Vegetarian in all the wrong places

Guest Article by Jacob Grubman
University of Chicago

ETA Jake Grubman keeps it classy while enjoying some roti
The dish was piled high with rice, green beans, cucumber slices, finely chopped apple, fermented soy, and a generous splash of peanut sauce. Across the table sat another dish of steamed vegetables, along with the remainder of the green beans, and a jar of muruku. Sights as friendly to the vegetarian stomach can be rare in Malaysia, a country that prides itself on quantity of fish included in every meal. But even despite the strongest protestations, promises that I won’t starve if there isn’t extra vegetarian food, requests that no special accommodations be made on my account, there will always be an uncomfortable amount of vegetarian food when others are watching most closely.
The scene above was taken from the wedding reception of a fellow English teacher’s son. I was invited a few weeks ago, and Ashley described it as “culturally necessary.” So having spent the weekend in Kuala Lumpur for Hari Merdeka, I returned early enough on Sunday to attend Puan Lailatul’s son’s wedding party.
The party was listed as going from noon to four o’clock, and Lailatul suggested I come at two. Cik Hasnul drove Adeel and me, so we arrived slightly later, and by the time we arrived, the hall was maybe a tenth full. These parties are not like American receptions. We walked in, and Hasnul led us over to the buffet line. Soon, there was a commotion. “THE VEGETARIAN IS HERE!” seemed to be the sentiment. I was ushered over to a table while Hasnul and Adeel collected their food, and a friend of Lailatul’s family came over with a huge container of unmixed rojak, which is basically a fruit-and-etc. salad with peanut sauce. The dish could have fed ten. Then she took out a dish of Chinese-style vegetables. Having mixed the rojak, she served me a heaping plate and left me to eat with Hasnul and Adeel. I did what I could, but I was no match for the piles and piles of food that, in form, appearance, and delivery, announced itself very clearly that it had been prepared especially for me.
We ate and left, having stayed for about 30 minutes.
Lesson 1: If you don’t want extra attention, either don’t say you’re a vegetarian or don’t say you’re coming.
Following the wedding, Hasnul asked if we wanted to join her at another teacher’s Hari Raya open house (a kind of party that everybody throws for the month after Ramadan). We obliged. As is usually the case, the food table’s target audience didn’t seem to include vegetarians. This was actually fortunate, in this case, because of all the rojak still settling in. But we had to eat something. ”Makan! Eat!” I pulled the vegetarian card and got away with some pudding and some kuih.
Of course, had Faizal known I was coming, things might have been different. But I was happy my appearance didn’t necessitate any kind of interruption to the goings-on. It was actually a pleasant time, considering neither Adeel nor I speak any Malay, and also considering the fact that we knew almost nobody at the party.
Lesson 2: It’s still okay to turn down food.
Lesson 3: Sometimes.
I went to a student’s sister’s birthday party (yeah, I thought it was pretty weird, too), and the student had informed her parents that I prefer not to eat meat. When I arrived, though, the main dish came ft. shrimp. In this case, there was no way I could turn it down. It was a room of about six people, and my dish had already been served. So, shrimp it was, for that one meal. Was I excited about it? No, but sitting in the tiny living room of one of my students’ homes, the requirements of vegetarianism seemed slightly less important than the requirements of not being an asshole.
The distinction between events reminds me of my very first taste of alcohol. I was 19 years old, studying in Beijing, and the group had taken a weekend trip into Inner Mongolia for a highly touristy “cultural” experience. The nighttime activities centered around a ceremonial dinner, in which our hosts brought out a roasted pig (complete with apple) and a very, very large amount of what seemed to be rubbing alcohol. The event demanded that one woman and one man volunteer to have several ceremonial drinks in rapid succession, followed by drinks for everybody. I almost peed my pants worrying that I was going to have to drink alcohol for the first time. My friends James and Chelsea volunteered for the main ceremonial drinks, and they were sloshed within minutes. The bowl came around one by one, closer and closer, and I kept going back and forth: “I don’t really want to take a drink. But it probably won’t be so bad, right? And I don’t want to offend anybody.” And when my time came up, I wound up somewhere in between. The drink was the teeniest, tiniest drink possible. It reached my lips and probably not much farther. Nobody was offended, nobody said anything, nobody was looking. Everybody was laughing at James as he tried to string together some words to prove to our professor that he wasn’t that drunk.
Being vegetarian means having to turn down kind of a lot of food. In a tiny room with a family that has just invited you to share in their celebration, the decision isn’t so easy. In a crowd, in general, people aren’t going to be offended.
Of course, trying to be a vegetarian involves more than navigating proper etiquette in a different culture. Sometimes finding vegetarian food is like shopping for authentic merchandise in Southeast Asia: People might say something is really what it’s labeled, and they might really think it is, but deciding for yourself that it really is sometimes comes down to willful ignorance and arbitrary decision-making.
For the first couple of weeks, I was surprised at how many vegetable dishes included anchovies. All anchovies everything. I seemed to be ordering all of the wrong dishes. Then I realized that all Malay restaurants, everywhere, include anchovies in all of their vegetable dishes, all the time. I don’t think it’s possible to get mustard greens (a very common vegetable option) without anchovies at a typical Malay restaurant. Sometimes it can be specially ordered; frequently, cannot.
The situation is complicated by the fact that many people here simply have not come into enough contact with vegetarianism to understand what qualifies and what doesn’t. Our very first night in Johor, at the ETA welcoming ceremony, one of our hosts asked if anybody had any dietary restrictions. As he placed a plate of chicken on our table, I said that I was vegetarian. “Oh, all right. We have mutton.” It was literally the joke from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
In the Philippines, Jordan and I went out for lunch at a small shop near our hostel. One small step for vegetarian, one giant leap for vegetarianism. Having communicated to one stand owner that I did not want to eat meat, he suggested jack fruit dish with rice. One bite in, I tasted the oh-so-delicious ikan bilis. The shop owner said he didn’t realize vegetarians didn’t eat “small fish.” I smiled and opted for a bowl of white rice. (Sidenote: I pick on anchovies quite a lot for two reasons. 1) They’re in everything. 2) They suck. They make the food worse, regardless of their having been alive.)
The ubiquitous ikan bilis
Lesson 4: If it tastes like fish, it’s fish.
Sometimes, the guesswork is simplified for you like that. Sometimes it’s not.
At school, I typically eat vegetable soup. Usually two or three days a week, there is another vegetarian option (vegetable sans anchovies, tofu, egg, etc.), but usually I order some type of vegetable soup. It tastes fine, and I actually like some versions of it, but the biggest thing is that the women in my canteen are so willing to throw stuff together for me. Very good people in the SMK Labis canteen. Then again, I have no idea if what I’m eating is actually vegetarian. The chances are good that they’ve been using chicken stock all along.
I’ve similarly overlooked the possible meat content of a few dishes along the way here. Sometimes it’s worth putting up a fight and sometimes it’s just not.
Lesson 5: Ignorance is bliss if you’re hungry, even if it’s willful ignorance.
The last word I’ll say on being a vegetarian in a place like this is: Maybe it’s not the right way of doing things. I don’t eat vegetarian because of religion or some allergy. I do it because I like animals. Not everybody is like that, but I find it very, very easy to be vegetarian in the U.S., and for me, it’s a fine trade-off.
In Southeast Asia, I’ve battled with the idea the calculus might be totally different. First of all, it’s not as easy, but second of all, maybe it’s just not worth it. Maybe I am missing out on an added layer to the cultural experience. Maybe the implications of eating meat just aren’t the same in a place where packaged products are so few. I like to say that people should do what they can rather than viewing vegetarianism as some all-or-nothing proposition. Maybe the right way of doing-what-I-can would have been to eat mostly vegetarian but make generous exceptions to really appreciate the food over here.
Lesson 6: Being a vegetarian in the U.S. is not the same as being a vegetarian here.
I have less than two months remaining in Malaysia, so I think I’ll just stick it out. But if I had to do it again, I might give that a long, hard look and try to remind myself that eating meat once or twice a week (or even more) wouldn’t be the end of the world.
Or maybe it would be. Butterfly effect, right?
Bon appetit!

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