the vegetarian festival lasts for 10 days every october. across town, chinese temples give away free vegetarian food at meal times. the lines inside the incense-filled hallways run long with patrons dressed in white, ready to fill their stacked metal containers.
this guan im statue (like the one in thungsong) is on on talad mai road, here in surat thani.
red and yellow flags designate vegetarian food at restaurants year-round, but at this time of year, there are more than ever. even the ubiquitous 7-eleven has switched its normally white plastic bags to red and yellow, and you can find vegetarian versions of their normally hot-dog-and-pork-product-filled selection.
vegetarianism and i have an on-again off-again relationship. after college, when i moved to portland, i slowly became vegan, shunning meat and dairy and any animal products completely (even honey – dear sweet, sweet, honey).
as my in-n-out-burger-loving-former-self would be surprised to hear, it was easier than i expected. actually, i’ve found that giving things up is always easier than expected once you get over the initial inertia. here’s what made it the right thing for me at that time:
1) portland, oregon, is a mecca of vegan and vegetarian foods, from vegan donuts to vegan cheese-and-gravy-covered french fries. you could find veggie options on almost every menu and in every food cart.
2) when i moved to PDX, i was dating a guy whose entire family and social circle, save one or two dissenters, were vegan. you know those social functions where the vegetarian is the odd one out, the one everyone has to accommodate to? well, this time it was the meat-eaters who were the minority.
3) lastly, one of my penultimate classes at UCLA was about food and social action. the class, if i remember correctly, was actually called “Art as Social Action,” but we ended up learning about food and social justice.
the class was taught by a very passionate professor named Peter Sellars (who was the recipient of an MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1983) who asked us to read books like Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and gave us assignments like to go out and find a hidden kitchen in our communities. his hair and his outfits and the way he shouted were undoubtedly crazy but his message was felt and remembered, and isn’t that all you can want?
i remember him talking about the sadness of it all, how we are feeding our cows corn even though cows aren’t supposed to eat corn – how these unhappy cows have to be pumped full of antibiotics because their systems can’t handle the diet or the lifestyle we subject them to – then how these cows are slaughtered in really unsafe conditions by workers who aren’t satisfied with their jobs – and then the meat gets frozen and then later prepared by the fast-food workers who work for minimum wage – and then this sad butchered cow meat gets eaten by the customers who don’t have enough time to put it on a plate; they eat in their cars, with greasy paper bag in their laps, gulping flavored-high-fructose-corn-syrup from a straw jutting from an over-sized waxy cup. by no means is it scientific, but the story is memorable and the message stuck with me: are we ingesting all this sadness?
i eventually shifted from all vegan to vegetarian to pescatarian to pescatarian-with-exceptions. for one thanksgiving dinner, a friend of a friend cooked a turkey that came from a farm known for treating its animals with care, and so i was okay with eating it for that reason. i tried to also not turn down food prepared with love, like my ex-boyfriend’s gumbo, or my mom’s steak.
when i found out i was coming to thailand, i decided it would be okay to eat meat again. living with a host family, i figured it might be off-putting to make them accommodate my vegetarian needs – plus, food is such a wonderful way into culture. there were a few people who were strict vegetarians and they ended up eating the same thing over and over again, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but can be difficult.
i started thinking about becoming vegetarian again while i was in burma, when i was traveling with a vegetarian friend and reading a lot about Buddhism and the idea of compassion for all living things. i realized that there was no reason keeping me back from not eating meat again, so i stopped. free lunch at school, however, has put me back on the meat-eating crowd just because it’s so much easier. i believe, however, that the meat here in thailand isn’t as factory-farmed as the meat in america, which is my main objection (along with the way the meat industry acts). it’d be interesting to do some research about food politics in thailand.