Jeanette De Foe
My family has always eaten tofu. So many delicious varieties of tofu prepared in so many different ways! But I never ate it as a kid, rejecting it as something foreign and strange that would make me foreign and strange if I were to eat it. Do you know when I really started enjoying it? When I became a vegetarian activist and saw that White people could like it too, and it didn’t make them any less White.
I’ve spent all my life trying to assimilate. What choice did I have? I was that silent Asian kid with a constant runny nose, who couldn’t run or catch a ball, who was the smallest kid in class. I got teased for “speaking funny” so I changed the way I spoke, artificially sounding as “Austrayan” as possible. I rejected so many things of where I was from – religion, language, the values of my family, and perhaps most tragically of all, many foods. I am grateful that I now have a chance to know at least some of those things again, grateful that my elders want to share their stories, lives and skills with me.
Food is never just food. At its best, it is nourishing, creative, full of love. It is there to celebrate, comfort, entice, excite. Yet at its worst, it is also destructive. Food today is mass produced; it is the product and/or cause of deforestation, factory farms, cruelty, genetic modification, genocide; it degrades land, pollutes water and air; releases carbon; and robs people of culture and identity.
So what is an ethical alternative? Veganism? Not entirely. Chances are, even a pure vegan diet relies on monoculture crops of soy, corn, wheat and palm; not to mention food miles and pesticides. So what about buying only local, organic foods? Better but too expensive for all but the wealthy. Dumpster diving? Not the healthiest way to live. Stealing? Highly stressful. Food co-ops? Awesome, but tend to reach a limited community. Permaculture gardens? Sure, we’re working on that but most people I know don’t have the time, physical space, or stability to create gardens they can live off entirely.
“We should eat nothing, then we can just go die,”
said a very wise friend one day before storming out of this very discussion. Ey had a point – we need to eat. So how do we make change when the system is all encompassing, when even as we want to destroy it we are so reliant on it?
I have this theory that if the system is everywhere, then to change it we can begin anywhere. So I begin with my diet — generally speaking, it is a fairly typical mix of vegan and freegan. And I am strongly anti-Nuttelex and similar palm oil spreads as they are causing the genocide of my grandmother’s people in Borneo (though it is often hard to avoid palm oil altogether).
Also, when I’m with extended family (i.e. travels to the motherland where vegetarian food is hard to come by) I will eat anything and everything. And my family acknowledges my flexibility bygoing out of their way to have all-vegan/vegetarian meals some days.
Yeah. Not a very good vegan, am I? Good.
Veganism has always been a source of conflict for me. Yeah, I’ve seen the animal liberation videos. I know what animals go through to provide food, clothing and entertainment for humans. I see the parallels between the hierarchies that oppress certain groups of humans and the hierarchies that oppress non-human animals.
I believe in the sanctity of life but also in the sanctity of death. And I am sick of rejecting who I am and where I am from.
I am sick of being told by White people that the food of my culture, of my family is “disgusting”. I’ve been told that all my life – by people who’d eat the breast of a chicken but wouldn’t eat its feet, or the ribs of a pig but wouldn’t eat its ears, or even ate roast chicken but said eating roast duck was “gross”.
And it makes minimal difference to me hearing it from White vegans today. It’s the same old shit I’ve dealt with all my life – same old story of White people placing a value judgement on something they don’t understand. Let me explain something – eating every part of an animal (feet, ears, intestines, etc.) comes from an ethic of not wasting, from a society of scarcity where sources of food are treasured, where the work taken to produce every morsel of food is valued.
Food is never isolated so by criticising my food you are criticising my culture and you are offending me.
Oh sure, I can just hear the standard vegan response: “But I love Indian/Chinese/ [insert other ethnic vegetarian food here].” I feel like throwing up. It’s classic cultural appropriation.
Just think about all the cultures that have been stolen or destroyed by colonisation, globalisation, assimilation, genocide, destruction of land, migration (whether coerced or voluntary) and shame. And now those same people (myself included) who benefit from the theft and destruction of particular cultures can enjoy the foods from them, picking and choosing which bits fit into their lives (i.e. the vegan ones), ignoring any deeper meaning, not even needing to acknowledge that it’s there.
My culture is alive. It’s not necessarily the same culture of my parents or grandparents, not the same culture of another immigrant from Singapore; but it’s growing, adapting and it is what it is. My culture isn’t just within me; it is me. Yet the way vegans see it sometimes makes it seem inanimate. It feels like objectification.
To objectify a person is to see that person as only something: only a body, only an intellect, only the fulfilment of your needs. And to objectify a culture is to see it as something isolated – as just a language, just a song, just a spirituality, just a food – and to ignore that it is part of something greater, part of something you will never understand. It is part of something within me and cannot be pulled out no matter how many languages of my ancestors I never speak.
I’m not saying people (vegans and non-vegan alike) shouldn’t eat foods from other cultures because cultures change, mix, form, and fade all the time. But I’m wondering whose terms we’re doing it on – is one culture dominating another? Stealing it? Objectifying it? Or are the cultures being shared consensually and on equal terms?
I don’t know what the answer is for the vegan culture that is forming amongst activists, and I feel like it’s limiting to suggest it’s one thing or another. I know that many of my White friends have become vegan as a rejection of their own meat-eating cultures which they see as damaging, but I think there is a difference between rejecting your own culture, and rejecting someone else’s culture, especially if that culture has been systematically destroyed to privilege you.
I don’t know what the answers are, not even for myself. Maybe there are no answers and we just need to go on eating and living in whatever way we do. We can’t have it all figured out but we can think about it. And on one hand it’s complicated, but on another it’s very simple – our bodies and our hearts speak to us and tell us how things should be.