Extraordinary Expats: Health Advocate Shanelle Ueyama

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Shanelle Ueyama at Mangwon Market. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Shanelle Ueyama writing about the dangers of tobacco for her blog cocobambi at Cafe Sukkara. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    She chatted away in practically fluent Korean with some lime green-vested vendors, offering her support for their protest of Home Plus. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    It was a bit dissonant seeing her—wearing a black romper and wedges—commiserating with the older man selling dried fish Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

I met Japanese-American health and beauty blogger Shanelle Ueyama at the Mangwon Market (망원시장) to talk while we browsed for fresh fruit and handmade tteok. A local resident, Shanelle visits the market regularly and laments the imminent arrival of a new Home Plus nearby that will put the mom-and-pop stores at risk. I watched as she chatted away in practically fluent Korean with some lime green-vested vendors, offering her support for their protest of the conglomerate construction.

It was a bit dissonant seeing her—shiny-haired, lips tinted bubblegum pink, wearing a black romper and wedges—commiserating with the older man selling dried fish. She looked like she belonged on a runway, more model than writer, researcher, or public health worker. But in fact, she is all of those things. While she has modeled, her interests are diverse—she even spent two months picking insects off tomato plants while volunteering at an organic farm in Mongolia.

photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist As Shanelle daintily sifted through a crate of plums, her diamond engagement ring sparkling under the exposed bulbs, I commented on how different her appearance seems from her humble, earthy message. She admitted that a lot of people, even close friends, give her a hard time about her glossy look. But she insists that it’s not at odds with her “organic” side at all. Shanelle endorses the idea that people can enjoy both granola and glamour at the same time.

It’s a message that she works to spread through her popular blog, cocobambi. Her posts (all written in Korean) cover a variety of subjects, from fashion and beauty to more serious causes like LGBT rights and the dangers of tobacco use. Initially, she thought she would get more attention for the fluffy, photo-heavy posts on clothes and cosmetics, but lately she’s been receiving more hits on her lengthy, educational content. Her readers are calling for more of the meaningful writing, and she’s eager to provide it. Despite the fact that it takes the non-native Korean speaker many hours to compose each entry, she’s committed to sharing her ideas, which she hopes will expand Korean readers’ views on health, self-image, and social issues.

Along with her blog, Shanelle has taken on a number of other projects aimed at improving Koreans’ health and self-awareness. She’s currently creating an educational book and iPhone app, in addition to her regular work at InStyle magazine and planning a wedding. We talked about all these things as she finished sorting through the plums, putting them into two bags and handing one to me. “These are for you,” she smiled. As generous with words as she is with produce, Shanelle agreed to share a bit more with Seoulist over emails and organic soy chai lattes.

Seoulist Mag: Can you tell us about your background? Where are you from originally, and where have you lived since then?
Shanelle Ueyama:
My father is Japanese and my mother is American. I grew up in Yokohama, Japan, where I attended an International School. I moved to New York City for college and attended Columbia University. I then moved to Los Angeles and got my Master’s in Public Health at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. After working for a year on tobacco research at the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center I moved to Kobe, Japan to work as a Consultant at the World Health Organization. A year later I quit my job to take a Fulbright Scholarship in Korea. So to summarize, I have lived in Yokohama, New York City, Los Angeles, Kobe, and Seoul.

SM: What made you choose to live in Seoul, and how have you adjusted to life in Korea?
When I first moved to America for college, although I look quite American (white) I was very much Japanese on the inside, so it was hard for me to make friends with other students who had grown up in the States. There were very few Japanese people at Columbia University but tons of Korean students, so I naturally began to make many Korean friends. I had no clue what they were saying at first and had no idea what Korean culture was like (other than the fact that they ate kimchi). So out of curiosity I started watching Korean dramas and enrolled in a Korean language course at school. On the first day of class, the teacher told me that I had come into the wrong room (I was his first ever non-Korean student!). When I told him I thought the class was to learn Korean, he was shocked and couldn’t quite grasp why I would choose Korean over Chinese or Japanese. This was around 2002, before Korea became so well-known globally for their idol singers, dramas, food, etc.

After that I began to spend my summer breaks in Korea and enrolled in another language course at Yonsei University. But I would say that I learned Korean mostly through talking to friends, watching dramas, and Korean boyfriends (the most effective [method] of them all, of course).

SM: Why did you start blogging in Korean? Who were/are you hoping to reach?
I first started my blog when I realized how little information was out there on public health for the general population. For example, I searched the nutrition facts and ingredients of instant ramen on major Korean search engines like Naver and Daum and could hardly find anything reliable—most sites that popped up were probably sponsored by the ramen industry and argued the health benefits of instant ramen. This was the push that really made me want to create a blog so that I had a platform to expose the reality of these issues.

But at the same time, I didn’t want my audience to be made up of scientists, professors or health professionals. I wanted to reach the general population, especially teenagers and people in their 20s–30s. So instead of making the blog purely focused on these health issues I decided to post on other topics like fashion, traveling around the world, and beauty. This way people interested in these topics would also be exposed to health issues. Blogging in the Korean language was a given.

SM: How did you choose the name “cocobambi”?
I thought of the “bambi” part because a lot of people tell me I look like a deer. Then I asked my friends for help coming up with something cute to go with it, and we came up the whole name. Now people are starting to call it by nicknames, like “cobam.”

SM: It’s very 애교!
(laughs) Yeah, it is.

SM:  But a lot of people are talking about how the Korean diet is naturally healthy. What’s wrong with the way young Koreans are eating?
Generally, Koreans have held on to many aspects of their traditional diet even as their eating habits changed in recent years. They still eat a diet that is generally low in fat and calories, high in carbohydrates and contains a lot of vegetables. Nevertheless, there are some less healthy aspects of the Korean diet. Although fermented foods (like soy bean paste and red pepper bean paste) can provide a lot of vitamins and minerals, they also have very high sodium content. For instance, 100 grams of cabbage kimchi contains roughly 280 milligrams of sodium.

And in recent years the younger generations have been consuming more fast food, meat, fried chicken, pizza and snacks. So although Korea currently boasts an obesity rate of 3.5 percent (one of the lowest rates in the entire world), this may quickly change with a more westernized diet. This also includes the exploding café culture, which means people are eating more sweets like waffles, frappuccinos and patbingsu, whereas dessert used to be a slice of apple or melon.

Even small things like instant coffee mixes, which are bad for your health, are very popular and consumed daily. Alcohol is widely consumed without thorough education and treatment for addiction. Tobacco consumption is also the highest in the world. The biggest problem is that many people who consume these products are not aware of how detrimental the products are to their health.

SM: Have you noticed any positive trends? In what ways might things be changing for the better?
I have actually seen a huge positive change in the options available at big supermarkets (Home Plus, Galleria Department store, etc.) in the past year. When I first came to Korea, the organic food section was almost non-existent, but recently the media has covered the 친환경 (environmentally friendly) and organic farming movements more and more—I think this has resulted in more people seeking out produce that is chemical and hormone-free, produced in a sustainable manner. The supermarkets now have a wide selection of organic and environmentally friendly produce as well as a greater selection of other health foods. I have also watched several documentaries on Korean “local food” movements, in which neighborhoods are trying to produce and buy foods locally. It’s more trustworthy and better for the environment.

image SM: If you took us to the market, what items would you insist we put in our basket and why? What common Korean food items might you forbid us from purchasing?
My basket usually ends up full of organic low-fat milk, soy milk, organic eggs, dried fruits like cranberries and persimmons, roasted almonds, and organic brown rice—I love all of the rice options in Korea! There are so many different types of grains and beans you can add into your rice cooker. I’m always surprised by the color my rice turns out—purple, black, yellow! I also love the 쌈 section, where you can choose from a huge variety of leafy greens (I especially like the ones with strong flavors like 깻잎 [perilla leaves]), fish, and organic tofu. I love the Korean 참외 (yellow melon), which I have never seen in other countries before.

I cringe when I pass by the instant ramen aisle and chips/snacks aisle. All of the packages are designed so effectively (bright and in colors that stimulate your appetite) that it makes it hard for passersby to resist grabbing a couple and throwing them into their basket. Also, I would definitely forbid you from the fried foods sold on the street. Oh, and those oily sausages… talk about a heart attack on a stick.

SM: Can you tell us more about the book you are writing?
It will help consumers make better, healthier choices in the supermarket and in restaurants in Korea. The book is mainly visual, with pictures of products that can be seen in any supermarket—I have basically analyzed the nutrition facts and compared different products to put them on the good list or black list. So faced with two types of ice cream, the book suggests which one is less fattening or made without hormones, etc. The book is realistic in the sense that it is for the majority of the population who eat things like ice cream; if you are going to eat unhealthily anyway, it helps you choose which product will be least unhealthy. It is a fun book (that is secretly educational) that people can bring to the supermarket to help them fill their carts with better products.

SM: And what about the iPhone app you’re developing?
My plans for the iPhone application have been put on hold for a while (kind of swamped with writing the book and planning a wedding), but as soon as I get time I will be working with a team of Korean programmers and game designers to create a game that has a social cause.

My goal is to create a game that people will play purely for entertainment because it is fun and addictive but that has an added bonus of helping the world in some way. I think that the problem with some of the current apps that are out there with a similar goal is that they focus too much on the social cause aspect and make it too educational, so the game never gains popularity. I would love anyone who is skilled and interested in joining our team to please contact us!


To investigate some healthy eating options yourself, check out the places we visited during Shanelle’s interview.

망원시장 (Mangwon Market) | Mapo-gu, Mangwon-dong 411 | map
Café Sukkara | Mapo-gu, Seogyo-dong 327-9. Tel 02-334-5919

Meagan Mastriani

About Meagan Mastriani

Meagan is equal parts Texan and Georgian, though she currently resides in Korea. She spends her afternoons wandering through Seoul, exploring backstreets to find hidden treasures. Read about her culinary discoveries at her Honest Cooking column and follow her other adventures at her blog and @meaganmastriani.

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