TOP 5: Ways To Be A Respectful Vegetarian Abroad
Being a vegetarian abroad can be challenging. You’ll not only face practical concerns, like how to find good vegetarian meal options in some places, but also daunting cultural challenges. People may not understand why you don’t eat meat, or be insulted that you won’t sample local delicacies, or find your special dietary needs difficult to accommodate. So how can you stay true to your values without disrespecting local culture or alienating yourself?
Here are five solutions to five common problems that vegetarians encounter abroad:
1. Communicate early
The problem: You’ve just landed in Spain after an exhausting 10-hour flight, and you’re absolutely starving. Your new host mother promptly sits you down at the kitchen table and sets a mountain of steaming hamburguesas in front of you. “Um, no thanks,” you stammer. “I’m a vegetarian. No como carne.”
The solution: You can prevent awkward situations like this with clear, early communication. If you’re planning a home stay, be sure to communicate your dietary restrictions to your program provider very clearly, and when you meet your host family, go out of your way to thank them for accommodating your needs. If friends invite you to their home for dinner, let them know you’re a vegetarian before you accept their offer.
2. Find a culturally relevant explanation
The problem: You’re in Uganda, and your friends are again insisting that you try the grilled goat. “It’s so tasty!” they say, pushing it toward you. “Just have a bite!” You’ve already told them many times that you don’t eat meat, and you’re getting tired of explaining yourself.
The solution: Vegetarianism seems like a simple concept, but for people who have grown up with fewer food options and who aren’t used to picking and choosing what they eat, it can be difficult to understand. As you learn more about local values, see if you can find a way to frame your vegetarian lifestyle within their cultural context. For example, if you find that Ugandans place an emphasis on family loyalty and trust, explain that your vegetarianism is a family value, something you would not want to disrespect. That might be easier for them to grasp.
3. Offer to cook
The problem: Your Bolivian host family knows you’re a vegetarian, but isn’t accustomed to cooking vegetarian foods. You can barely stomach the same bean and potato soup every night (supplemented by your secret stash of peanut butter and crackers), but you continue to force it down because you don’t want to offend your hosts.
The solution: Suggest a joint cooking night with your family—they prepare one of their usual meat dishes, you prepare a vegetarian offering, and you all eat together. That way, they can eat what they’re used to while also trying something new. If possible, try to incorporate local food options into your dish. Bolivia, for example, is home to the world's most protein-abundant grain, quinoa, as well as gargantuan avocados. Your family may find that vegetarian dishes with these local ingredients are tastier than they realized, and may even incorporate them into their regular diet.
4. Embrace cultural traditions
The problem: You find out that your German friends just spent the weekend at the Bad Dürkheim Sausage Festival... and they didn’t invite you. You feel left out, and when you act hurt, they look at you in utter confusion. “But you don’t eat sausage!” they say. “We didn’t think you’d want to come!”
The solution: You need to accept that sometimes you’ll be left out of hallmark cultural experiences: You’ll have to pass on eating roasted guinea pig in Ecuador, and you’ll have to hang back as your friends rush to doner kebab vendors in Istanbul. But make it clear that you don’t intend to let your dietary restrictions get in the way of engaging with local culture and traditions. Don’t decline invitations to events that revolve around meat (just pack your trusty jar of peanut butter), and don’t openly judge your friends as they indulge in their knackwurst and frankfurters.
5. Be flexible
The problem: You’re in rural Madagascar, and the village has slaughtered a zebu to honor your arrival. You are handed a plate of freshly grilled beef as the entire village looks on.
The solution: Some scenarios call for weighing your commitment to vegetarianism against your desire to be a courteous, respectful guest. It’s also important to do your research and evaluate whether your reason for being a vegetarian still holds up abroad. If it’s because of the way animals are fed and treated in the United States, find out if your host country engages in similar practices. You might find that local animals, like the zebu, are bred naturally, raised on a healthy diet, live freely, and die humanely.
It is possible to stay true to your values without locals accusing you of being rude, detached, or completely nuts. All it takes is clear communication, a flexible mindset, and a willingness to engage with the culture around you. And of course, don't forget the peanut butter.
* Many thanks to our vegetarian globetrotting interns, Amy Glynn and Shaina Shealy, for helping us to compile this list.
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