–– By Kelly Richard, English Teaching Assistant in Surabaya, East Java ––
In America, I am a vegan. I have been consciously monitoring my diet in this way for over two years now. And, to be honest, it was one of the best decisions I ever made, for a plethora of reasons. When I came to Indonesia, I thought that avoiding meat might be difficult, but with the variety of tropical fruits and vegetables available, I figured I would at least survive. I had many friends and family members tell me they thought I should give up veganism for a year, to make it easier on myself and also to “experience the culture fully.” But for the same reasons I decided to become a vegan, I didn’t feel comfortable giving it up. I didn’t think that compromising my own values was a responsible way to immerse myself in another culture. I decided instead, to dive in, open minded, ready to struggle but ready to prevail.
When I first landed in Surabaya, my co-teachers picked me up from the airport and asked me if I wanted to get some lunch (YES, I hadn’t eaten in 7 hours). It had come so fast – the moment I had to drop the truth bomb. I almost didn’t say it. But then, I knew I had to. “Saya Vegetarian.” (It is important to note here that I decided to go with vegetarian. Vegan is even more complicated and difficult to translate so I just went with the classic terminology) My co-teachers looked at me with shock and concern. I was then bombarded with questions about exactly what I could and could not eat – a conversation that I felt (always feel) guilty about. I don’t like making meals more difficult for my friends and family, much less these lovely women I had just met and would be teaching with for 10 months. Luckily for me, Ibu Rizky and Mam Probo are heroic in their compassion. They took me to a restaurant where I had gado-gado for the first (and certainly not the last) time. Totally vegan, tidak pakai telur (without eggs).
Something to know about being a vegetarian in Indonesia: fish and chicken do not necessarily count as meat. To many Indonesians, only red meat really counts. When I tell my Indonesian friends that I also don’t eat eggs, their confusion doubles, and I sometimes can’t avoid eggs. I didn’t even bother trying to explain added ingredients. When I say I don’t eat fish, many Indonesians will not think about the fish sauce, fish paste crackers or other various fishy ingredients that get thrown in with sneaky persistence. Personally, I have decided to let these small discrepancies go. It simply isn’t worth the inconvenience or the battle.
I was afraid that being a vegetarian would put up a wall – that my co-teachers and new Indonesian friends would not be able to relate to me and would not be willing to accommodate me – and that as a result I would have a much harder time connecting with people. Instead, I have found that being a vegetarian has opened up a whole new world of communication between me and my community. Teachers often will bring me new exotic fruits to try. One of my co-teachers brought me roughly a pound of kangkung. Another teacher sells me tempe every week. When I tell students I don’t eat meat, they show me new recipes to try, or they will bring me food from home that is veggie-based. Instead of being put off, my community was excited to show me how much they cared by celebrating me exactly the way I am.
But, what I love most about sharing my vegetarianism with others is that it often leads to a conversation about values. I tell my friends about how I don’t eat meat because I think that every life is precious. My Indonesian friends can then share their core values with me and how those values relate to their religion and their food choices (such as halal foods).
So, I am proud to say that I am successfully navigating Indonesia as a vegetarian.
Satu gado-gado. Tidak pakai telur.