After a long, well-thought process, I have decided to abandon my vegetarian diet and return to eating meat.
A lot of people have asked me why I decided to become a vegetarian in the first place. The answer is a little bit long-winded but I’ll do my best to condense it. First, I should clarify that I was never entirely vegetarian, as I always included fish/seafood in my diet (technically this is referred to as a “pescetarian” diet). Many “real” veggies get offended at the improper use of the term vegetarian (“Fish have faces too!!”) so I always like to clarify that 🙂
Anyways, I digress. The reason I initially thought to give up meat was due to religious purposes. In the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, it is customary to fast for 40 days prior to Easter as a reminder of Jesus’ time spent in the desert, resisting the Devil’s various temptation. The respective faiths have different customs regarding this period (known as Lent), but in the Catholic church one usually “offers up” an act that they enjoy in remembrance of that. One year, I decided to give up red meat as a Lenten sacrifice. Even after the fasting period was finished, I realized that I didn’t actually mind cutting the red meat out of my diet, so I stuck with it. Eventually, I stopped eating chicken too. This was either in 2006 or 2007, but I honestly can’t remember. Even now, despite the fact that I have not been practising Catholicism for several years, the religious tradition has had a large impact on my life.
So why did I continue with abstaining from meat even after Lent? Well, there were a number of reasons: environmental, moral, health-based, etc.
While initially, my new diet replaced meat largely with refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereals, etc) and dairy products (cheese, butter, milk, etc) I eventually learned to eat healthier. My exchange trip to France from January-June of 2009 taught me how to be less picky, and so not long after that, I began eating more fish, eggs, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and veggies. And man, it felt good. Working at a popular Vietnamese restaurant also opened up my pallet to trying new things, like my favourite lemongrass prawn stir-fry with bell peppers and ginger.
I also began to learn about how environmentally-unsustainable it was to be eating meat, at least in my corner of the world. This point could be interpreted differently depending on one’s lifestyle I suppose, but seeing as I wasn’t living “off the grid” on a farm in the Cowichan Valley, a carnivore diet would have had some very negative environmental impacts. This article explains the whole notion of “environmental vegetarianism” quite well: http://www.downtoearth.org/environment/top-10-reasons
The most popular reason to be vegetarian – at least from what I’ve observed – is because of a desire to want to protect animal rights. Yes, I am an animal lover, but I feel somewhat hypocritical of citing this as a reason for my pescetarianism as some of my favourite foods are made with eggs and fish (ex: sushi, omelettes, salmon, breakfast wraps, etc). Even free-run chickens can have pretty crappy lives, seeing as the regulations for them being advertised as “free-run” are shaky at best (http://veg.ca/content/view/272/101/). Fish-farming can also be inhumane as well. So, while I love animals dearly, I can’t say I love them all that much without sounding like a hypocrite.
SO, why did I start eating meat, as the title suggests?
Well, since arriving in Seoul, I have felt very fatigued and unmotivated. And no, these feelings continued even after the jet lag. I attribute this to the lack of protein in my diet, as since I’ve been living in the dorms, I’ve had no access to cooking facilities – just a microwave.
Thus, I have been at the cafeteria ladies’ mercy in terms of meat-free options in my diet. So far, it’s just been rice, kimchi, and soup. While I do indeed enjoy eating all of these things, as well as having no problem with eating the same thing in repetition, my health was beginning to take a hit. And while I would try to microwave some meat-free things (kind of like TV dinners) from the dorm’s convenience store, they were usually laden with cream and salt – not the best things to be constantly eating. So yes, my diet was leaving me feeling either hungry and unsatisfied, or bloated and fatigued (from all the salt and cream).
There are many places to eat off-campus, but I need to be budgeting and not constantly eating out. We had to pay 350,000 won (roughly $300 CAD) automatically for the cafeteria card, which gives us roughly one meal per day during the semester, depending how you budget it. So, it makes no sense to constantly be eating out anyways if you’re still going to be paying for the food. Plus, the cafeteria food is quite cheap, costing only 2,300W (about $2) per meal, while eating out could cost between $3-$5 (cheap, fast food; no booze) to $7-$10 (sit-down meal, no booze) to $15-$20+ (food + booze).
Finally, I realized that the social consequences of being meat-free were really starting to get to me. Now, I don’t mean that people were “peer pressuring” me by any means. However, I realized that all the exchange students love eating at Korean BBQ places, which require the bill to be split evenly between all the people at the table, regardless of what you personally have eaten. As well, basically all dishes at Korean BBQ restaurants (and many Korean restaurants in general) are meant to be eaten communally. Namely the meat, which is grilled in a BBQ in the centre of the table, but also the side dishes: spicy tofu stew (which often has meat in it), Korean seafood pancakes (called “pajeon”), etc. So, I’d order one of those things, but the portion would actually be meant to feed 4+ people, and I felt bad making everyone else at the table pay for it even if they didn’t eat any. I also felt bad wasting the giant cauldron of spicy stew or platter-sized portion of pajeon. Many bars (called “Hofs”) require you to order fried chicken in order to offset the stupid-cheap cost of buying beer kegs there, so yes, same situation. I’d pay for the meat, but wouldn’t eat any 😛 What a waste.
Here’s a good video showing what a typical Korean BBQ place is like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hxd-H9IFZ0U. The video is by Simon and Martina, a Canadian couple teaching English in Seoul who have actually become minor celebrities here in Korea and online. They ramble a lot but the video is still good.
The social alternative? Some more vigilant vegetarians might argue that I could simply become a hermit; spend all my time in the dorms and never eat out – or, eat out with people, but strongly suggest eating at “veggie-friendly” places only. And since I don’t want to be a loner, nor a giant pain in the f**cking ass, eating meat would appear to be my only option.
So, how’s that whole carnivore thing working out for you?
Actually, it hasn’t been all that bad. It’s not like I’m eating meat three times a day, and I have been easing my way into it so to prevent any possible “yuckiness” with my digestive system (apparently that can happen after 6-7 years of not eating meat). So far, so good though. I had Korean BBQ pork for the first time last night, and it was pretty great. Not gonna lie though, the texture was so strange at first!! I mean, it was very “meaty”, but I hadn’t had meat in a long time so it felt very odd indeed. Haven’t had beef or chicken yet, though, but I’m sure it won’t be long. Also been enjoying the Egg McMuffin with ham or bacon on it, yum yum.
I do still feel slightly guilty/like a failure, though, but I’m not sure why. What I keep telling myself is that this diet is only temporary; I can return to eating fish and so forth when I return to Canada. Maybe in the meantime I’ll figure out a healthy way of being a vegetarian here, but for now, I’m making the best of the situation. Pass the pork, please!