The Vegan Traveler’s Dilemma: Honoring Your Ideals While Being Culturally Sensitive Abroad

I love travel, and I love food. However, my veganism complicates this natural pairing. It’s not that vegetables and grains and everything you need for an enjoyable vegan meal don’t flourish in almost every corner of the world. It’s just that exploring a country in which foregoing meat is an alien concept can present cultural and logistical challenges. It also requires that we view our dietary choices from a new perspective.

I’ve been vegetarian since the age of six, and transitioned to veganism as an adult. In America, I resolutely subscribe to that vegan diet, but while traveling I’ve found I can’t be that stringent. I’m still trying to figure out how this whole traveling-as-a-vegan thing works.

When I spent almost a year in suburban South Africa to teach, I was thrilled to find myself in a country both comfortingly familiar and wildly foreign: I’d drive roads lined with air-conditioned malls and KFCs, thinking I could be in America. A troop of monkeys dangling in the trees, or the springboks in my backyard, would bring me back to reality. My first evening there, my fellow Americans and I were treated to a braai, an occasion akin to a barbeque. The braai is a frequently enjoyed tradition, transcending ethnic and sociocultural lines, the perfect way to celebrate a birthday or promotion, or just the end of the week.

The braai, a prominent social event, put me in an awkward position. Like many Americans, most of my new acquaintances thought my Spartan diet merely odd or perplexing. A few reacted defensively, as if my abstention were a critique of the South Africans themselves, and their way of life.

That makes sense, right? For many, vegetarianism is the result of an ethical belief. Suddenly, you’re at a wedding reception and the choice between chicken and pasta becomes a question of morality rather than of hunger or a preference for olive oil and sautéed vegetables. Lines are drawn. Sides are taken. And if you choose the pasta, others may view your personal choice as a judgment on theirs.

South Africans are notoriously friendly, and most of my acquaintances weren’t offended, just unsympathetic. My landlord would hold a boerewors in front of my face, and urge me to “just try a little bit.” My work mentor referred to me as her “little problem” because she wanted to feed me, a kind gesture of welcome, but she had no idea what a meal without meat looked like. After a few fender benders, due in part to my impaired spatial awareness and my inexperience driving on the right side of the car, I was told my driving would improve if I ate meat. I became defined by my diet.

I get it. I had voluntarily moved to this country, was excited to make new friends and learn about their cultures, and then declined to eat the meals they prepared for me. I started avoiding colleagues, dreading invites to anything, because they all revolved around meat, and inevitably set me apart by my eating habits. I was aware of the incivility in my failure to fully participate in one of the defining traditions of South Africa, an occasion as necessary and obvious as tea to the British.

In my effort to avoid being an “ugly American” who comes to a new country demanding the pampered comforts of home, imagining that western values and amenities follow her around the world, I compromised: When sharing meals with my South African friends, I ate dairy and eggs. I found that my desire to be culturally sensitive outweighed my resolution to be vegan, if only temporarily.

I don’t think this makes me a bad vegan. I have made a considered choice to eat the way I do, but eating abroad is about more than feeding myself. It’s a social act, and I don’t want my diet to keep me from connecting with others. Food is not only the pride of a culture, but often represents it as well. We can’t reject the food without also rejecting some part of the culture.

I’m not suggesting we all adjust our own personal value systems depending on the country in which we happen to be standing. Of course when you’re making dietary choices based on morality rather than medical reasons (or sensitivities), you have the ability to be more flexible. Every traveling vegan and vegetarian finds his or her own approach, and we all have lines we won’t cross. I draw the line at meat. Others may draw it differently, and that’s fine. For me, occasional compromises to my diet allow me to straddle the line that threatens to divide my twin values of respect for others and respect for myself.

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