My job has recently taken me on a two-week trip to Taiwan. Since my parents and the large majority of their friends were raised in Taiwan, I’ve heard plenty about the island growing up, and there were expectations for the trip. Most notably, everyone I knew who had any experience with Taiwan made a lot of fuss about the food.
A short snippet of history: Taiwan had been a political refuge during the communist revolution for people from all over Mainland China. With them, they had brought a great hodgepodge of culinary styles, and in order to deal with the gustatory overload, the people forced all the self-proclaimed chefs to fight to the bloody, delectable death. What resulted was a distillation of the best tastes from across all the mainland.
The first place my host took me after I got off the plane was to a bakery, in which were housed such buns that the mean breads of my youth endeavored to mimic. Every day, my host introduced to me new experiences, from the rice rolls filled with assorted vegetables, to vegetarian creations that duplicate the taste, look, and mouthfeel of meat, to tropical fruits that crunch and crisp and run down your chin.
And so much of it is entirely meatless. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that abstaining from meat is seen as holy. After all, Buddhism in one form or another has deep roots in this part of the world. But it brought me back to a question with which I had been struggling for some time now: what separates us humans from animals?
To me, this question is tied intimately to the path of the warrior-poet. If I claim to respect all human life, why should that respect not extend to other animals? There have been volumes of studies written about various animals possessing a sense of self, about animals exhibiting the ability to reason and learn, about animals fashioning and using tools. Any pet owner will attest to animals’ ability to exhibit emotion.
Some may argue that our faculties in these areas are more advanced, but isn’t that line of reasoning subjective? Are we even capable of creating a metric for “human” traits without introducing some kind of bias? I’m reminded of the Age of Exploration, where Western scholars wrote extensively on the “savages” of other lands. To many of the era, the willingness and ability to mimic European customs was tantamount to intelligence. Are we being as speciocentric as they were ethnocentric?
There are plenty of well- and poorly-argued articles freely available for review on the web about vegetarianism and veganism, from moral, social, and nutritional standpoints. This article does not presume to add to that body of work. Though there are several practitioners who have successfully given up meat, I am not one of them. I’ve never gotten very far in any experiment with vegetarianism without feeling far too weak to further my training.
What I will advocate, though, is a healthy respect for the animals we eat. I’ll agree wholeheartedly with those avid carnivores who protest that we clawed our way to the top of the food chain, and we have the right to do with it however we please. But why use that position of power maliciously? Though it is the natural order of things that we kill in order to survive, the respect and humility of the warrior-poet demands that we not take lives lightly.
Here are a few things that everyone can do while still enjoying whatever fare he loves:
(1) A simple word of thanks before digging into a sirloin, regardless of one’s religious views, can go a long way.
(2) Get to know your local butcher. Buying fresh, local meats not only lets you know where the meat comes from and how it was raised, but it’s healthier and greener, too.
(3) Don’t waste a kill. Okay, so most of us don’t know how to use every part of the sea bass, but at least finish your fillet.
Train hard, eat smart, and act with honor.