“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” – Maya Angelou
Ever since I stopped eating meat back in October 2013, I realized that the impact of my personal decision was not limited to myself, but – funnily enough – extended so far as to include the community that envelopes me day by day. Sure, I re-contemplated how I view myself in perspective with the world and yes, I greatly enhanced my knowledge of plant-based protein. But I wasn’t left in my own little greenhouse, gathering steam in a room with myself and myself alone; and this realization has led me to understand that it is time to break through those glass walls and sing to those who’ve been watching me all along.
But first, I’d like to share my experiences on how my change unfolded. My loving family (the members of which, by the way, remain as omnivorous as before) were naturally the first to express bafflement and dissent at my decision, but also the first to embrace and respect it. Growing up in a household – a Korean one, no less, which indulged itself on endless galbi, bulgogi and tongdak fried chicken nights – where my sister’s love for meat has been an ongoing piece of banter for years, it was difficult at first to allow my family to understand what vegetarianism truly was. Why was it ‘not okay’ for me to simply pick the meat out of my dishes? Do instant noodles really contain meat-based soups? All kinds of questions, not to mention expressions of frustration, were often manifested around the dinner table and even beyond. When I wouldn’t eat certain things at restaurants. When they had to specifically bring things other than beef to our barbeques. It was quite a tough time for all of us, but several explanations later, it wasn’t long before I realized how lucky I truly am.
Today, as I listen to my mother tell me about how she deliberately didn’t put meat in a certain dish or how she wants to experiment with cooking tofu and beans for protein, I am beyond thankful for how much she respects my decision. Seeing my sister enjoying the veggie pattie bagels I eat at our favorite bagel joint makes me inexplicably happy, not to mention pleased with myself (hehe). When my dad took us to a vegetarian dim sum restaurant, I was overwhelmed by the extent to which he cared. When I told my family I was going to become a full vegetarian (i.e. no more fish) last month, of course they were quite irritated, but once again they have shown me exactly why I am so blessed to be part of this familial unit. At one point, I remember my mother telling me that she thinks our family has become healthier due to my lifestyle change. Having heard this come from her heart, not only was I touched, but I also realized that as someone who has actively, consciously decided to make a lifestyle change, there are in fact so many things I could do for the concept of vegetarianism and what it means for many across the globe, not only in my household but also for the wider community.
And, of course, it starts off in tandem with the other half of the world: by realizing that making this change should never be a self-righteous decision that tramples on the right to choice of everyone around me. It should never be something to harness as a condescending ‘I’m so much better than you’ card, because having that kind of mentality and attitude not only undermines the idea of empathy that is so ingrained in the concept of vegetarianism, but also further detracts from the progression of the movement.
Having said that, however, I feel as if I have a responsibility to carry out. As I became vegetarian, I realized that there were so many things about vegetarianism that I never fully grasped nor speculated over, which, in many cases, probably left many vegetarians feeling frustrated, overlooked and misunderstood. Today, as one of these vegetarians myself, I think it’s time to use this platform as a means of telling others what ’empathy’ means to a vegetarian (like me at least).
So to conclude this post, I’d like to leave some food for thought – pun intended – that you can take away to make yourself be a more open-minded person especially towards those who’ve made significant lifestyle decisions…
1. Vegetarianism ≠ Veganism: all these ‘diet terms’ are confusing and that is completely understandable. But in order to save time and energy (as well as foster respect), I’ve come to realize that it’s worthwhile to understand the differences between them regardless of your current dietary preference. I’m definitely not the expert when I say this, so take this with a pinch of salt, but one way I’d like to create the distinction is by simply stating that vegetarians are those who do not consume meats (i.e. poultry, fish, beef, pork) and vegans are those who do not only consume meats, but also any products that are derived from animals (i.e. honey, dairy products, eggs). Oh, and an extra term for good measure: pescatarians are vegetarians who eat fish. I used to be pescatarian for a year until last month.
2. Vegetarians don’t simply ‘pick off the meat’: trust me, I used to be the guilty culprit for this one. Whenever I had a vegetarian friend who couldn’t share the communal plate of pasta because it contained bits of chicken, or couldn’t eat a certain pizza because it had strips of ham, I’d always tell them that they could ‘take off the meat’ and just eat the food. I always found it questionable when they objected. But as a vegetarian, I’ve realized that what I did was quite ignorant in many ways. Why? Vegetarianism only has an impact when you consider how consumerism works. If I ordered a parma ham pizza and simply picked the meat off, it would be tantamount to my having had eaten the ham anyways, because according to the kitchen pantry and the bill I might as well have depleted some of their ham supply. Which means that in order for them to refill it, they’ll have to order more ham, call for more animals… you get the idea. So claiming utmost dedication to vegetarianism and ordering meat-based dishes (but simply taking out the meat) would kinda be, well, counterproductive, not to mention mutually exclusive on ethical grounds. This is something that I always wished I understood even before I adopted a vegetarian lifestyle.
3. It is absolutely great when people respect lifestyle choices: I am so glad to live in a community where people are so supportive. When friends send me links to vegan recipes, buy me vegetarian Percy Pig gummies; when my mom makes me egg-covered mushrooms and vegetarian sausages just so I can widen the variety of foods I consume; when my peers decide to go vegetarian just for a week to see what it’s like, I always feel incredibly happy and well supported. If you have any friends who are vegetarian or are considering making the transition, being supportive is the best thing you could possibly do. It’ll make them feel a stronger conviction to their cause and who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired by them!
3 things; so simple, but things I wish I had known before I made my lifestyle change.
Now that I know better, I do better. Spread the word, let others know. It will be the greatest thing you will ever do for a vegetarian trying to find their footing in a world that remains quite distant.