June 7, 2017

My Ongoing Vegan Journey

I visit my family in China at least every other year. My mother always saves in the freezer the food that I’ve missed while I was gone, such as soybeans from spring, shrimp from summer, water chestnuts from previous fall, and the dumplings from the previous Chinese New Year’s dinner. “You were the only one who wasn’t home for the New Year. I’ve been waiting for you to come home and eat the dumplings; if you eat them, it would be as if you’d never left,” Mother said.

Last year Mother was very pleased that I would stay home for the New Year after being absent during the New Year for the past 12 years. But she and I struggled with my vegan diet because I had to reject many dishes that she had loved to make for me. It was also hard for my other relatives to understand: “How can you get enough protein?” “Vegan food is boring.” “Animals are to be eaten.” "Are you a Buddhist now?" 

One night after dinner, I asked my mother about the pigs that she used to raise and she told me a pig story that I will remember for as long as I live.

The Pig Story Mother Told
When I was a young child, every year my mother raised two pigs. At the end of each year, one pig would be sold to the market, the other would be kept for our family to eat. One year, my mother couldn’t find any baby pigs. It happened that she went to visit my aunt, whose neighbor just had newborn baby pigs. But there was only one female baby that was to give away. She usually liked to raise male pigs, but as she didn’t have a choice, she took the female baby pig home. (Let me call that pig Bai)

Bai only had a tiny place to live because my parents stored many things such as farming tools in her small roofed pigsty before she arrived at our home. But Bai kept her place very neat: eating area, sleeping area, and pooping area. The golden hay she slept on was always dry and clean, and she somehow made her poop stand up leaning against the wall near the poop hole. Being clean, Bai became my mother’s favorite pig. Whenever she fed Bai, she patted Bai on the back as Bai was eating with loud happy sound; Bai would look up to look into my mother’s eyes while chewing.

A year passed and the day came. The man from our village parked his tractor on the dirt road in front of our house. Bai was put in the back of the big tractor that would take her to a market in town. When the tractor began to move, Bai jumped off the moving tractor and ran back to my mother who was standing on the dirt road seeing her off. Bai rubbed her head against my mother’s leg as tears poured out of Bai’s big black eyes and wet her eyelashes. Mother patted her back and also cried.

As the tractor man was waiting, my mother got on the back of the tractor with Bai and patted Bai’s back all the way to the market. Bai rubbed against my mother and her tears wet my mother’s clothes.

At the market, Bai was weighted and herded together with other pigs. Her clean, white body stood out among other pigs. Mother was standing outside the fence as Bai was herded away. Bai kept looking back again and again, her clean back was blackened by the dirt from other pigs. Then she did another remarkable thing. She pushed away other pigs, walked against the herd, and somehow got out of the fence and ran towards my mother. She rubbed, for the last time, my mother’s leg with her head; tears kept pouring out of both of their eyes.

Bai was again taken away and being herded towards another place where my mother couldn’t see. As Bai was about to disappear from her eyes, my mother called. Bai turned her head to look for my mother as she was being pushed further and further away…. Outside the fence, my mother couldn’t stop sobbing.

My Meat Addiction
I grew up loving eating pork, including pig fat. I loved to put frozen white pig fat in my steamy hot rice and let the fat melt into rice.  I would finish a full bowl of rice without any interest in my chopsticks touching any other dishes on the table. I loved pork buns too. But my favorite dish was Grandpa’s red-cooked pork (braised pork in brown sauce). I loved it so much that I became so good at making the dish myself at age 12; one time Mother let me be the chef to make red-cooked pork when a relative visited us.

Visiting home from college, I was still sleeping in when Grandpa rode his bike from his house to knock at my parents’ door as he often did when I was in town. He walked into my room as I sat up in bed feeling a little upset that he had interrupted my sleep. “Come for lunch today! I’m going to make your favorite red-cooked pork!” Grandpa would say with a big smile on his face. “Come early!” He added before he left for the market to buy pig meat.

Pork, beef, chicken were the three kinds of meat that I ate the most. After coming to the US, I missed and craved for the homemade meat dishes. I lived in a suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge far from Chinatown, Chinese grocery stores, and Chinese friends. Whenever I visited a Chinese friend in the Bay Area, I would stuff myself with meat dishes until my stomach hurt. Whenever I went to Chinatown in San Francisco or Oakland, I always looked for pork buns and other various dim sums. Looking at steamy buns on the big bamboo steamer from outside the restaurant window, my eyes brightened. I swallowed before walking in the restaurant.

Bearing Witness of Animals’ Sufferings
Actually, I have my own crying pig story from childhood. I was about seven or eight years old. It was an extremely hot summer and our female pig became very ill. So my mother had to sell the pig several months earlier before the year-end. In the morning, a man from our village came with a flat wooden board on two wheels attached to the back of his bicycle. The pig was let out of the pigsty. To our surprise, without the man forcing her, the pig lay herself on the wooden board. I saw tears roll out of her big black eyes. I had never seen a pig cry before. Mother and I both stood there and cried. She asked me to go to the kitchen to get the pork bun that she had asked me to save for breakfast the next day. Mother put the bun, the best food in our home, on the wooden board next to the pig’s mouth. The pig didn’t move or sniff. She just lay on the board crying as the man was tying her up to the wooden board. The man rode his bicycle away with the pig in the back. I ran after the bike, eyes blurred by tears. I ran and ran until I couldn’t see the man and the pig anymore….

Besides pigs, I felt many other animals’ suffering too as I  grew up.

A dozen live geese were hung upside down with feet tied to the sides of the rear rack of a bicycle. One goose with the longest neck had to constantly lift its neck upward to avoid touching the moving road. Whenever it rested its neck lower, its neck struck the rough road and bled, and the goose moaned. The road ahead had no visible end; the goose kept trying to lift its head, upward, upward again, and again…. Its weakening moan lingered in my heart even after the bicycle was long gone. I was seven years old and missed my bus, walking home alone as dusk was darkening. I put my hand on the front of my neck as if it might bleed too. Soon, I felt as helpless as the long-necked goose, as the dark long way home kept unfolding ahead of me.

In front of a restaurant, a mother goat was tied to a bench and a small goat stood next to her. A man came out with a knife. He thrust the knife into the neck of the mother goat and she fell on the ground, violently struggling. The little goat knelt down and fell on the ground even before the man thrust the knife into its neck. Across the street from the restaurant, I was waiting for my bus after school, horrified by the slaughter scene.

I studied in a medical university in China for eight years and the daily casual cruelty to animals began to numb my heart. Near the end a laboratory class, one of my classmates injected air into a mouse’s blood vessel and the poor mouse ran frantically from one lab table to another until it dropped dead. Almost every day, walking out of the dim long hallway on my way to the dining hall, I passed by half-dead rabbits that piled in several small cages outside. The rabbits’ bloody bodies were still twitching, and the smell of their blood permeated the air. During my graduate studies, I witnessed more “normal” cruelty to animals: Rat’s heads were cut off alive with scissors. And, I experienced my own cruelty.

My Mouse-Killing Experiment in the Lab
In the second year of my graduate studies in the School of Public Health, I came up with a proposal to study the side effects of some environmental toxin on reproductive systems. White mice were the testing animals that we used most frequently in our lab. I wasn’t interested in the experiment or the graduate program I was in, but I kept pretending that I cared and did what I was supposed to do.

Every day for a month or so, I went to the animal house where the white mice were raised. I grabbed the tail of one mouse and put it in a small cage. At the lab, I killed the mouse by quickly separating its head from its body. A tiny sound later, the mouse would be soft, no more frantically trying to crawl away from me or bite me. Without any feelings, I cut open its belly….

Reconnecting and Reconciling with Animals
I had been a meat eater most of my life until about four years ago when I was taking a walk at a friend’s serene ranch. I passed by many cows grazing peacefully in the sun. The blue sky, the green grass, the soft sunlight, the rolling hills in the distance, and the calm gaze from the cows slowed down my steps and my mind. I paused for a long time to look at one cow looking into my eyes and I bowed. I bowed to that cow, bowed to all the cows, bowed to all the animals that I had eaten or harmed. I bowed and bowed and bowed with two palms together. I said to them: I don’t want to harm you anymore; I don’t want to eat you anymore.

The journey of reconnecting to all animals besides cats and dogs and reconciling how I feel about animals with what I eat has been a journey full of uplifting revelations and hopeless setbacks. After reducing and then not eating meat for four years, I realized one morning that I hadn’t had my decade long morning diarrhea for a while.

But it doesn’t mean that I no longer missed meat or justified myself to eat meat again. Sometimes I would fall back to eating meat when I saw someone that I admired for doing good work in the world eat meat, or when I had dinner in a loving community with a lived-a-good-life animal’s meat on the table, or when eating my mother’s dishes was the filial thing to do, or when I simply had the impulse to eat meat.

Over a year ago, I stayed at a friend’s house. I made it very clear to everyone that I ate vegan, but one day my hostess insisted that I try some organic chicken she just bought. I declined. Later in the afternoon, nobody was home. I sat there suddenly feeling restless--I wanted to try that chicken! My heart began to race. I opened the fridge door: There it was--the chicken! My heart was pounding harder. I took out one piece of chicken with my trembling hand and instantly closed the fridge. I walked to the window and listened to make sure nobody was coming back. I put the chicken in my mouth. It tasted so good that I went back for the second piece, and then the third. The whole time my heart was pounding hard and I was concerned that someone might see me, a dishonest vegan. But right then, after the third piece of chicken, I realized that I wasn’t that interested in eating chicken after all because the third piece began to taste bland and strange. Deep down I knew that, from that moment on, I would be free from desire of eating chicken.   

When I went to Chinatown, I still desired to eat pork for a while after I quit meat. Last year, before going back to China, I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Chinatown with a friend and ordered meat dim sums because they didn’t have vegetarian ones. I had one bite of the dim sum that had pork in it and, surprisingly, it tasted so bad. That killed my further desire for pork.

A Sad Story on a Dairy Farm
A couple of years ago, I was at The Pollination Project salon when the founder of Food Empowerment Project, Lauren Ornelas, gave a talk. She shared a story about a mother cow on a dairy farm, who hid one of her twin calves behind a rock and went to breastfeed the calf every day secretly. The farm staff noticed that the cow’s milk output was low and one day followed the cow and found the hidden calf. When Lauren played for us the audio recording of the mother cow and the calf echoing each other’s calling as the calf was taken away, I was gripped by such a deep sadness that I couldn’t stop crying during the rest of the talk.

My Ongoing Journey
These experiences have increasingly made me reflect deeply why I have such strong feelings for animals, despite that I’ve tried to numb or deny those feelings in me. Those feelings are natural! My connection with animals is an innate quality that I experience when my heart is free, open, and connected. It is a constant reminder that we are all connected. I want to honor that connection as I began to understand why there are so many love warriors who dedicate their lives to animals' welfare around the globe.

The other wonderful benefit that I gained from stopping eating meat and dairy products is my revived interest in cooking. Beginning in high school, I lost interest in cooking and lost confidence even in helping in the kitchen. I was considered a hopeless cook by those who were close to me in the past. Now, I feel creative in the kitchen realm again! With chopped zucchini, carrots, kale, mushrooms and beans, I could make a delicious quinoa dish!

With the practice of taking only what I need, I also have a chance to look at my other insatiable desires in food every day. Walking through grocery stores, I feel more freed than before from my old cravings for meat and many heavily spiced snacks, including vegan cheese and kale chips. At a Chinese vegan restaurant, I don’t need to order fake meat to gratify me. With occasional giving-ins to my cravings, I begin to enjoy simple food more and my taste buds are gradually coming back to their natural sensitivity.

Mother’s Cooking
“If you were a pig, that would be your fate,” Mother said in tears after she told me Bai’s story. I was already crying uncontrollably while listening to the story. For three days, I found myself continuously weeping in my closed bedroom as I kept seeing so vividly Bai’s tearing eyes looking back at my mother as she was herded further and further away…. 

Tears and heartaches helped awake me to reconnecting with animals. Asking animals for forgiveness is the first step, and I'm determined to change, starting from educating myself about the harm we do to animals, stopping harming animals, knowingly or unknowingly, and changing what I eat and how I live every day.

Eating vegan at home with my family in China was very difficult in the beginning. But after weeks of struggle, my 
mother began to buy various kinds of vegetables. She said each vegetable was 

unique and gave us different types of strength. But sometimes, I could still detect chicken broth in the vegetable dishes she made. When questioned, she said it was all vegetables. :) But I was amazed by my mother’s ability to adapt. Within a couple of months, she discovered more and more vegan dishes that she could make. She began to fall in love with the vegan restaurant near where she lives and brought back booklets on healthy vegan eating to give away to her family, friends, and acquaintances. She herself reduced dramatically her meat consumption--this is what I had sought because of her high blood pressure and high cholesterol. When my father and mother returned home late from visiting a relative far away, I would cook them a simple vegan meal. Looking at them eating the meal I prepared was one of the happiest moments in my life as a daughter. 

Related documentary films: Earthlings, Cowspiracy and more.
A child's commitment: "I don't want to eat animals!"

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