This Is Why I'm Vegan

by - April 20, 2019

kurma cafe camiguin

Just like many of those before me, I never imagined it would come to this, that I would undergo such a massive transformation. From the day I was born until that day in 2018, I was comfortable choosing what was easy and what was not necessarily right, what was prescribed to me in fact, and therefore wasn’t technically my choice. I was carrying with me a family tradition – no, a national pride – that focused on what was on the table, how good it tasted, and how it all tied down to culture, one’s sense of identity. And that was difficult, almost impossible, to rid off.

I was raised in a household that viewed food as (1) an indication of economic and social status (“you’re very lucky you can eat beef whenever you want – not everyone can afford it”), (2) a form of reprove or warning (“you’re not having cake because you’ve been naughty”), and (3) an expression of love (“It’s your birthday so I’m making your favorite caldereta”). For more than two decades, I’ve accepted this as the norm. I made judgments based on what was served. I never saw food simply for what it is. There always had to be some sort of meaning – implicit or otherwise – to every morsel, to whatever lay on the plate.

When she was alive, my mother would buy cake just because we asked her to – and because she can. In elementary school – public, I should note – I remember a classmate, upon seeing the slice of chocolate roll in my lunch box, asking, “Sinong may birthday? (Whose birthday is it?)” “Wala (No one),” I replied, nonchalantly. And then: Wow. May cake kahit walang may birthday. Mayaman siguro kayo. (You must be rich. You have cake even when it's no one's birthday.) And that was the moment I realized how what was on your plate (or in your Tupperware) could convey so much. 

One dinner, I was served a plate of sauteed sayote while everyone else had corned beef. I was told it was because I didn’t take a nap like I was told. The point was made: I was having vegetables for breaking the rules. This was my sentence. Joke’s on them – I like sayote.

When I started traveling, the aforementioned trio of interpretations, I’ve come to know, wasn’t only confined to our family’s table, or, for that matter, to public schools. It seemed that the meanings attached by the entire country to what they eat can usually be filed under one or two (sometimes all) of the three abovementioned categories.

I came to Biri in Northern Samar, in the early days of its tourism boom, with a warning that I shouldn’t eat food served by the locals. The food was poisoned I was told. It was a way of them saying we weren’t welcome, that we were trespassers. Funny thing was it was a local of the province who told me this, albeit she was from Catarman.

Seafood is easy to come by in the town of Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. It’s not rare to find a family in a modest hut having lobsters for lunch. Here, what most Manileños consider a luxury is commonplace. Chicken and beef, meanwhile, are often reserved for the wealthy and/or special occasions. In island towns on the country’s extremities, like Batanes, canned goods have more economic value than fresh ones. It’s the same up in the mountains of Tanay where tribesfolk would readily trade a live chicken for a can of sardines.
bonga tawi-tawi
Bud Bongao in Tawi-Tawi

And speaking of pigs, what is the Philippines without lechon? The country, fabled for its hospitality (aka lavish impracticality), takes pride in slaughter, and serving and feeding people the slaughtered. Most Filipinos would agree: a party is not a party without a roast pig. 

For more than two decades, I thought so, too. 

I used to be a loud and proud Filipino gourmand. Never a picky eater, only spurning crustaceans and mollusks because I was fatally allergic. Banning these, I would eat whatever was served. Grilled offal – isaw, dugo, tenga – were of particular interests. I’ve tried uok, tamilok, beetles, and frogs. As a travel writer fully aware of the dynamics of food, and as someone who believed Anthony Bourdain to be one of the wisest men in the world, I knew that much can be discerned about a place’s identity simply by eating what the locals eat. And so I consumed voraciously (never mind that I really didn’t glean anything I couldn’t learn by simply interacting with the locals). And of all the dishes I’ve cruelly savored before, pork was my greatest undoing.

Baboy is life, I used to say. I ate it with utter abandon. Liempo, sinigang, lechon, barbecue, sisig – you name it, I ate it. In fact, when I was still teaching, I would tell students to just get me grilled liempo if they wanted to pass – I was half-joking.

My love of pork didn’t help with my body issues. You could say my relationship with it, and food in general, was toxic. I would go full-glutton for days, and then would starve myself to compensate. I was insecure and, as it were, of all the three meanings, no. 2 was what I often attached to food. 

I’d eat a salad to “cleanse”, not because I wanted to. I’d reprimand myself by abstaining from meat. Indeed, I wouldn’t eat cake because I’ve been naughty.

When my acne was at its worst, my dermatologist suggested I try changing my eating habits. No eggs and chickens, she said. And fish. Pork and beef are good. Fine then.

When this did nothing to clear my skin, I went back to eating carelessly. My weight and mental health suffered. And then came the body dysmorphia.

I tried working out, but was sane enough to figure it wouldn’t do much if I keep eating crap. And so I resolved to forego “meat” and be a pesco-vegetarian. Yet many times, I fell off the wagon – and back again. I thought, damn it, baboy is life

Halfway through 2017, I decided to get fully back on being a pesco-vegetarian. I was about to get married and wanted to look my best. I found it harder than before, especially with my work. On travel assignments, it felt ungrateful to refuse what the hosts had prepared. I was embarrassed to tell them I didn’t eat beef, chicken, or pork. But – with so much difficulty – I kept true to it. 

At the time, being vegan was out of the question. It was already such a pain to be only eating fish in a country where even supposedly vegetable dishes have bits of meat in them. I was already depriving myself a lot, I thought. 

Shortly after, I came across Okja and was moved by its message.

Still, I consumed dairy. 

On the Mukas port in Lanao del Norte, I encountered a truck full of pigs. The creatures were inch-deep in blood and their hides were smeared in streaks of angry red. The sea spray mingled with the scent of iron and stool, sticking to my clothes and wet hair. I reeked of slaughterhouse the whole day, and I still thought it fine to have halo-halo with ice cream for dessert. I was bothered by the image of pigs bathing in the blood of their slain kin, themselves on the way to be killed, but not enough to do something about it. 

It was in early 2018 when everything started to come together. I got serious with the zero-waste lifestyle. I’ve always cared about the environment but wasn’t really doing anything significant – at least in my opinion. Sure, I was saying no to straws and refusing plastic bags, but I wanted to do more. I got neck-deep into related literature and activities, and so along with my founding of Ecoheroes, I considered, for the first time, going vegan.

I wanted to practice what I was preaching, slowly starting to make all aspects of my life sustainable. I refrained from buying anything that is single-use. Got a menstrual cup and always carried an Ecoheroes Kit with me. I bring my own containers when I go to the palengke. I wanted less waste in my life, literally and figuratively. That’s when I realized that most packaged foods are (or contain) animal products. I noticed that when I eat plant-based, my plate, when done, is clean. I didn’t have to throw anything out. No bones. No skin. No icky fat.
ecoheroes kit
Ecoheroes Kit aka Zero-waste Starter Kit (Collapsible container, collapsible cup, metal straws)

And so in September 2018, I stopped buying animal products. Trips to the public market became enjoyable and satisfying. This feeling came with the knowledge that everything on my reusable bag is a lot more kinder to the environment – animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change. Everything I was purchasing was biodegradable. Plastic-free. Cheap. Healthy.

I also learned how to cook, became good at it. (And, considering I knew nil about cooking a few years back, this is saying a lot.) Most importantly, my perception of food had completely been redefined.

I now see it for what it is: nourishment. OK, maybe no. 3 still sticks. It’s an expression of love: love for the environment. 

The strange thing is, while I felt that being pesco-vegetarian was tiring and limiting, I find being vegan the easiest thing in the world. It just feels so right and I can’t imagine any other way to live. I think it’s because this isn’t really about me. I am vegan for the environment. I’m obsessed with natural conservation and going plant-based is the most impactful thing I can do considering my present capacity. It requires no legislation or big-scale government and private intervention. It saves me a lot of money to boot. It’s comparatively healthy. It’s the most respectful and responsible lifestyle there is. It all just makes so much sense.
hayahay cafe pancakes
Showing off the Vegan Banana Pancakes of Hayahay Cafe

I look forward to cooking, to every meal. And my portions are big, too, but I stopped worrying about weight. In fact, I became more active and more committed to my workouts eversince becoming vegan. I got into yoga, too, and that helped a lot with my mental health. Now, I see everything through a lens of compassion and respect. I’ve never been happier. I’m at my fittest, healthiest, strongest. My skin is still trash but I feel like this is my best-looking self ever. And oh, every trip to the toilet is divine.

And to tell the truth, being vegan had helped my mental health more than therapy. I feel like I’m more in tune. More me. More worthy of this planet, if you know what I mean. I’m less anxious. Very rarely do I get “bouts”. My mood has greatly improved. And I’m more productive.

I don’t even worry about trips (work or otherwise) anymore. Discovering vegan-friendly places becomes part of the adventure. Preparing baon also is part of the fun. And because those I consider family are good people, I never feel frustrated around them. True, most of them were shocked because, like I said, baboy was life, but they proved to be very supportive. So supportive in fact that they make me cry sometimes. After two weeks of me preparing him packed lunch for work, my husband has declared he's now pesco-vegetarian. My close friends let me decide where to eat when we meet up. They let me cook for them when we go camping. They let me prattle on about veganism and why we must do it, themselves coming to my defense when other people are being assholes. 
vegan trail food
Vegan tortilla wrap as trail food

And sure, being vegan in general – in the Philippines most especially, where people are prone to mock and derail – is not without difficulty, but I guess when you find something bigger than yourself to anchor all that you do on – be it the environment, the animals, the future of humanity – everything gets a lot easier. 

So this is why I am vegan.Why all of us must become vegan I will save for another post. But the bottomline is: It’s not for me. Not for my health. It’s for the environment. The fact that it also respects other forms of life comes as a plus. The fact that I’m healthier is a bonus. 

If you’re reading this and are in love with the natural world as much as I am, please, please, consider going vegan (if not already). Align your actions with your values. Environment over convenience.

It will be the best decision you will ever make. 

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