“Eat, eat! You’re skin and bones!” cried my grandma, shoving a pile of kielbasa under my nose. “I’m vegetarian, Bubba. I don’t eat meat,” I apologized, aware of the insignificance—of the sheer impossibility of translation—of this phrase at my grandmother’s table. She’d made the sausage herself, stuffing the casings right there in her tiny Pittsburgh kitchen along with two of my aunts. “What? Then eat the pork.”
I know now how frivolous vegetarianism sounds to people for whom meat is a luxury. When you’re barely scraping by, you don’t pass the plate, no matter what’s on it. My grandparents raised seven children, both working busily to provide for their family. And of course, they’d lived through the Depression. No wonder “vegetarian” didn’t translate.
I was a teenager then. Some years later, I moved to Oregon and things were different. No longer did people say, “Wow, you’re the first vegetarian I’ve ever met!” Instead phrases like, “I’m not eating wheat right now,” “I’m on an all-raw diet,” and “I don’t eat garlic or onions” became more common than I’d ever imagined.
But when I went overseas to Indonesia, I knew things could get rough.
I landed at an orphanage where I’d arranged to stay and help. A young woman who’d grown up there, and now helped out, told me dinner would be ready soon. “I don’t eat meat, but I’d love to join you,” I said, thanking her for letting me know. “Oh. You eat chicken then?” “No,” I explained, slightly embarrassed. “Please, don’t go to any trouble.”
I came downstairs as the kids hurried into the big cafeteria-style room, muddy footprints covering the white tile floor. A teenage girl took my hand and showed me to my seat. Beneath a plastic cage, protecting it from flies, sat a spread of rice, vegetables, an egg and tempeh—a bean curd that picks up flavors nicely and makes an excellent protein. Back in the States, it was tough to find tempeh outside of natural food stores, but this place apparently had a stash of it! Was it possible that one of my favorite foods really was a standby in this country?
Yep. Street stall after street stall had tempeh, tofu, egg, and lots of veggies. Jackfruit was my favorite, a stringy, succulent fruit with a savory juice. Ironically, I thought it was meat at first and steered clear of it until a local friend assured me at least three times it was a fruit.
As I learned the language, asking for what I wanted became easier and easier. Meaning, as I’d always suspected, that the toughest place to be vegetarian was my grandmother’s kitchen.
Thailand was a bit different. I knew no language, absolutely none. I’d gotten on the boat on a whim, while on a Malaysian island by the border. As I peered into a street stall, famished and confused, I couldn’t make out the mysterious contents. “Saya tidak makan daging” (“I don’t eat meat”), I said in Indonesian, which is very similar to Malay, hoping the women behind the stall would understand. They just stared.
Inspiration struck. I whipped out my notepad. I sketched a chicken, then a cow, then a fish. I circled each and drew an X over it. Then held up my artwork, feeling simultaneously proud and foolish. But it was desperate times, and their raucous laughter told me it worked. With tofu and sprouts in hand, and a sweet, icy drink in the other, I didn’t much care how silly I looked. I’d found a more balanced vegan meal than many American restaurants serve, and I could hear the veggies around the world applauding. Plus, there’s something deeply satisfying about knowing that you’re sure to be remembered, even as that crazy vegetarian who came through town the other day.