Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

After pulling out my dusty India journal for the last post, I couldn’t help but skim through a lot of other entries, and I found another story that might be amusing…

By now most of you know that I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs and dairy, but no fish or other meats, and I’ve been consistent with this for nearly fifteen years.

When I traveled to India, we had 20 people on our program, with more than half (perhaps more like 3/4) of us vegetarian. It was the first time in my life I was in a group where the veggies were in the majority. It was also the first time I was in a place where I could walk into any restaurant and be guaranteed several vegetarian meal choices, or could have my choice of several completely vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance. It was both liberating and overwhelming.

Making the food transition was one of the hardest parts of returning to the US at the completion of the program. I really missed the South Asian ease of finding vegetarian food (looking for grocery products with a green dot on the packaging to ensure it was animal product free), and was sad to see my restaurant choices relatively limited once again.

Since our student group had a veggie majority, the few meat eaters were suddenly finding themselves in the uncharted territory of feeling similar to how vegetarians sometimes feel in the not-always-vegetarian-friendly US. When our program cohort went out to dinner we would order more vegetarian dishes to share than meat dishes, and the meat eaters had fewer options. Sometimes only vegetarian food was ordered, since the meat eaters liked the veggie dishes too.

Yet transitioning from eating meat every day to once in a while was too much for one student.

I’m going to call him “Bob.”

One night at dinner, about 2-3 weeks into our program, Bob started grumbling loudly. He claimed that he was being discriminated against by the group, that “it wasn’t fair,” and that his “meat-eating rights shouldn’t be trodden upon.”

Now, I get that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with, but no one was forcing him to give up meat. It was just on occasions when the whole group had dinner together that it was easier to order more/all vegetarian meals. Plus Bob liked the vegetarian dishes too, so it wasn’t like we were forcing him to eat something he didn’t like.

But the student continued to insist that he was being discriminated against, and that eating all these vegetables was actually making him sick.

So let me back up more, and tell you a little something extra about Bob.

Before departing for India the members of our student group were given a list of recommended shots for the program– stuff like Hepatitis, Polio, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis. I had received Hep, Polio, Typhoid and Yellow Fever immunizations for my Africa trips, and not wanting extra needle jabs if I didn’t absolutely need them, I figured I’d be okay without the Japanese Encephalitis. I think it was optional for where we were going anyway.

Bob intended to get the Japanese Encephalitis shot, but I think he ran out of time before the program was supposed to begin, so he purchased the vaccine from a pharmacy in the US and brought it on the plane with him from New York to Delhi. His thinking was that once he got to Delhi he would find a nurse, or some other qualified medical technician, who could administer the shot.

However the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, like I think most vaccines, needs to be kept refrigerated so that the contents of the vaccine don’t spoil (or whatever it is that happens to pharmaceuticals when they are no longer in their proper state).

So here Bob is, on a plane, with a white paper pharmacy bag, containing a vial of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, for about 30 hours. That vial had warmed to room temperature long before we reached the hot and humid streets of mid-August Delhi.

After a day or two of orientation, Bob went in search of a medical professional, and carted that same white pharmacy bag around steamy Delhi for another 2 days before he found someone to stick the warm Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in his arm.

And surprise, surprise… by evening Bob was laid up in bed sicker than a dog. Pasty and pale, diarrhea and sweating. He was in bed for three or four straight days.

Now most of us assumed that Bob was probably suffering from a combination of Delhi Belly and a reaction to the stale Japanese Encephalitis shot that he had been carrying around, un-refrigerated, for days.

But not Bob. He was pretty sure his sickness stemmed from eating vegetarian. What could be worse than eating lots of vegetables?

Right when Bob started feeling better, his first destination out of his room was to a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have the American chain Subway in urban India) not too far from our hostel. He ate a sandwich stacked with three different kinds of meat. He felt better later in the evening, and much better the following day.

Bob attributed his miraculous recovery to the amazing power of meat. This only reinforced his original idea that he had gotten sick because for a week he was “forced” to eat so many vegetarian dishes.

Even as an undergraduate I had my international educator’s hat on. This was the excerpt from my journal:

After several vocal comments at dinner last night I pulled [Bob] aside and said that study abroad is about pushing your boundaries and being outside your comfort zone. I told him that he should take this as a learning opportunity about how other people may feel in the United States when roles are reversed. Often times, as a vegetarian, you have fewer meal options, you have to eat something you might not necessarily want, or you might have to do without. It can be very frustrating. I told him that for the first time, many students are able to go to a restaurant here and pick anything they want off of a menu without being worried about what could be in the dish, and that feeling is new and liberating for us. I told him that we don’t want him to “convert” but that we ask that he be more flexible and understand that it might be harder, because it is often harder for us in the US, and it is good to see the reverse side of an issue.

Sadly, Bob didn’t take my heart-to-heart truly to heart, and spent a majority of his remaining time in India hunting down US fast food chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. When we were stationed in Jaipur for six weeks he would have Domino’s Pizzas delivered to his host family’s house each night–I worry what that family’s impression of American students was after his stay!

So the moral of the story is… refrigerate Japanese Encephalitis vaccines and eat more vegetables!

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6 responses to “Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

  1. My husband was in India for his studies. He loves meat so imagine his nightmare when he realised that his Hostel mess didn’t serve any meat, not even eggs. He said they would travel half an hour couple of times of week to eat non veg meal.

    I love vegetarian food and was vegetarian for 5 years before I came to Australia. I love Indian vegetarian meals. They tastes so yummy that you don’t have urge to find meat.

    • americanepali

      I think a lot of westerners assume that South Asians are vegetarian… but 95% of the Nepalis I know are voracious meat lovers ;) In our group of friends in the city we live in there are several Nepalis, myself and an Irish guy… all the Nepalis eat meat, and it’s just us two “whities” that eat vegetarian, so we buck the stereotype! (actually in the past few months we started hanging out with 4 new Americans who recently moved to town and 3 out of the 4 are also vegetarian, so the trend continues!)

      When P and I sit together on long flights I always arrange with the airline company for vegetarian meals ahead of time. When the air hostesses bring the meals out they always ask P first, “Are you C? Did you order a vegetarian meal?” assuming the Asian guy must have ordered it. He always points at me and says, “Nope… that’s for her. I’ll take the chicken!”

  2. My mom’s vegetarian so she really liked going out to eat in India–great tasting vegetarian food and lots of options! However, Bob may have been correct–even cooked cabbage in Delhi (and the rest of North India) can have parasitic eggs which ends up with the larvae travelling all the way up to the brain.
    I live in India at the moment and eat either chicken or fish for two meals a day (granted I only go to Spencers which is much like any grocery store in North America).

  3. Many of the students on my study abroad program also thought that everyone in Nepal would be vegetarian. They were in for a big surprise! Like you mentioned, one great thing about South Asia is that people “get” vegetarians, unlike my family in the US. I’ve been trying to eat less meat lately, and my mom is totally freaked about it. :(

  4. Most of the travelers, who get food related sickness while visiting new places, is because of their lack of flexibility in eating food. This is particularly true while visiting poor countries. For example, while visiting Nepal, I should be more careful about which place I will eat cheese from, whereas I can be less careful about eating lentils. The foods that are common to a particular place are usually common for some reason that has to do with the climate, infrastructure, demographics etc., and some travelers don’t realize that.

    Also, I’ve noticed that some people have this wrong notion that vegetarian food are not nutritious. It may be because in the west there is not much trend of eating variety of vegetarian food (not that they are not completely available). I used to have a vegetarian American friend, who was far from being healthy because all that her diet contained was baked potatoes, sour cream, pastries, pastas – basically only carb. Anyway, your post is great, and I wish people were open to eating more vegetarian dishes.

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