April 24, 2008

The V-word

I never told anyone about this until I confessed it to Szilvi last week.

I've always disliked the word "vegan". Dislike is too mild: I detest it, revile it, can barely get myself to form it on my lips.

This is going to take a lot of explaining. Where should I start?

What’s forced the issue is that our youngest child, Timothy, developed eczema. It was just sort of rash-y, and vaguely reddish and irritated for months, but something kicked it into overdrive a few weeks back and he started getting these angry, dry red patches on his arms and legs. And he’d scratch himself to bleeding when his clothes were off. Doctor’s recommendation: stop feeding him dairy products (and nuts and several other things, while we’re at it). Since he’s not even two yet, and we eat our meals as a family, that meant that we ALL were going to stop eating dairy products, since Timothy would throw a shit fit if he saw someone eating yoghurt or putting sour cream on their food when he can’t have any.

Now, our family is already vegetarian to begin with (another V-word). This is a step in a more severe direction.

Szilvi and I have been vegetarians for twelve years, and I still haven’t warmed up to that word. I’m never comfortable with telling someone, "I’m a vegetarian." How ridiculous to define someone by what they don’t eat. I don’t eat meat. Does that make me “something”? Is there a word for people who don’t drink tomato juice? How about a word for people who don’t sleep late on weekends? (OK, they're called parents.)

The vegetarian thing was slow in developing. Back in the 80s, when I lived in northern California, I developed some digestion problems. Severe digestion problems. I began thinking I should write a will. That was when, under the guidance of my herbalist/acupuncturist, I began conscientiously deciding what to eat, instead of just stuffing my face with whatever came to hand. I began eating more brown rice, and more raw and steamed vegetables. Among the things I began eating less of was meat. I didn’t stop eating meat, or really consider it, because my favorite cuisine was Chinese. And the Chinese do love their pork. So I wasn’t eating slabs of beef steak, just slivers of pork to go with the asparagus in Cheng Tu sauce (for instance). All-in-all, my meat consumption fell drastically.

Fast forward to being a young married couple in Hungary. Szilvi was never a real meat lover, so she and I didn’t eat much meat to begin with, and she even encouraged me to try making my favorite Chinese dishes without the meat. But when we went to visit relatives – even the ones who knew we tried to eat a light diet – they would put heaps of meat on the table, and we’d feel obliged to eat it. And then I’d feel sick afterwards. I’d complain to Szilvi. One day she informed me that the solution to this problem was simple. “We just tell everyone we’re vegetarians!”

Wow! That sounded drastic. But I saw her point: it really was the only solution. And, well, it wasn’t hard at all. I can honestly say that I haven’t missed eating meat at all. Now, you should observe that we didn’t stop eating meat on moral grounds. It was actually a choice based on health concerns. Granted, after you live for years without eating flesh you do look at meat very differently, and do begin to see the taking of life for the sake of pleasure to be, well, wasteful and selfish. But that’s not how it started with us.

Oddly, I actually even experimented with cutting dairy foods out of my diet when I was in my twenties as a way to cut calories. And that was before I became a veg-… veg-… you, know, one of those people who don’t eat meat. I’ve actually even thought of going that route for years, but it just seemed too difficult in a family with four children.

So back to our immediate situation. If you’re already a lacto-ovo vegetarian (another really silly term pigeon-holing people by what they do/don’t eat), and you stop eating dairy products and eggs, well that makes you a… a… Oh my God! I just can’t say it!

On her blog, Szilvi remarked that she was surprised (shocked! alarmed! is more like it) to hear me say that when, after a few months, we begin reintroducing some of the sensitizing foods into Timothy’s (and the family’s) diet, I might like to – in her words – “stay on a vegan diet.”

Egad! She said it! About me! Somebody called me a vegan! OH NO! I’ve become one of THEM!

OK. Let’s talk about why I hate this word.

Where did this word come from anyway? It first started becoming commonly used in the mid nineties, and usually in reports about the animal rights movement. There’s something weird about how its spelling and pronunciation defy all rules of English orthography and phonics. Why the long e (veeegun) and not a short e as in all other words that come from the same Latin root. Why a hard g and not a soft g. It’s a downright dumb sounding word. It makes me feel illiterate to say it. This incongruence with authentic English words gives it the stink of a neologism, and a clumsy one at that. And the kind of neologism that makes my skin crawl at the suspicion it was coined by someone with little reverence for the English language and a big fat agenda. When I went to search for an etymology, my suspicions were confirmed. It is, indeed a coined word. Somebody foisted this monster on us.

And now by simply choosing not to eat dairy products, this foul locution has been used in connection with my name. Theo the vegan. That stings.

Earlier I mentioned how the v-word made it's way into common usage with the rise of the animal rights movement. Whether or not one sympathizes with their aims (for the most part I do, especially when it comes to their stance on laboratory animals), or with some of their tactics (letting domesticated animals free is actually pretty stupid), I can't help recalling being seriously repelled by self-righteous twenty-somethings being interviewed at animal rights demonstrations declaring their superiority over the rest of humanity because they were (gulp, here goes!) vegans. What put me off was their revolutionary fervor that showed not one bit of sympathy for the fact that our society has century-old customs and practices that make meat eating an integral part of the culture. It takes serious introspection and afterwards personal strength (to withstand the constant, if most of the time subtle, criticism one has to endure) in order to make the decision to change one's diet that drastically. You can't just bully people into understanding the politics and ethics of our eating habits. It takes time to understand it. You can't expect people to accept such big changes overnight.

And, again, my choice isn't really political. It's a practical choice regarding my health. I have lots of children I want to see grow up. I have lots of things I still want to get done in this life. I just can't afford to get sick and feeble. That's the main reason why I made these choices.

There are spiritual reasons, too. But I take that up in a later posting.

I guess I better get used to the fact that, like it or not, the way I eat now fits the definition of ... of... (just say it!) vegan. I'll just have to get used to it.