In light of my recent review of Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and its prevalent appearance in class discussions, I’ve chosen to explore the topic of vegetarianism for this post, but within the context of traveling abroad. Many college students, myself included, choose to spend a semester studying abroad in order to gain cross-cultural experience and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the physical world. When I left for Morocco last winter, I didn’t anticipate that so many of my peers would a) be vegetarian and b) struggle as much as they did with the beliefs and practices at the core of this life decision. While in our seminar we largely focus on contemporary food activism in a very American setting, it is important to relate these discussions to the world at large, on scales ranging from the state to individual levels.
As a non-vegetarian, I came into this class hoping to be more exposed to the varying arguments as to why different people choose to remove meat from their plates. What I’ve noticed between this experience and my travels to North Africa is that meat eaters like me are just as lacking in knowledge about vegetarianism as some vegetarians seem to be about how meat eating is practiced abroad, specifically in the developing world. While there are hundreds of articles and blogs speaking to the ways in which vegetarianism can save the world like this one or this one, as well as those adamantly against this proposition like this one or this one, there are also those examining how vegetarianism might become a reality given the current nature of global food systems. However, many of these pieces fail to address the specific significance of meat within the cultural context of these developing nations, for meat eating contributes as much to their identities as it does to those of people who choose to avoid it.
In numerous developing countries including Morocco, meat is viewed as a luxury good, and to refuse to consume it may be insulting. For this reason, many of my peers chose to ditch their vegetarian practices while abroad in order to better immerse themselves in the Moroccan culture, in which meat eating is a crucial and symbolic part of daily life. My 40 year-old host sister, for example, told me a story of the last student her family hosted and how she refused to be in the house at the end of Ramadan, which is marked by the slaughter of a goat, let alone consume the grand sacrifice. For this reason, she believed that the girl was strange, disrespectful, and rude. Not only did many Moroccans simply not understand when one of my peers tried to explain that they did not eat meat for reasons aside from allergies, but such a conversation, as I personally witnessed, instantly created a sort of barrier between these Americans and Moroccans.
From doing some informal searches around the internet, it seems as though many budding travelers may not grasp the concept that vegetarianism is not a universally held lifestyle, evidenced by forum posts like this one. That being said, enough travelers have recognized that traveling abroad with the baggage of a vegetarian identity in tow is enough of a defining characteristic to specifically plan around when traveling. There are dozens of tips for traveling as a vegetarian like this one circling around the web, providing non-meat eating travelers like my Morocco-bound peers with tips on how to handle new environments with different perceptions of meat eating. While some of my friends chose to abandon this lifestyle as a way to better comprehend Moroccan dietary and social habits, others stuck to their guns and saw discussions surrounding meat eating as opportunities to expose Moroccans to a different way of approaching food. Ultimately, instances of vegetarian travelers in largely meat-eating developing countries illuminates a broader concept of how we have to consciously think about our own identities as consumers before traveling abroad, where our choices of what's on our plates might be brought into question.