(Warning: This is going to be a long post without pictures)
The day 22nd September has marked many important events in my life till now. First of all, it was the first day I went to school in Belgium in 2011 and began my new life in a totally different environment and culture from Vietnam. Secondly, on this very day three years later, my college life officially started. It is, more importantly, according to J.R.R Tolkien also the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the main characters in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings as well as The Hobbit. Whenever I think about it, I have the impression that 22nd September is the beginning of all adventures, when I, just like Bilbo and Frodo, am obliged to step out of my current environment (or comfort zone, I may say) and to grab the mere chance of learning new things and having unforgettable experiences. By coincidence (or not), the day is exactly one hundred days before the end of the year.
For a fortnight I’ve been celebrating the two-and-twenty-second day of the ninth month that way, thinking solely about adventures. Yesterday, while washing a cauliflower in the kitchen, however, I’ve just recalled myself that it also marks the day one year ago when I was greatly motivated to become a vegetarian. Yes, that was the day when my stubbornness was at its highest, as I refused to touch any meat that my mother tried to serve on the dining table.
This proves to be a significant event that’s worth to be written about, for my “adventure” of going veggie has met both success and failure. I would also like to emphasize that the following words will be the story of an 18-year old girl who loved meat including its everything: taste, variation, smell, recipes…, and who decided one night as the wind was dancing cheerfully under the starless sky that she would go veggie the very next day.
In fact, I’ve had the idea of a meatless life already long ago. I remember sitting at my desk at the age of 15, trying to plan out my whole life. Here are for example some lines that I wrote back then:
“- Age 18: enter college (to study whether art or languages)
– Age 22: graduate from college
– Age 24: master degree
– Age 27: become a vegetarian
– Age 30: travel around the world”
Thinking back, I only remember planning to travel around the world in my thirties because I’d have to work during my twenties to save enough money for this long excursion. How vegetarianism made its way to my list, I have now no single idea: probably not because of my love for animals, for I’ve always found them cute, but not to the point of refusing beef stews with coconut willingly. 27 is also a weird number to be chosen for such an important event, because other numbers such as 18, 20, 25, 30… always have a certain authority. What I still know is that I chose such a late age to become a vegetarian because I thought that I’d need an enormous amount of energy from meat to survive my young years under much stress at college and at work.
Arriving in Belgium, I moved to my new secondary school’s dormitory and spent my following two years with students of all kinds. Belgium, unlike Vietnam which is rich in its own culture, is a meeting point of people from various origins and lifestyles. The history of Europe and of the two World Wars also has a great impact on the population’s mentality. As a consequence, departing from a land where most people have (or are supposed to have) the same idealism, I arrived at a place where all ideas cross way and where respect for all these ideas is to be expected, even without agreement.
So I met and had the chance to talk with some vegetarians in my dormitory and realized that it was not necessary to eat meat to be able to struggle through school’s assignments. I had from that moment no more excuse to postpone my vegetarian diet till the age of 27. Still, I hesitated to begin it immediately.
As time pass by, I found more reasons to become a vegetarian. One of the chief reasons is my Vietnamese culture of consuming dog meat, though not on a daily frequency. The main and probably surprising point is that I am NOT against this culture. I AM against the controversy lying behind this culture. As a matter of facts, there are many different opinions, both pro and contra, in relation with this problematic. Due to the considerable influence of the Western culture, a great part of my country’s population, especially young girls, stand nowadays on the opposing team, as they consider dogs as loyal friends in stead of livestocks. Though their argument is understandable, I can’t help finding it hypocritical. «Hypocritical» may be a too offensive and subjective word to describe people who just want to protect dogs with their friendliness and their sympathy, but it is hard to get the idea out of my mind. In my opinion, people should care for all animals at the same time if they keep talking about not eating dogs. Dogs live with us and are loyal, which is true, but any animal including cows, pigs, fishes or even insects have a life, and the facts that they live in the farm chewing grass or in the nature shouldn’t make them any less noble than dogs or cats. Of course, anyone can choose whether to eat dog meat or not, just like people don’t eat horses, rabbits or snakes on a regular basis either; but going on criticizing others for killing a dog while having beef steak with tomato sauce for dinner doesn’t seem to me to be very persuasive. So I was someone who would accept any kind of cooked animals on my dish, and now I am still sticking to my point of view: every animal should be treated the same, though I support my own argument differently. Instead of eating everything, I eat mainly nuts and vegetables.
(I’ve met many foreigners who criticize Chinese culture for its consumption of dog meat, but trust me: the fact that Chinese people, or Vietnamese, or any where else in the world would gladdy eat dogs doesn’t make them any less friendly to animals than any of you are trying to be. Each country has its own culture, though it can be old and is now changing fast.)
There are still other reasons why I want to stop eating animals. One of them may sound childish and foolish, but it is nevertheless what has obsessed me since childhood and what was possibly the motivation for my planning as a 15-year old girl: the fact that fables describes big and scary animals as evil characters to convey a moral makes me nervous. While reading these fables, we often see ourselves as the weaker but more intelligent beings, struggling to survive against the bigger and mightier creatures. There are also many legends of my country that tell stories about human heroes who rescue villages from horrible monsters. However, in stead of being able to learn any moral taught through these tales, I can only imagine myself being the big and evil character. We criticize the wolf for eating the little pigs, the giant on the big beanstalk for trying to cook Jack, but we play the role of these gigantic and twisted characters every day by locking up pigs in farm and chewing on grilled chicken legs. I’ve rarely expressed this thought of mine to anyone, for it doesn’t sound very convincing while discussing about vegetarianism. It is but a personal feeling. Again, as a child, I felt sympathized with the hungry wolf who tried hard to earn his meal, not knowing that he was considered in the human world as an evil being and that this judgement was read to little and naive children every night before bed time.
Back to some more rational arguments: “Globally, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of global methane emissions from human-related activities.”, as written on http://www.epa.gov/rlep/faq.html
The documentary “Meat the truth” by the Nicolaas G. PIERSON Foundation also points out how the livestock industry can have bad influences on our environment. Being raised by my stepfather who cares a lot about the ecological lifestyle, I am under great influence. Because I am taught to travel mostly with bicycles and public transports, to use electricity generated from wind energy at home and to sort out our garbage carefully, I wonder why we wouldn’t go one step further and remove meat from our main dishes to help prevent that large amount of emitted methane through massive industrialized catering from increasing.
One of the main arguments against vegetarianism is that we humans are unlike herbivores, which can only derive their main diet from plants. It is our nature to eat both plants and meats, and to eat animals that we can dominate, just like how things are in the wild life. Yet the truth is that we seldom, or never go hunting for food anymore like the old days. We eat animals from farms, which now, due to the high demand of the growing population and consumption, mostly lock farm animals up in cases or stalls. The way animals are killed for food is nowadays not much different from producing a ballpoint pen in a factory chain. The time of happy animals who were taken cared of by farmers who considered them as friends until the end of their days has now almost completely dissapeared. It strikes me to think of the number of animals killed per year for the food industry and of the fact that the fate of getting killed is already decided upon these beings before the beginning of their life. It hurts even more to think that many animals, though slaughtered for the sake of food, don’t have any chance to serve as a source of energy. The amount of food that is thrown away every day is enormous. It was as if these animals had to die for nothing at all.
Those are enough of the reasons why I want to become a vegetarian. Some of them are mere personal feelings, some are arguments pro vegetarianism. However, it is not my intention at all to persuade anyone to become one. I rarely tell most of these reasons to anyone in real life, as well as the fact that I want to go veggie. In my opinion, the choice of everyone should be respected, especially when it comes to food. Food is cultural, strongly related to one’s lifestyle and one’s memories. Remember that time when you visited your grandmother as a child and were served the best chicken leg with the fattest skin and the most creamy sauce ever? Good food brings back good memories, and I find it simply foolish to try to take those good memories away from other people. Whether we live to eat, or eat to live, I don’t know, but it is important that we guard a little space in our heart just for our dear mother’s stewed fillet or for the roasted ribs we ate with our lover on one of those very first dates.
This respect for the choice of others has caused me a lot of troubles on my way of going veggie. When I talked with some of my friends for the first time about my plans of eating less meat, most of them were surprised and warned me that it would be hard to depart with its wonderful taste. On the contrary, when it finally happened, the hardest part proved to me to be the social pressure and not the appetite for meat. After one or two weeks not eating any beef, pork or fish (or dogs, obviously), I quickly got used to the new diet. It was not a matter of what I ate but of getting out of my comfort zone. Once I discovered new and delicious vegetarian recipes, the rest of the mission was only to sit down and to enjoy the meal. It was the fact of suddenly becoming different from others that worried me the most.
I am the only one at home who wants to become a vegetarian. My mother is an expert in eating and cooking a lot of meat. A hot meal without meat or fish on the plate would easily lead to her discontent. She loves standing in the kitchen and prepare a meal which everyone will enjoy. Needless to say how much my decision of going veggie has upset her, for I deny to eat the dishes that she cooks for the family and go cooking one dish full of nuts and vegetables for myself. I also find it difficult to discuss with my mother, or with any member of my family in Vietnam about the reasons for my new diet, especially when most people in my country are still not used to the fact that somebody would choose to live such a restricted life without being related to any religion. Though Vietnam is said to be one of the best countries for vegetarians thanks to its richness in ingredients and recipes, most of the people there have in mind that you must be a very dedicated Buddhist, or even a monk, to scrape ‘meat’ off your shopping list, and that if you one day decides not to eat pork, then you are probably a Muslim.
That’s why I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my “adventure” has met both success and failure. The success is that I’ve learned to use many ingredients and new recipes as a substitute for meat, and that I’ve been eating mostly vegetables for one year till now, from which the possibility was much doubted last autumn. The failure is that I still eat meat, though not much and not when I’m alone. During the first months, I had to promise to my mother that I’d eat meat at least once per week, or even twice, and that would happen mainly in the weekends, for she was deeply concerned about my health. So I spent most of my time during these months under the pressure caused by my own belief: I had then still much to learn about how to use nuts or tofu, and at the same time I had to listen to the complaints and arguments against vegetarianism every evening. I nearly gave up several times and even started to long for the day when I can finally move out five years from then and eat my meal peacefully. A mom’s worry is of course always understandable, but it is not always without pressure.
Besides, I was always confused while going out with friends. If we ate out together, I would have to answer many questions concerning my vegetarian diet; and because turning ideas into spoken words had never been my strong point, my friends were hardly satisfied with my answers. Most of the time, I would have to hear things like: “Life like yours is so boring, you don’t even know how to enjoy the happiness of living!”. Those were the time when I was sad to discover that going on a diet to lose weight would be more normal than trying to become a vegetarian, and that I’d simply have been safe if I had said that more meat on my plate would cause me another week of extreme workout. Since then, I’ve been trying to hide my diet from others just by saying that I don’t think I’ll enjoy the taste of meat on that day because my grandmother has stuffed me with a lot of delicious dishes the day before, which is undoubtedly the biggest lie ever. Saying that you are vegetarian and eating a vegetable dish while other people at the table eat beefsteak also causes them to feel guilty for their choices. Though people know that it is not necessary to become a vegetarian, they would quickly have the impression that they appear more cruel than the one who is chewing on his/her cabbage at the other side of the table (which is of course not true, as vegetarians don’t want to appear nobler or having a bigger heart either). It is therefore often better not to mention the subject while eating out.
The biggest failure of my whole journey till now was around the period of Chinese New Year, when I traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia to enjoy the most important feast of our culture with my family. It may be a surprising fact that it is easier to order a vegetarian dish in Europe than in Asia. Though it is easier to make a vegetarian meal on your own in Vietnam, people don’t generally have the idea of offering such a meal in the menu. Big restaurants do have vegetable dishes apart, but as we mostly ate on the street, I had to be content with what I could find. At family gatherings, it would upset the hosts if I denied to touch the main dish that was full of meat but that was prepared with love and care. I went back eating a lot of meat for a whole month on vacation, with guilt and with the consciousness that my appetite for it was gradually coming back after such a long time of restricted consumption, and that the way to vegetarianism would grow much harder if I continued to eat like that. Luckily, my trip to Asia only lasted for a little bit longer than a month time. Things got back to normal after a few days back home in Belgium.
(Well another challenge for me was not to use fish sauce to cook. We use a large amount of fish sauce in Asian dishes and wok. I tried to switch to normal sea salt but the dishes lost their richness, and using soya sauce would cause the food to taste unnecessarily sweet. But yeah, that was only a small challenge in comparisons with the social experience.)
It is important to know that not all vegetarians are the same, and that people generally don’t choose to become one for the sake of becoming thinner (trust me, how many times have I heard that statement over the last year?). The practice of vegetarianism depends on one’s purpose of doing so. It is widely known that vegetarians still eat eggs and dairy products. That part about dairy products apply to me, but not the eggs. I choose to eat eggs as little as possible because they remind me of my cousin who never had the chance of being born. I have friends who still eat fish because they believe fishes have at least a happier life than locked-up farm animals (I wonder if they are also called vegetarians, but I suppose they also sit in the ‘meatless’ category). Others don’t even touch milk or cheese. They are sometimes called vegans. Talking about vegetarianism, I find it even strange that we have such names. We don’t call people who eat every thing ‘omnivorians’, do we?
Least but not last, I am happy to look back and realize that one year has passed since my vegetarian diet officially began. Though it was not a full year of 365 days living only on vegetables, it still makes me relieved to know that my consumption of meat has greatly reduced, for better or for worse. Of course, I’m not even sure if plants have feelings and pains just like us and other animals, and if eating more vegetables would cause more troubles for them. For the time being, I’ll just be content with what I’m doing, waiting for the big question to be answered.