he sanctimonious, hectoring vegetarian is a popular figure in the public imagination, even though very few of us have ever met one.
Nonetheless, vegans and vegetarians are a popular punchline, and punching bag, in the media and in some social circles. I have at the end of this article an important message for vegetarians and their detractors, and it’s not what you think.
Living in China, I have always been shy to admit I’m a vegetarian when ordering a meal at a restaurant with a group of people. This is because my vegetarianism would take over the conversation. Someone would always press me about why. Chinese people would invariably remark that I looked quite healthy - and tall - considering my diet.
I first started cutting meat out of my diet in the 2000s, when I started to practice yoga. I became aware that life is an interconnected web, and the way we treat other living things has a ripple effect. Just as a smile will most likely be returned with a smile, and a snub with a snub, awareness for the environment will be returned with beautiful spaces and good health, and disrespect with microplastics in the water, wildfires and global warming.
I cut meat out of my diet altogether after visiting a “wildlife reserve” that had a bear trapped in a cage so small its limbs were sticking out. Nearby, a boar in a cage nearly as small looked at me with soulful eyes, and I promised it I would stop eating its brothers and sisters.
However, I didn’t usually feel like explaining this to people, so I usually said that I had a dream. In the dream, I was at the gates of heaven. But instead of St. Peter with a list of who could enter and who would go downstairs, there was a giant golden cow checking names.
Being a vegetarian in China has been a special challenge, because people here seek a middle way and avoid extremes. Therefore, if I ordered fried green beans and said I didn’t want any meat, it would more often than not come out full of little bits of pork. I would point to them, and my server would shrug and respond, “It’s only a little bit.”
For a number of years, I suffered from severe acid reflux. I told myself that it was lucky I was eating a vegetarian diet, or the problem, which predated me becoming a vegetarian, would get worse.
Throughout this time, I was worried about global warming, but comforted myself by thinking that because I was being a vegetarian, I was doing all I could to help.
About a year ago, I hit my head on a construction site and got a serious concussion. I was in pain constantly and started to feel impatient with the people around me, and the world in general. I also had a great hankering to eat lamb.
During 15 years of being vegetarian, I rarely needed to use much willpower. Sometimes I felt like I was missing out on the fun, such as during a Spring Festival feast, but it was not difficult to refrain from eating meat knowing that you were making the world a better, kinder place with less suffering.
After the knock on the head it was different, and at a concert after a few drinks I soon found myself munching on a lamb kebab, a Chinese favorite with beer. It felt so good that I did it again, and soon I was eating meat - and only meat.
It tasted so good. It was like resuming a romantic life after 15 years of celibacy, but perhaps even more intense. Better yet, my persistent acid reflux vanished.
The move back to eating meat felt great, and my Chinese in-laws, who serve at least two kinds of meat, fowl or fish with every meal, were grateful.
But I felt I was no longer doing my share in the fight against global warming. I felt sorry for all the animals being raised in cruel or unnatural, not to mention unhealthy, factory farms, like the boar in the cage. I felt like I had betrayed 15 years of conscious, ethical actions.
But then I realized - whatever. My new diet felt great and was improving my health. People talk about being true to yourself. I always took that to mean be true to your higher nature but maybe I had it backwards.
A new generation is taking up the fight against global warming and environmental destruction, and I am inspired and hope they have better luck than mine did. So here is my message for vegetarians, and everyone else: Life is so much better when you aren’t trying to be good all the time. In fact, being “bad” is sometimes the best part.