Vegetarians, personal beliefs, travel, and cultural sensitivity

posted by Russ, September 24 in travel with tags , , , ,

Insects at a Thailand Market

Insects at a Thailand Market

As I’ve written recently, I have been dabbling with vegetarian, vegan, and raw diets. I have also been honest in saying that while shifting my diet, I do still eat meat and dairy on occasion. I won’t go into extensive detail about the reasons for this since I’ve explained them in the past, but I will say that it’s still something I still think about often. And after seeing Anthony Bourdain speak last week, I’ve been thinking about diet choices, personal beliefs, and how they relate in the context of travel and culture.

I am a big fan of Anthony Bourdain, and I don’t think it is news to anyone that he is very outspoken in his dislike for vegetarians and vegans. His claim during the presentation (and in interviews I’ve read) is that he doesn’t have any real problem with vegetarians, but that he thinks they make bad travellers. And interestingly, for the most part I agree. (Though I do think there is some grey area.) He believes that while traveling to most places, trying to stick to a vegetarian or vegan diet is so limiting that not only will you likely miss out many new and different foods and experiences, but you may also very well offend the culture which you are trying to explore. In short, he says what’s the point of traveling if you will take home with you?

In each culture, there are norms and standards, and when you try to apply your own, you may very well end up inadvertently being offensive. Out of respect we should accept new customs while travelling, and when applicable accept other’s generosity, even if it offends our moral standards as they exist at home. I believe this applies in general and in the context of food. While traveling, new friends are made and great bonds are formed over a good meal or drink, so being open to these potentially new or different experiences is critical in getting to experience a place or culture.

Stepping back for moment, let me explain my beliefs. Personally, my decision to stay away from most meat and dairy is based on 3 central issues. Health, the environment, and animal welfare. I don’t believe in the industrial and factory food systems that have emerged in this country, and I don’t like to support them. That said, I don’t have any problem with concept of occasionally eating meat, I only have a problem as it exists in our broken factory food system. I won’t argue this point, since it’s not the piont of this article, and as noted, I’ve already hashed it out here. To minimize my impact, and still eat according to my beliefs, I typically limit my meat/dairy intake to about once per week, and always try to opt for organic, sustainable, and free range products.

When we are at home, and in our own culture and around our own customs, eating a vegetarian or vegan meal is a choice we are free to make. But when entering a new culture and expecting to get that same meal when it is out of the norm is a rather narcissistic notion. Part of why we travel (hopefully) is to learn about new cultures, push our limits, and try new things. This doesn’t mean that you need to intentionally seek out meat if you don’t normally eat it, nor should you look for the most exotic creature to eat when not necessary. But you should keep an open mind and be willing to try new things when opportunies arise, even if it is not normal for you at home.

If traveling within our own culture or to a place where customs are similar, it is a little easier to abide by our beliefs, and maybe a little less disrespectful to decline offers to share food. And if we are at a friend’s home for a meal, maybe we can expect them to respect our beliefs. Though Bourdain did also extend his “good traveler rule” to going to Mom’s of Grandma’s for dinner, saying that when you go to Grandma’s for a home cooked meal, you should graciously accept what is being offered, as you are in her home and it’s her way of sharing a bit of what she has. I sort of agree, but still think there is some grey area here.

Obviously our food system here in the United States (and much of the Western world) is pretty much broken, so I do think withholding from purchasing certain things and taking a stand against factory food (and really all fast food) is good thing. But again, I don’t think this is the intent of what he is getting at. (Interestingly Bourdain did say he feeds his daughter only organic, and he implied that he despises Mcdonald’s.) I think really this applies as Westerners traveling abroad. So for instance, if you are a vegetarian staying in a small village somewhere in rural Cambodia, and someone offers you some chicken which was running around just an hour earlier, I think without a doubt you should accept it. This chicken and the factory chicken we avoid at home are two entirely different animals, and here the reward far outweighs any belief that we shouldn’t be eating that meat.

I already made note how I think there is some grey area in Bourdain’s statement. In addition, I do think there are other situations where the decision is a tough call. Being offered food or to share a meal is one thing, and though it’s probably in our interest to accept, there are still times when I believe it may be appropriate to respectfully decline. If you are being offered something that is so foul, or so viciously crosses your moral boundaries, I think it may be ok to say “no thanks”. And what if traveling is some remote village and you are offered meat from an animal that is endangered or protected, should we respectfully eat it, or is it our duty as a global citizen to turn it down? In my mind, this is a tough call with really no easy answer. And if you are a vegetarian travelling solo, I certainly think there are ways to seek out veg meals while still immersing yourself in the local culture and trying new things and not offending anyone’s taste.

My feeling is that if we can respect our own beliefs most of the time, while bending the rules on occasion, that is good enough. I can pretty easily here in Southern California be curious and try new foods while still sticking to a vegetarian diet. But I also think that pushing limits or stretching norms when called for is a good thing. By doing this we are most of the time respecting our morals, health, beliefs, and the environment, and the trade off is getting to try some new things and share experiences with other’s as well.

Ultimately, I do really understand what Bourdain means, I get his point, but I also think that we can still choose what is important to us while walking the line between adhering to our beliefs and still being good, curious, and respectful travellers and guests. Though while travelling or eating in someone else’s home, trying new things and graciously accepting generosity typically will be an enriching experience.

What are your thoughts?

Originally posted on Friday, September 24th, 2010 at 5:52 AM .

2 Responses to “Vegetarians, personal beliefs, travel, and cultural sensitivity”

  1. Humanitarian says:

    Nice post. I have some pretty strongly held beliefs about the foods I choose to eat too, mainly for environmental and animal welfare reasons. Your thoughts got me thinking more, though, about being willing to step outside of my boundaries occasionally for social purposes. I was recently asked out on a date to a restaurant that doesn’t really meet my standards for fulfilling my food beliefs, but I think I’ll go anyway. One rare meal not eating sustainably is not going to make a huge difference in the whole scheme of things- the whole system really just needs changing and I do my part the majority of the time so I think I can afford to let it slide for one night of socializing and to avoid any hurt/awkward feelings. Thanks for your thoughts. And sorry for the uber-long comment– I guess I’m trying to reassure myself that I’m making the “right” decision 😮

    • Russ says:

      I find myself in that position often, and it always gives me a little bit of moral stress. On the one hand, I think about how great I eat at home, how most of my meals are vegetarian, how it’s usually mostly organic, so I don’t feel bad making exceptions. But on the other hand I wish sometimes I had more of a backbone to take a stand when out or with a group of people. I don’t like to cause drama, so I usually just walk the middle path. I think it just depends on your level of comfort with your decision. I think breaking your norm to have some fun could certainly be worth it. Great comment!

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