When my sister told me she wanted to become a pescatarian, I instantly thought of my mom, a lifetime meat eater, whom I knew would distress over her decision. And I wasn’t wrong. When she found out, she turned to everyone she knew for advice: my father, her friends, and the internet. She even consulted a pediatrician to reduce my sister’s risk of iron deficiency. Despite my mom’s initial anxiety, our family soon embraced my sister’s lifestyle change. Our dinner staples shifted from rice with spare ribs and Chinese sausage to soy-sauce noodles with vegetables.
Even with new changes in our diet, we never completely eliminated meat. While my sister staunchly adhered to her pescatarian diet, my mother and father continued to consume meat openly and encouraged me to do the same. Eager not to let any food go to waste, my grandmother unloaded leftover chicken scraps and bones into a pot to concoct homemade chicken stock, which my mom fed us every night until it became a ritual. Witnessing my family’s extreme reaction, or lack of a reaction, to dietary change, I knew that if I ever confronted my family about vegetarianism, I would face a similar passive pushback.
Did my sister’s experience resonate with other East Asian-American children convincing their parents to adopt vegetarian diets? Was my family’s Asianness equated with non-vegetarianism? Should I feel guilty for not becoming vegetarian?
Rather than acknowledging the stories of individual Asians and Asian Americans grappling with vegetarianism, the media circulates the myth of a monolithic Asian culture that shuns all vegetarians. In October 2017, People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly known as PETA, released an article titled “14 Surefire Signs That You’re an Asian Vegan.” One meme in the article features a woman posing as an Asian cook saying, “There’s NO meat in it. Haha wait, there’s pork in it.” Another meme shows a woman shrugging and saying, “Oh, you’re vegan? That’s fine! We have fish!” These memes simplify the Asian food palette, which I believe stereotypes Asian families as ignorant about and resistant to vegetarianism when, in fact, there is a widely accepted history of vegetarian and vegan Asian diets.
Contrary to how PETA portrays Asian vegetarianism, millions of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Asians across the world follow a strict vegetarian diet. Hinduism and Jainism, two ancient Indian religions, constitute 80 percent of India’s population while East Asian Buddhism has propagated across China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea since 250 BCE. Asian vegetarians and non-vegetarians savor Buddhist dishes, delicious mountains of vegetables, wheat noodles, tofu, and seitan, and elevate them as staples enjoyed with others during holiday and family gatherings.
But even after learning about the legacies of vegetarianism in Asian, people must realize that not all Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist Asians practice and preach vegetarian and vegan diets the same way. One branch of Buddhism, Mahayana, equates consuming animal products with creating suffering between sentient beings, while another branch, Theravada, believes that eating meat does not undermine their religious doctrine. While it may be tempting to link certain religions or cultures with specific diets, the hundreds of variations prove that a wide vegetarian spectrum exists and thrives around the world.
Equally important as learning about the history of vegetarianism, vegetarians and vegans should not shame non-vegetarians, who may choose their diet to connect with their culture and family. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) assigns foods, such as meat and fish, to cold, neutral, and hot energies. By consuming meat, Chinese medicine devotees believe they can restore imbalanced parts of their yin and yang. Whenever I return home, my grandmother never fails to remind me of her allegiance to TCM. Ayurveda, a system of Indian medicine, similarly flourishes in India, as ancient Ayurveda texts posit that meat can cure disease. Just as religion drives vegetarian culture in parts of Asia, eating meat and fish is also deeply rooted in Asian culture.
As a highly personal decision that involves the intersection of culture, religion, and family background, choosing to be a vegetarian does not make a person more or less Asian. At a time when people are considering whether to adopt vegetarianism themselves, the diverse histories and spectrum of East and South Asian vegetarianism and veganism certainly deserve recognition.
—Contributing writer Jess L. Eng’s column, "Takeaways From Chinese America," wrestles with the possibilities and boundaries of food culture from a third-generation Chinese American perspective.