Being a vegetarian in India is no big deal. A good percentage of the Indian population is vegetarian/can survive on a vegetarian diet. In Singapore, however, being a vegetarian is equivalent to being a unicorn. After the revelation of me being a vegetarian, a typical conversation usually goes like this:
Singaporean Friend: Wait, you’re vegetarian?
SF: When did you convert to vegetarianism?
Me: I’ve always been vegetarian.
SF: What, since birth?!
SF: ALL YOUR LIFE?!
SF: Is it a religious thing?
Me: I guess it is for my parents, but I was born into it, and I just never felt any inclination to not be a vegetarian.
SF: So you’ve never wanted to try meat?
Me: No, not particularly.
At this point, the conversation usually devolves into “Can you eat [insert meat variety]?” questions, which is amusing because vegetarianism as a concept in itself just does not seem comprehensible. I guess it’s understandable, considering how diverse vegetarians have become. There are the strict vegans and the regular vegetarians, but then there are also eggetarians, pescetarians and even pollotarians, so it’s not enough these days for people to just say they’re vegetarians, because it almost always comes with some sort of exception.
Personally, I prefer the term flexitarian. I’m vegetarian for the most part, but eggs make a regular feature in my diet. I don’t eat them when I’m at my parents’ house, but anywhere else, I’m game. In fact, eggy brunches rank high on my list of favourite meals. I don’t eat meat in itself, but close an eye when it comes to sauces, broths and gravies. It’s not like I can’t survive without these things, but in places like Singapore, where every dish inevitably contains oyster sauce, shrimp paste or chicken broth, it’s hard to insist on pure vegetarianism. I know people who struggle on despite these odds, so I’m not excusing myself, but since I’m not vegetarian for religious reasons, I don’t feel too guilty about it.
Most of my Singaporean friends can’t imagine going a full day without meat and are frankly amazed when I say I don’t get tempted to try it when I see other people eating it or commenting on how good it tastes. It’s not that odd, right? I probably don’t crave meat because I haven’t grown up on it. You can’t miss what you never had! People who convert midway through their lives have it much, much harder, because they’re actively having to give up something (and in most cases, something they really like). I can imagine what this might feel like when I ponder giving up something I’ve had my whole life, like rice. I probably could go without it if I had sufficient alternatives, but I would definitely get a hankering for it at some point, and it wouldn’t be easy to give it up completely, especially if it was readily available all around me.
Because of this, and because of my own “flexibility”, I’m not the kind of vegetarian who goes around admonishing non-vegetarians about their diet. I do wonder, though, about the ethics of the situation, and about whether there is, indeed, a double standard among people who claim to love animals and still choose to eat meat. I wonder it about myself, too. I do feel like a good part of my vegetarianism comes from not liking the idea of meat-eating, but if I’m willing to “close one eye” to partake of good stuff from a non-vegetarian meal, is that any better? If I don’t eat meat, but buy a leather purse without batting an eyelid, am I indulging in the same double standard? I don’t know.
Sometimes I feel like this flexitarian business is wishy-washy, and that I should take a harder stance on the matter, at least personally. Other times, I feel like I’m drawing battle lines and when that happens, I want to take a step back. “Do what you want to do; don’t think too hard about it”, my brain says. I’m still undecided.