June 15, 2017

World : Environment

Last weekend I went to Yosemite, and being there always makes my heart break a little in a good way. This time, in the midst of withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the heartbreak was more of the conventionally sad kind, thinking of just how much threatens our environment.

I know we've all been thinking lately about what we can do when so much is happening out of our control.  As I struggle with that, I consider what we can do in small ways in our daily lives.  For me that's been the motivating factor for being vegetarian. As most of you know, I stopped eating meat in medical school, last year started to cut down on seafood, and then after the election cut it out altogether.

One part I dislike about being vegetarian is making other people accommodate my choices.  I've never been a picky eater--before vegetarianism, I would literally eat and try anything, and now I sometimes feel guilty for being difficult, especially in meat-heavy cultures and groups.  So if I don't thank you enough for accounting for me, thank you!

The other part I used to dislike was sharing the rationale for my choice.  People ask all the time why I became a vegetarian, and I appreciate the curiosity if it's coming from an open place.  But I don't want to present the choice as something I think everyone should do, or make anyone feel uncomfortable with their preferences.  I really don't care what other people eat.

I also dislike when the question comes from a place of judgment, especially from people whose opinions I value.  I've had good friends and family shake their heads, tell me they could never do it, comment on how hard it must be.  I can feel their sizing me up as typical Bay Area, and while that stereotype is not untrue, it can annoy me in its dismissiveness.  I think in some ways, it's tied to the above--even though I really truly don't judge anyone else's diet, my reasons for vegetarianism can come off as a judgment of non-vegetarians and this creates some defensiveness.

Lately though, in light of how much personal greed is trumping respect for our environment, I feel less uncomfortable and more grateful for voicing the choice to not eat meat and seafood.

My choice started with reading a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, lent to me by my good friend Caitlin.  It's a well-researched book about animal cruelty in the food industry, and the insane effects of the meat and seafood industries on the environment.  This wasn't new news, but what struck me most was the idea of being mindful about your daily choices.  Eating is a basic thing we do every single day, multiple times a day.  Because of its regularity, we often stop paying attention to it.  But because of its regularity, it's an ideal avenue for remembering values we might otherwise forget.

For me, the value I want to keep close and daily is that there is a world bigger and more important than my needs and pleasures. Honestly, I used to think that the environment was one of those impossible issues because at some point we're inevitably going to destroy it.  While I still believe that to a degree, I've stopped thinking that absolves us from mindfulness in the present.

People often say, what's the point, it doesn't make much difference, it's not like everyone is going to stop eating meat.  It's really not about any of that for me.  It's just nice to do something every day that makes you feel that your tiny slice of life can take into account the world in which it sits.  And that filters into the rest of my life.  Maybe it's what prayer is like for religious people--a way of connecting to a larger force, that removes you from yourself, grounds you into living for others.

People ask all sorts of questions about the difficulties: How do you get your protein? Your B vitamins?  How does it work with your family, partners, friends?  Isn't it hard?

I usually tell people that it's really not that hard, and it really isn't.  But yes, it does cause inconveniences.  And that too is part of it.  The reminder that certain values are worth inconvenience.  That when I'm this lucky to be so comfortable in so many parts of my life, I can deal with some discomfort that reminds me of my privilege and how to use it to stay connected to the many things privilege can obscure.

Another part of vegetarianism that's hard for me is its ties to my culture.  I feel bad that my mom can't nurture me in the way she knows best, by feeding me traditional meals.  I feel bad that other people enjoy signature Vietnamese foods while I choose not to.  I feel bad that other people judge me for sacrificing this part of my roots, considering it a privileged hipster thing to do, and subconsciously see it as selling out to another kind of mainstream culture.

It is a privilege to have this choice, and that's another reminder to me about our agency.  We all encounter different cultures in our lives, and they often conflict.  The most important thing to me about this is to be aware, to question aspects of each culture and know that I have the choice to own what I want and this doesn't make me any less Vietnamese.  (And on the day I'm writing this, I watched the Religion episode in season 2 of Master of None, where Dev questions why he can't adopt some principles of Islam, like kindess to others, while straying from others, like not eating pork.  Really relate, and recommend).

People then ask, well why not just give up everything that causes harm?  Stop driving your affordable Honda and bike everywhere (have you seen me bike? do you want me to die?)?  Become a vegan and join the protesters cheese outside of Cheesboard Pizza (mmmm, yes I can eat an entire one of those to myself)? Where do you draw the line?

It's true that it's hard/impossible to do everything.  The ask that I have of myself is to not let that overwhelm, and to consciously choose what I can and can't do.  And that's why I don't judge what anyone else eats, because I don't think this has to be the one way for everyone to live more mindfully of our environment.  Everyone has their own ways, and I'd like to write more soon about the individual ways I've learned from others.

For now, this is one way I remind myself that we're lucky to be able to choose, and that when a place like this is given to us, we can choose to give back.

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