My first year in college I casually read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and subsequently the famous Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. They bombarded me with enough rhetoric, hard statistics, and philosophy on the value of an animal’s life that I decided to declare myself a vegetarian to my Vietnamese family. They shrugged, thinking this was another one of my antics and forgot about it until dinner that night. I purposefully served myself a meatless portion while my brother rolled his eyes across the table at me and said, “What are you, a rabbit?” I enthusiastically engaged him in a full-blown argument while my aunt ate in quiet amusement.
I started to become really obnoxious about it. I made it the focus of my English 1A research paper, my Public Speaking class’s persuasive speech, and my Argumentation class’s debate brief in order to weave my new lifestyle into my formal studies. I made a show of turning my nose at meaty dishes at family functions and picking out beef, pork, and chicken from my plate.
One night I went a little too far and made a scene of creating a quivering mass of stacked pieces of pork that I picked out of one of my favorite eggplant tofu dishes at the dinner table. My aunt snapped at me, “Look, I’m not going to make completely separate dishes to accommodate you. I feel bad for the animals but family comes first. You’ll eat the food I make or eat nothing.”
I begrudgingly complied, eventually finding other worthwhile causes to get angry about that wouldn’t annoy my family as much.
These days I eat very little meat. I still fervently believe that eating meat is both economically and ecologically inefficient and contributes to the horrendous factory farming industry. I’ve lost a taste for red meat in general, and tend to choose the vegetarian option when available.
However, I will eat meat when it is served to me. While it’s a lucky coincidence that a lot of Vietnamese food happens to be vegan and/or vegetarian in nature, many dishes aren’t. I’ll still eat it because I decide to take part in my culture. As with most families, when we get together the festivities revolve around the food my aunts have painstakingly made. Unadorned hands pick fresh Thai basil, peel the shells off shrimp, shape fat lumps of rice noodles in colorful plastic baskets, and season the meat with countless spices I can’t pronounce.
My family literally gave up their lives and worked absurdly hard to give my generation a chance at a better life. As I’m maturing into a more self-aware and respectful perspective of my cultural identity, I am understanding just how ungrateful it would be for me to refuse food carefully and lovingly prepared by my family. I can’t quite hold a conversation in Vietnamese, but as my best friend says, “You make restaurant menus sound beautiful.” There is little to no defense for eating meat and supporting a very inherently flawed food industry. For me personally however, there is little to no defense for childishly refusing to take part in an integral part of my culture when I have so little other ties to it.
There has always been something very uncomfortable to me about the way a certain group of people enforce their eating habits on others. Veganism in particular obviously comes from a good place with good intentions, but again and again it has struck me as somehow elitist, classist, and ethnocentric. It’s the accusatory, usually white, finger shaming me for indulging in beef pho that makes me feel like I am home.
I was really saddened when I saw that the petition to ban balut from a NYC Filipino restaurant was trending because I have seen my family eat the delicacy before in times of joy and togetherness. While I always personally abstained from participating, I learned to respect how deeply ingrained the act of eating is with the act of loving in Vietnamese culture.
I love food. I am starting to really love cooking. For years I scoffed at how much time my aunts spent in the kitchen just to prepare a single night’s meal while I worked on what I called art. I observed them moving purposefully around a kitchen where golden pots simmered and bright green herbs changed hands as swiftly as in a relay race. They worked their magic as they clucked at me dumbly clutching my pen to tell me that there was no real “recipe” that they could give me, the steps all came naturally. I figured out that cooking is their art that they pour so much love into, and I am learning to do the same.