Monday July 19, 2010
Some fifteen years ago now, when I was in Indonesia, I was sitting on a tiny boat heading down the coast of a small island. The owner of the boat had thrown a line over the side which he was dragging behind the boat as it chugged southwards. Suddenly there was a tug on the line – a fish had bitten. It was a large fish, and it struggled like hell. And as I watched it struggle, I realised that I wanted to give up eating meat. It was as simple as that. When I wrote to my family to say I was coming home, I began with the words “Kill the fatted aubergine…” So began my life as a vegetarian.
My unease with the business of procuring flesh began much earlier. One summer, we went to stay with our relations in Scotland, and on one day – I must have been ten or eleven – we went fishing. I can remember sitting in a boat in the streaming rain as my cousin reeled in a fish and then killed it. I think I sobbed. This is not to say that I was an excessively sensitive child. I loved eating meat. But when brought face to face with the question of where the food I was eating came from, I was more uneasy.
More or less, since that time in Indonesia, I have been vegetarian. Not absolutely strict, but vegetarian all the same. But when I decided to come to China, I made the conscious choice that I would eat meat whilst I am here. Not, of course, all the time. In fact the way that it is more or less working out is that I am eating meat when I find myself a guest of other people, but when I order my own food, I try to avoid meat as much as possible. This is not quite as easy as back home. In the West, tofu and meat are like matter and anti-matter: it is as if, were they to be brought together on the same plate, they would automatically annihilate each other. In recognition of this fact, sensible restaurant owners and chefs avoid any mixing of the two in a single dish. But in China it is different. This evening, I ordered everyday home tofu (jiachang doufu 家常豆腐), but when it arrived it had strips of pork elegantly nestling amid the beany goodness.
How do I feel about this return to a meatier diet? From a lot of points of view, I simply prefer not to eat meat. But this is, as ever, a complex world in which there are all kinds of other things at stake. Given that I have neither the ability in Chinese nor the enthusiasm for enquiring about every last ingredient of what is placed before me, then it seems reasonable to order in good faith and to hope. Perhaps it could be said that I need more ethical rigour. But rigour is not the only thing in ethics, indeed I sometimes wonder if too much rigour is an unhelpful thing. Perhaps I need to be clearer about my principles, but my sense of ethics does not really work in terms of principles. I’m sure that when I return home at the end of the summer, I’ll revert to almost total vegetarianism. But for the time being, I have to say, that the jiachang doufu was pretty tasty…
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