Truong: Am I A Real Vegan?

There's no need to feel guilty about breaking the diet rules you've imposed on yourself.

by Valerie Truong | 11/8/18 2:00am

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by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

 I stared at question number 6 on the form.

“Are you a vegetarian or do you require a special diet due to food allergies?”

Technically, no and no. I’m vegan, but I’m not allergic to any foods. Do I require a special diet? Not particularly. I won’t need to visit the hospital if I eat a peanut or touch an egg. I’m not lactose intolerant by any means. I read on.

“(Please note that we will do our best to meet all your food concerns; however, as a guest in a host country, students will be expected to be flexible. Where available, special dietary accommodations may require a supplemental fee.)”

Does adhering to veganism mean that I have a food concern? I consider myself open-minded, and I certainly don’t want to come across as inflexible and rude to my future host family. And I definitely don’t want to pay a supplemental fee; the airfare was expensive enough!

This question on one of many forms I had to fill out for my upcoming Spanish Language Study Abroad term to Buenos Aires should have been a simple “no” for most, but it sparked an intense moral and philosophical conflict within myself.

I was with a friend when her mom called her. My friend told her mother, who knew I was vegan, that I would be going to Argentina in the spring. Her mom exclaimed that I had to try Argentinian steak; otherwise, there would be no point in going all that way. She advised that I should stay close to a toilet, however, since my stomach might not be able to handle beef that well after several years of not consuming meat.

I understood her point. If I’m going to Argentina to improve my Spanish and immerse myself in the culture, a large part of that is trying food I’d be hard pressed to find in the United States. If I relent and say that I’ll eat meat, eggs and dairy while I’m abroad in order to more fully experience Argentinian culture, what are the implications for my veganism? Do I try each meat once, each dish once, or go all out and eat everything I see because even the same dish made by two different people is different? How much of Argentinian culture is embedded in its food? What is the line and how strict should it be?

This reasoning has failed to convince me to eat foods from my own culture, however. It would erode the precedent I’ve set for myself with this diet, and make me a hypocrite. I haven’t eaten Hainan chicken or bún bò Huế in a long time in the name of the moral high ground I choose to perch upon. Even while travelling for extensive periods of time, I have managed to adhere to veganism, foregoing the “traditional” menu items that most would order for the modified veggie version. However, in Vietnam for example, most menus have “chay” options, which means vegetarian or vegan. Not eating meat on certain days of the month is a tenet of Buddhist and Confucian thought, so it is a part of the culture.

Argentina, on the other hand, seems to be a beef-based culture. It has the second highest per capita beef consumption in the world at 120 pounds per year. In comparison, the United states is fourth, at 79 pounds per person per year.

Luckily for me, abstaining from eating meat is on the rise in Buenos Aires, where there are more than 60 vegetarian and vegan restaurants. There’s even a vegan steakhouse called La Reverde Parrillita Vegana. But as excited I am to try many of them, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t try Argentine asado or a few alfajores.

One of the difficulties with veganism is that it is socially acceptable, but not socially appreciated. It always has to be accommodated, which means people have to go out of their way to specially prepare food for me because of a decision I made. I find myself often explaining my diet to others when it comes up: I’m vegan, but I eat honey and gelatin, which isn’t even vegetarian. I also ate cheese pizza three weeks ago because I had no other option at a theme park. Finally, I always cede that meat is delicious in an attempt to convey that I’m not so different from the average omnivore.

At some point mid-high school, I watched a documentary called “Cowspiracy” on Netflix that stressed the environmental impact of eating meat. After that, I decided that starting the following day, I would go vegetarian for two weeks. The logic, argument, and imagery from the film must have been compelling, or perhaps I was just an impressionable teenager, but two weeks passed and I had yet to consume meat. From that point on, it’s been a personal challenge of mine. Last spring, I decided to take it one step further and omit dairy and eggs since DDS already labels its options.

Some of my friends affectionately call me “Vegan Val,” but do I deserve this title considering everything I just revealed above? When it comes down to it, this is an issue of labels and identity, albeit a chose

Am I vegan enough?

I think I am. I’m doing what I believe is best for me, and there’s no shame in trying to find a balance. Feeling guilty is antithetical to eating plant-based, so I choose to draw my (dotted) lines where I see fit. If I use veganism as a guideline rather than a hard rule while studying abroad, I think I will get more out of the experience.

I finally typed into the text box for question number 6, “Most of the time I follow a vegan diet, BUT I’m willing to try different foods and am not allergic to anything and don’t want to be charged a supplemental fee.” Novack’s vegan veggie hummus wrap will be waiting for me when I return from Buenos Aires.