Three weeks ago, I made a pledge.
Save for those new-year-resolution type promises that I have made so many times to myself in the past, in secret and then shamefully abandoned, I can remember only two other pledges that I have openly announced in my life – first was at my wedding, and then another one when I decided to get involved in a program to live below the poverty line for a week to gather donations. As you can see, I do not have a habit of making and announcing pledges (probably in fear of the public disgrace of not being able to keep them), but for the ones that I announced, I have a pretty good record of keeping them to-date.
My pledge this time, is to stop eating meat (for those who care about labels, I am electing to be a pescatarian).
This has been years in making. I can remember at least three prior attempts which were unsuccessful. As a person who has grown up eating meat her entire life, believing that meat is a key food source, cooking meat dishes, and now having a family and working most days, there are a million and one reasons why it is too difficult to give it up. Time and convenience, taste and enjoyment, a lack of non-meat recipes under my repertoire, perceived lack of ingredients in major supermarkets, lack of choices at restaurants, higher costs, fear of nutritional deficiency, etc. Most days I am too tired by the end of the day that the thought of having to cook is already a major hurdle – to have to think up delicious, filling, nutritional meat-free meals that everyone in the family would eat seems like an impossible task. It is so far-fetched that a part of my brain would shut off and give up before I can even reach for my phone and google “vegetarian recipes”.
There were always reasons to not do it, but that’s not to say I was not thinking about it. The thought has stayed with me for years, the guilt occasionally returning each time I paused long enough to think about it, all the while slowly gnawing through the conscience at the back of my mind.
I can still remember the exact moment long time ago when the idea first spawned on me.
It was in a Chinese restaurant with a few colleagues from work. The topic of conversation shifted to one of the colleagues telling a story about a camp that he had gone to and how they had to prepare their meal from scratch. Like, literally from live animal scratch. As he described some of the unsavoury details, we took turns looking away and cringing (me probably most of all).
At the end of it, he said simply, “We did it. It’s unpleasant, but it is also important especially for this generation that we know where our food comes from.”
Up until that point of my twenty-something-year-old life, I had never taken a moment to really think about that. I had never paused to wonder about where and how those delicious and beautiful plates of char siew or dim sum ended up on the tables of restaurants. I had never paused to think when I strolled down the cold section of a supermarket and picked up tray of conveniently packed meat. In fact, when I moved from Malaysia to Australia, one of the things I marvelled the most at was how clean and sanitised everything was over here. Neat and tidy supermarket aisles. No wet markets. No live or dead animals on display, the sight and smell of which used to nauseate me. I loved that about the Australian stores. The society here had made it all so easy, so sanitised, so well-presented. So far detached from the initial reality of the food source that makes buying them so easy and tempting.
After that lunch inklings of thoughts and images began to pop into my head. Of that colleague and his friends who were at camp. How did one go about slaughtering an animal? How many attempts would it require? How did one confront watching life disappearing before his or her own eyes? Did the animal suffer? If so, how much? At that time the thought lingered and left not long after, because it was too difficult to think about.
Through the years, long after I no longer work with those colleagues, I would occasionally stumble across a video on Youtube or on Facebook, and then Netflix documentaries and movies when it came around, that showed scenes where animals were badly treated by humans, whether on farms or in the wild. At this point I was not hunting for these videos but they popped up every now and then. I was getting small doses of them and would often look away or press skip when the scenes got too graphic. I would rather not see them because they upset me. On occasions there would be one so bad that would make me stop eating meat for a few days, before I would fall back into the habit again when it became too difficult. Also, there was a part of my brain that tried to rationalise the situation and thought that a lot of what I had seen was probably exaggerated propaganda pulled together by extreme activists (because this is how my brain works and reacts when being presented with over-stimulated messages with sad and scary music and too many words displayed in red and caps).
But last month, when I once again came across a passage in a book that described animal violence, I did not look away. Why is it different this time, you ask? I wonder too. I think it may be a combination of a few things. For one, it was a well-written and engaging book, and with that so were the descriptions. For another, perhaps it was just the time for it – that day at the restaurant all those years ago, all these scenes I had seen, all this guilt I had felt, all accumulating up to that one point. As I read the passage, my dog happened to be lying peacefully at my feet, and I could not help but think of him and picture him being the subject of the abuse in the book. The agony he would have felt. The confusion. The pain. The helplessness. The mercy the human in the book could have shown but chosen not to.
And I started to cry, and then cry, and then cry. And that was the start of it.
For days after I could not get the image out of my mind. I figured the only way I could stop myself from spiralling was to learn more about what was spoken of in the book (again, this is how my brain works). I trawled the internet for information. The more I read, the more curious I became. There was so much information out there that I was not privy to, because I was not looking. I was coming upon websites after websites of articles and information about the treatment of animals that were bred, raised and often killed for human consumption and other purposes, most of which caused me to again end up in tears. I think I cried more over the last month than I have over the last ten years.
After days of this, I came to one conclusion. Even if only ten percent of what is described on those websites is true and the rest is propaganda, that would still equate to millions of animals that suffer and die each year purely for our pleasure, our convenience, our so obstinately held-onto way of life through generations of habits and mindsets. That is the conservative number. The reality is that human footprint on the animal kingdom, just through our sheer numbers, is on a scale so unbelievably large that is hard to fathom (think about it in billions). At one point this left me in a state of psychological mess at the realisation that nothing I could do at a personal level would make a difference. The overwhelming sense of helplessness was more than crushing, it was debilitating. Again, I wanted to give up before I even started trying. What is the point? It would take an overhaul lifestyle change on my part, extreme inconvenience, a hit to my meat-loving tastebuds, probably snide remarks from those who did not care, and to what end? The practical part of my mind was challenging the emotional part (in the past, it had always won).
But I also realise that if I do nothing, it would be at the heavy expense of my own conscience. I want the ability to be able to hug and cuddle my dog again without feeling shameful and hypocritical. I want the ability to see and savour the happiness on my children’s faces without being tainted by the thought that millions of animals were are away from their mothers at birth. I want the ability to look away from another video describing animal abuse and know that I am doing my part, as opposed to thinking that there is nothing I can do about it.
Because at the end of the day, there is something I can do. It has got to do with the choices that I make for myself and my family on a daily basis. It has got to do with what I tell children and educate them when they ask me about the choices I am making. It has got to do with me asking for more compassionate options when I go to a restaurant or a shop. So, this is where it will start. This is where the pledge comes in. I am not going to make grand statements that I will turn myself and whole family vegan by the end of the month. I understand my own limitations, and there are many, and I will not set myself a goal that will fail and put myself backwards when that happens. I will start small, based on what I already know, and build on it. I will make an effort to read more, learn more, understand where my food comes from and pick compassionate choices where I can. I will educate my children about what I know without forcing my ethical stance on them. Day by day, I will make changes gradually. It will be slow but it will be progress. It will matter, because that is how progress starts. I will not judge those around me who think differently, but I will share what I learn should they wish to listen.
Today, I share the beginning of my journey.
Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. – Albert Schweitzer