My students’ reaction every time I tell them that I’m a vegetarian kills me. It usually consists of feigned disbelief, along with the obligatory remark: “But teacher! Meat is so delicious!”
Having been a vegetarian off and on for six years, I’m well past having a personal vendetta against the meat-eating population of the world. True, I feel that eliminating or reducing worldwide meat consumption would lessen the effects of global warming and free up space for more sustainable agricultural practices.
Reducing meat consumption would result in the development of far healthier societies and would, of course, reduce highly unnecessary cruelty toward animals, particularly in large-scale farming operations.
But I’m finished with arguing.
I understand that some folks enjoy eating meat, particularly in Korea. My choice to eliminate animal products from my life is entirely personal.
Having traveled all ends of the vegetarian spectrum, I’ve learned about the need for personal flexibility as far as diet is concerned. My own dietary preferences have gone from pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), to raw foodist (one whose diet is comprised of only raw, unheated fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds), to vegan, and back again.
At the present moment, I choose to eat fish, eggs, and some dairy products. Before coming to Korea, I ate only plant-based foods, and, although ready to embrace most cultural differences, I was determined to remain a strict vegan in Asia.
It is no secret that relocating to another country requires an attitude of malleability, not only in relation to diet but also regarding one’s own cultural idealisms, individualisms, and the dozens of other “isms” that we don’t often consider until our own principles are thrown for a loop.
Before arriving in Jeju, I had prepped myself and came to Korea equipped with dozens of recipes and lists of vegetables and fruits in hangeul. I was even delighted to discover a vegan restaurant just around the corner from my new home.
Things seemed simple enough, until I realized a few days into my new job that the delicious kimbap my boss had been giving me each day at work was made with ham and egg, even though I’d explained from day one that I didn’t eat meat or any animal products.
My first reaction was to freak out. I’d thought myself so dedicated to maintaining my personal label: VEGAN. But then I realized that being part of a new culture sometimes means putting aside your own habitual ideas and convictions in favor of a higher and more personal human experience.
I continued to gratefully accept the kimbap (removing the ham before eating) understanding that having a kind boss who was worried that I was hungry at work meant a lot more on a personal level than repeatedly explaining that I don’t eat meat.
Some of the places I've yet to go might not be too vegetarian-friendly, and some of those people may not understand why I choose not to eat meat. But I would hate to miss an opportunity to connect with someone because of my dietary choices. Instead, I choose flexibility, and to be open to whatever comes my way.
So if I find myself in a foreign land being offered a culinary specialty that happens to be meat-based, does this mean I’ll revert to my old meat-eating ways? Probably not. But I’m not set in stone. Those of us who are keen to explore the world with an open heart and mind can’t be so stubborn. To do so would cut us off from what it means to truly embrace the experience of life. Yes, I call myself a vegetarian. But will I always? I’d like to think so, but who knows anything for certain?
I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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