Monday, December 08, 2008

To eat or not to eat

I have a friend whose wife is a vegetarian. I like her a lot, she is a really sweet person. She is one of the most unoffensive vegetarians I've ever met. But I still wonder about vegetarians and I must admit that she is one of the few I've met who don't fall into two basic groups; Hindus and weirdo's.

I can almost understand why Hindu theology espouses vegetarianism. Almost not quite. I understand the concept of doing good works and not harming anything. I have read the Vedas and the Upanishads and the Sutras and have at least a cursory understanding of the development of Eastern Pantheism.

The rub for me is that the Wheel of Karma is mechanical. You are getting paid in this life for the sins of your previous life. How do I know that it isn't fated for that pig to become a Chinese New Year's dinner? Maybe that is what he was born for and is fulfilling his Karma in doing so. If that is the case am I not being cruel to not eat him? Because if I don't then he will just have to pay for those past sins, and any that he commits as a pig in the next life and because he will live longer he will probably have a greater Karmic load. What if the best way for him to shed Karma is make me happy by eating him? Sacrificing himself for the good or at least happiness of others is surely a high and noble thing to do. What if by not eating him I am actually injuring him more than if I'd eaten him. Then I'd not be doing good but harm.

Far be it from me to keep any being from being able pay back their Karma, pass the mustard please.

When I look at the social inequity in Hindu society that is perpetuated through the caste system I cannot help but think the Hindus might shed more Karma by abstaining from assigning people positions in society at birth and eating meat. Still despite the issues I have with Hinduism I can understand why they eat what they eat. There is a certain internal logic to it and if you buy into the system; I suppose it makes sense.

The problem is that not all vegetarians are Hindus or its off shoots Buddhism, Jainism and so forth. Most are like my friend's wife only pushier. She became a vegetarian because when she was 13 she went to a BBQ and got sick eating chicken. You see surprising numbers of stories similar to this one. What I find strange is that I have never heard anyone swear off vegetables because they got sick at a salad bar. I wonder why that is? Especially since many more people that get sick from eating things like salad which isn't cooked than they do from eating meat items. Maybe it happens, maybe there are people I don't notice that only eat meat and no starch, fruit or vegetables but there are not many. Sort of moral Adkins dieters; but the only ones I can think of are arctic tribes that live on seals and whale blubber. Other than them I haven't heard of anyone who is exclusively a meat eater.

What would happen if a 13-year-old says “Mom, I got sick on those green beans last night and now I'm only eating cornbread and meat”? I bet the parents would not allow it. Yet evidently little kids are allowed to do just the opposite and swear off animal protein. Even if they don't eat a wide enough variety of vegetables to be healthy.

Even people who don't eat many vegetables eat more vegetables than vegetarians do meat. Normal humans (yes it is normal for us to eat meat) also seem to be much more tolerant of vegetarians than vice versa. I guess this is where “M” and I agree, she isn't seeking any form of moral superiority through vegetarianism. She just doesn't like meat. Most vegetarians are actually quite high-horsed about their diet and that can drive non-vegetarians up a tree. I guess they are sort of crypto-evangelical-Hindus. They'd probably be better off being the real thing. Except then they'd have to buy into all that caste-system stuff and that isn't very fun. Especially since I'm in a higher caste than they are.


Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Non-Vegetarian Blogger

1 comment:

Nathan said...

Fai Mao,
I fundamentally disagree with your comments on vegetarianism, not because I am a "crypto-evangelical-Hindu" (in fact, I'm not even vegetarian) but because my personal experience with vegetarianism and veganism is probably significantly different from yours. I live in Berkeley, California, USA, an area with lots of vegetarians and vegans. While I agree that many people choose not to eat meat because of a food poisoning or similar incident with meat, there are many other reasons which I believe are entirely legitimate.

The meat that you enjoy in Hong Kong is likely raised in China and the fish you eat is probably not coming out of Victoria Harbor. The amount of resources it takes to produce meat is incredible. Feed must be grown, shipped to stock yards, the livestock waste must be disposed of, the animals must be butchered, and finally transported to your local market. While this model can vary it is essentially the same in most industrialized, food importing nations (and SAR).

In the USA we feed our livestock corn. I've never seen a cow eat corn off the corn stalk --and neither have you. This is because cows don't naturally eat corn. But given subsidies in American agriculture, corn is cheap which in turn lowers the cost -and subsequent price- of meat. Yet, for the cows to eat corn meat producers give the cows hormones to ensure digestion. Now, I won't get into the health implications since I can't speak definitively on them but to address your statement that it is "human" to eat meat, I ask, "is it human to eat this much meat?" I argue that it is not, that the current consumption of meat is a result of the low price of meat. People who twenty years ago could not afford meat now can (for example, a former teacher of mine from Beijing; she reveled at having meat bao zi once a year). We have become accustomed to meat as a primary part of our diet (think Hong Kong staples like BBQ pork and white rice or American ones like hamburgers). Sure, on a philosophical level it may be "more human" to strive for high standards of living, but man cannot survive on meat alone, even if that is the signal of the highest standard of living.

To address your statement that people get sick from eating raw vegetables. I agree completely, and I don't have a reasonable suggestion as to why these people don't swear off vegetables. But I would also like to propose a hypothetical setting of two people: one who only eats meat and one who only eats vegetables. I wonder who would die first (of course there are internal differences in my categories but I'm sure you understand my doing it). From personal experience, a week without vegetables is not very pleasant...digestion-wise.

So, hopefully if you've read all the way to here you can see where I'm coming from. I understand it is hard being a vegetarian in Hong Kong (and who would want to be...) while it is more culturally and socially accepted in the States, but in our global economy I think people who eat meat must be very conscious of how their lifestyles impact others. I choose to eat meat and take responsibility for that as an action. I also choose to consume vegetables, sugar, and grains. I don't think many people would say to be human is to use as many resources as possible, but in terms of the resource cost of meat that seems like mentality.

Thanks for an insightful post. I'm visiting relative in Kowloon this Christmas and look forward to eating lots of good Hong Kong food (you all have it so lucky...).

-Nathan (Berkeley, CA, USA)