Vegetarianism in Thailand [with my commentary on meat in my culture]



I’ve already said that Asians just like to eat funny things because of our funny beliefs. We are simply carrying on with this Oriental idiosyncracy by being veg*ns. It’s traditional!

I’m joking, of course.

I feel the whole thing would be best expressed in the esoteric Siamese tongue but unfortunately I must make do with English.

In Thailand, there is literally no such thing as being veg*n. There is only eating veg*n: กินเจ. ‘กิน’ is the verb ‘to eat’; ‘เจ’ is a loan word meaning ‘vegetarian/vegan’ from the Teocheow dialect of Chinese, showing the contribution of the sizeable Chinese (predominantly Teocheow)-Thai population. Whether or not you consume animal products in general (in clothing, cosmetics etc.) is up to you, but you’ve got to keep in mind that Thailand has made a long and revered tradition out of raising larvae and killing them for their coccoons. More of our Siamese decadence for you.

Anyway, that aside, the killing of animals is fully acknowledged and definitely thought to be taboo. However, the fact of death isn’t really covered up to make you feel better about it. Thai attitudes towards meat are generally more frank, in my experience. People regularly raise their own livestock and it is absolutely no secret that we kill animals to eat their muscle and innards. It’s in the language, also - meat is not some vague noun but quite specifically ‘animal flesh’ (the same part of the word used to describe human flesh and human muscle). There is no culinary separation but simply the flesh of a chicken or a pig so we can never be under any illusions about what we are really eating. I’m not saying it’s perfect of course, but it is at least a bit more truthful.

Also, despite the taboo of animal slaughter, there is no stigma attached to those who must do it as an occupation so there’s nothing like the burakumin going on in Thailand.

Veg*nism in Thailand takes different forms. Undoubtedly there are people who perhaps could be said to think of the bigger picture and view veg*nism as a lifestyle because they disagree with the meat industry and its consequences/origins. However, the native tradition of veg*nism is more to do with ritual. One will give up meat for a set number of days in exchange for something else. You’d go along to the temple of your choice, make an offering (of eggs or of course something else if you’re vegan) and receive the blessing of a monk. Then you will go away and give up your meat, and your conscious sacrifice of something sinful will be rewarded with not necessarily the thing you ask for, but a sense of accomplishment.

As for the Thai-Chinese population, those who worship the goddess Kwan-yin will eschew beef and are still thought to be ‘eating vegetarian’. There are also vegetarian festivals - again, for ritual purposes. For some, it is not simply enough that you do not eat meat but you must also avoid certain vegetables - garlic, chillis (well, it’s a berry but bear with me), a type of long green onion — those things are thought to be too strong and excite inappropriate lusts in you at this time of year. And there are yet more who also would not eat dairy or eggs, so they would be considered vegan.

It is important to also consider regional variations. Thailand is not homogenous; it is made up of distinct ethnic groups, languages and cultures. The climate, economy and culture of the north-east of Thailand would make eating vegetarian more difficult than if you were lounging about in your house at Sukhumvit with many restaurants, shops, time, money and probably servants to do your cooking for you.

There are of course people whose attitudes fall somewhere inbetween all that, mixing the spiritual with the political and personal. But what do I know? I’m English and Thai, I could not possibly speak for a Thai person living in Thailand. I’m just relaying to you the little I do know to show that there are different ways of being veg*n.

Iif you want to critique it, you are going to have to be really careful that you don’t lapse into Orientalist narrative. The idea that Asian people are just THOSE ORIENTALS with strange supserstitious beliefs and disgusting food habits in opposition to the rational, enlightened ways of “The West” has got to go, sorry. Check your own back yard at the same time; then we can have a productive and balanced discussion instead of it being quite one-sided.

I’m really glad you wrote this, Pear, as a lot of pro-vegan arguments I’ve read around the place seem to be really blind to cultural differences. It especially annoys me when people assume that the only reason you’d ever eat meat is because you’re a heartless being (I’ve heard “they’d probably eat cadavers too!”) or because you’re unethical to the core.

I grew up in a Bangladeshi family in Malaysia. Meat is everywhere. You could go vegetarian if you wanted, but (much like the Greek family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding) you’d probably get a lot of “why bother?”. Heck I’ve tried going vegetarian but realised that if I ever went back to Malaysia Mum wouldn’t have a whole lot to feed me. (Well, now that my sister’s married a pescetarian we’ve been exposed to more options…but still.) Being vegan is even more difficult - just about everything involved dairy or eggs or honey one way or another.

In Muslim culture there are quite a few events that involve some sort of animal sacrifice, with the meat distributed far and wide as food. Eid ul Hajj, the celebration of the Hajj pilgrimage, is one of the bigger examples of this - and in Bangladesh it’s an especially big deal. For weeks you’ll see cows and goats roaming the streets of Dhaka, having right of way over the cars and rickshaws, and then on Eid lines and lines of beggars and street folk would form outside mosques and homes of the middle-class who are hosting sacrifice slaughters. The meat is then divvied up between the poor, family members, some to be kept later, and some to be cooked that day and feasted on. For the poor lining up that day, it’s probably the most food they’ll get in a while.

I’d like to see any of those militant vegan activists try to tell a Bangladeshi to go vegan, to care for animal rights - not when there’s hardly any space for vegetables (or anything else that can take care of the nutritional needs taken care of by meat) and not when they themselves are struggling to eat!

The slaughtering of animals for meat in Islam usually follows a specific procedure to make it halal, involving prayer and thanksgiving. Some people claim that the process is still traumatic for the animal, and therefore bad. Dude, we know. We’re not kidding ourselves thinking it’s painless. But at least there is a sense of reverence, of thankfulness, of acknowledging the circle of life and the pain of death. It’s sacred. It’s not wasteful. We do our best.

I wonder if part of the disconnect is due to very different ideas around sacrifice, discomfort, and death. Much of the pro-vegan argument seems to come from the idea that death is bad and needs to be avoided, that pain is bad and needs to be avoided, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of sacrificing happening in Western culture anyway. Whereas growing up (and still now, even) I saw within my cultures and countries that death, while sad and tragic, is still a part of life; that pain isn’t something to avoid but something to deal with; that sacrifice is necessary and good and that you’re not an individual but part of a greater whole.

If death and pain weren’t such big deals would our attitudes to meat be different?

yes to everything but especially the bolded part. (added)

(via creatrixtiara)