪️ “This makes me feel like I’m missing out on some big party that everyone else got the invitation for, and I’m all like, ‘Wait, maybe mine got lost in the cosmic mail?’” 〰〰〰 I wrote the above 3 years ago, the day after I met Anthony, who has devoted his entire existence to passion. At the time, his commitment was so foreign to me and perhaps that’s why I fell in love with him: because someone as extraordinary as him saw something worthwhile in someone as ordinary as me. ▪️ For the first time in my life, I’ve actually found something that may come close to earning the label “passion.” I have spent the past two days getting to know people who defy every ordinary definition of “inspiration” with their respective passions. And it’s as if they’re saying, “aha! You’ve finally gotten our invitation.”
Photography & Interview: Kim-Julie Hansen, 2018. Food Photography & Instagram pictures: courtesy of Joanne Lee, www.instagram.com/the.korean.vegan