I’ve been vegetarian for nearly 11 years now and while I’ve been up north, I’ve occasionally eaten poutine (i.e. beef gravy) and gone freegan when put in extremely awkward situations.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan reading this, don’t whine to me about being a bad herbivore. I’ve owned animals – turtles, cats, rabbits, rats that I would never abuse – I’ve run an animal rights group at university and have led social events for those interested in vegetarianism and veganism in different cities and countries. I’ve read books, I’ve gone to the food fairs, I’ve helped people transition to this lifestyle and I’m tolerant of where people are in their diet and approach.
But this is life. This stuff happens. We can’t all be perfect. Don’t be high and mighty with me. Don’t be the asshole vegan that people want to punch in the face.
In the north, I cook for myself most of the time and I make fabulous meals for J and I. At home, we eat fish-sauce-free pad thai, coconut Panang curry, Indian uttapams, Ethiopian lentils, Chinese stirfry, Gardein “chicken” salad, Japanese maki, Vietnamese paper rolls, Korean bibimbap or dwaengjang jigae and have wonderful vegetable bakes with parsnips, heritage carrots and sweet potatoes. I’ll even make a mean shepherd’s pie from scratch with TVP. Some of it is vegan and some of it is vegetarian.
But like any good city girl growing up, I would love to be able to enjoy a good meal going out. The only option I’m left with is the local hotel. The restaurant offers only two choices for folks like me: buttered grilled cheese or an extremely shitty iceberg lettuce salad topped with Kraft dressing of your choice. And when I go over to people’s houses, I will sometimes feed myself beforehand, because it’s embarrassing when I’m picking out tuna out of my teeth and the host is surprised that it’s not “vegetarian-friendly”. I constantly have to tell people, “No, I don’t eat clams, salmon or trout” without being rude. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at answering these questions with a smile. In the city, people are far more considerate, but up here, no one cares about your diet. It’s easy to say, “No thank you” a few times, but it wears on you week after week, month after month, year after year.
A week ago, J. wanted to go for lunch. He encouraged me to order the special of the day, “mac and cheese”, which was listed on the whiteboard. I politely asked the waitress if there was any meat, to which she replied, “I don’t think so … “, so I ordered it. Thirty minutes later, my dish cam out, heavily topped with seasoned ground beef in the form of a lasagna. I was furious and J. was empathetic. But I looked at the scenario, there were 20 minutes left before going back to work, I had to teach the full afternoon with no breaks and I hadn’t replenished my secret stash of Lara bars in my desk drawer. There was no backup plan. Therefore, I ended up eating as much pasta as I could, brushing off the larger chunks of meat. J., attempting to be helpful, continued to question whether it was meat at all. In my frustration and fury, I leaned in, squinted at him with bared teeth, waving a forkful in his face, “This is fucking beef, okay?!”
It wasn’t my happy place.
In freegan situations, most people don’t want to eat meat. I’m not thinking, “Yes! Another excuse to eat cooked flesh!” I realize that I could either toss it in the trash, considering it’s traveled to an isolated community by truck over two days. I turn off my brain and suck it up because I can’t afford to go hungry.
I’ve tried skipping meals in the past and it doesn’t turn out too well. My body isn’t strong in the way I’d like it to be sometimes. Similar to my grandmother, I will sometimes get severe and debilitating stomach pains. The last time this happened was in August; embarrassingly enough, this was in Toronto. When I felt the cramps coming on, I asked the waitress to bring me a soup as soon as I sat down, but it didn’t work, so I excused myself so that I could lie in fetal position on the floor of a bathroom. I had to wait until the pain passed before I crawled back up the stairs to sit upright at the table as I pretended nothing had happened.
In the worst scenario, when my father passed away in 2007, I was depressed for months, skipping meals and eating irregularly. There was a workday I suddenly started getting tunnel vision while teaching and felt fainted. I told my kids to sit still and abandoned the class to ask the secretary to order some fast food ASAP. It was scary. My body was trying to get my attention and I will never let myself to go without again.
This is the body I live with. I have to eat just to stay functional.
It’s frustrating that there are no other pure vegetarians up north either. I’m surrounded by coworkers and friends who constantly say they are herbivorous and yet they’re eating meat right in front of me without hesitation. I’m pretty sure I am on the verge of giving someone an earful the next time this happens, and storming out of a party, because it is honestly disrespectful to the moral choice that vegetarians and vegans make. I don’t call myself a celiac while I’m buttering a piece of bread, so don’t tell me you’re vegetarian when you’re chewing on a piece of bacon!
But then I check myself, WWCJAD? Keep my mouth shut? Or politely pull the person aside and explain the ethics behind the movement? In Toronto, it’s been easy with a strong, supportive culture, but after three years in the north, I feel like I want to snap sometimes. I would love to be vegan again, but up north, I just want to hold steady and be a good herbivore.
It’s been many years since I’ve watched my Earthlings DVD or read any Peter Singer, but the reasons for my lifestyle stay the same. I don’t need to watch the graphic videos to remind me. I only need to mentally revisit the Cambodian meat market and see, in my mind’s eye, a basket of live, skinned frogs kicking wildly. I vaguely remember hyperventilating and frantically trying to run away from the bucket. Local villagers were watching me in surprise, as I was causing a scene, but the only thing I can recall is bawling in an alleyway and my boyfriend, at the time, holding my shaking body.
I’m still considering a second tattoo, somewhere to mark ahimsa or अहिंसा, as a reminder of how important these values are to me. It would help explain, more vividly, why I don’t want to your eat chicken rolls or your stir-fried rice laden with ground pork when I’m visiting your home. So please be understanding of those around you; we make these dietary choices out of respect to all sentient beings. It is not out of disrespectful to you to decline your meal, but to honour the fact that everyone, including non-humans, has a right to life.
Feel free to pass this post on if you know someone who could benefit from it.