© 2022



Months after I told my mom that I had become a vegetarian, she took me out to a hot pot restaurant and crowded the table with thinly sliced lamb dripping with fat, butter-smooth shrimp paste, beef lounging in shiny pools of spicy marinade, and duck intestines that promised crunch, flavor, and euphoria. “Nobody else eats this stuff with me,” she croons, even though hot pot consistently ranks among the most popular foods within Chinese diasporic communities. “I can’t finish all this food, and you have to help me.” I resist the urge to roll my eyes as she lifts a piece of lamb from the broth into my plate. I oblige, and not without a vigorous bubbling of pleasure.

At the time, my vegetarianism was fueled by the intellectual conceit of one single book: Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. The idea of extracting myself from the slaughterhouse industrial complex was infinitely appealing, and the mental visualization of the 600 gallons of water salvaged every time I forewent a burger in favor of avocado toast hoisted my ego to the summit of moral clarity. My lifelong revulsion to dairy after puking it up onetime as a baby made palatable the courtship of veganism before the ethical purity of free-range eggs, whether real or hyped up, convinced me otherwise. At college, surrounded by friends who fell anywhere within the lattice between “vegan,” “vegetarian,” and “vegetable-forward,” I felt at ease in my identity as someone whose food practices had power over both global sociopolitics and Earth’s macroclimate. At home, magnetically adhered to my mom’s sphere of influence, I only felt inert.

I never gave up meat completely, even though I treasured the physiological and spiritual bliss that accompanied any spell of herbivory lasting longer than the average uterus owners’ monthly fertility window. I tried to abide by mom’s prescription of minimum weekly doses each of fish, chicken, and red meat with occasional deviances to accommodate friends who I thought were little more than gastronomic heathens. There had always been skirmishes when my mom intuited that I fell short of the quota, but when I moved back home during the summer after the emergence of Covid, tensions began to heighten. I had become heavily involved in climate activism by this time, and each time temperatures in “semi-tropic” Los Angeles toed three digits, I would carve another expletive into the metaphorical slab of beef I kept in my mental cellar. No matter how strong my ideological aversion grew, my mom’s campaign to feed me meat would swell with equivalent force. I didn’t understand why—I resented the fact that I was being controlled like this, until one skirmish escalated into war.

Eastern philosophy is essentially built upon deep metaphysical connections between parent and child. It is said that a parent and their child shares the same physical being; any joy felt by one is joy felt by the other, and any harm done to one is harm done to the other. Beholding the deeply personal hurt my mom was experiencing because she had internalized my perceived malnourishment, I felt an overwhelming awareness of the multitudes that I yearned to be able to touch; I was witnessing my 21st century, cosmopolitan food habits confronting an epoch-old consciousness that now felt like a part of my identity whose existence preceded my own.

Though my mom understood the virtues of vegetarianism, I knew I could never convince her of the fact that it didn’t have to track malnourishment. When she was a child in rural China, even the consumption of eggs was inexorably coupled with occasions of achievement—most often the achievement of her male siblings. Meat was at best an annual affair; Lunar New Year would reliably prompt the slaughter of one chicken for the entire neighborhood, and only after the elders have been treated to the choicest anatomies would the children be allowed to pick at pan scraps. Meat was something my mom had to deserve, to earn through impossibly unattainable touchstones. Having narrowly averted the era in which people had to eat tree bark in moments of desperate hunger, she navigated an entirely different kind of relationship with food than the one to which I am personally attuned. So I do my best to suppress my rhetoric when I accompany her in the enjoyment of some of her favorite things about the Western hemisphere: steak, pastrami, French dip. I now recognize that, in a way, she was righting the cosmic equation of her own joy.

I’ve observed parallel storylines in almost every immigrant community—and Indigenous ones—in the Western world. While veganism sweeps the swath of white liberals preoccupied with upholding an image of wokeness and sometimes with minimizing the footprint of their harm, I have encountered many households for whom veganism would mean giving up essential elements of their own culture. And in a society in which too much cultural heritage has already been hurtled towards oblivion, I understood why the attack on al pastor, lechon kawali, and pernil can be too much to stomach.

If I’m being honest, my indulgence of animal products is not confined to dishes of my own heritage. I love cured meat, fried chicken in every possible iteration, and anything that sizzles over an open fire. I would be lying if I said that I don’t feel a particular aliveness when I share freely in whatever meat-centric meal my family has surrounded. My confrontations with climate projections, my mother’s demands, the continued refinement of vegan cuisine in large, liberal cities, and the voices of communities I’ve called home continue to teach me how to balance personal joy and collective liberation. I learn that at times they can be at odds, but at other times they can be one and the same. I am privileged to choose both meat and its absence, so I do a little of both while longing for a world in which we have preserved the beauty of omnivory through honoring practices that uphold it with reciprocity and kindness.

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