Tag Archives: Eating

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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Eating With My Hand

Sara at A Little of That Too, as a student of psychology, has been working on a Gori Racial Identity Development Model. Although the exercise is a bit tongue-in-cheek, I think a lot can also ring true in this potential model.

So far her development stages include 1) “Pre-Partnership” (aka “normal”), 2) “Courting South Asia” (aka “omg my eyes are opened to this AMAZING culture!!”), and 3) “Re-immersion” (aka “oh yeah, I used to like that”), with several more steps to follow.

She was looking for some stories, which made me think of something—

When I first started dating P a lot of things were new. Language, food, music, clothing, religion, holidays, points of view. Some of these I embraced right away—curries, spices, cooking—others not so much: have I mentioned my Nepali skills are still pathetic?

One thing that I embraced relatively quickly was eating with my hand– or I should clarify, eating wet foods like curry, rice, daal, etc, with my hand (I guess you can call this phase 2—courting South Asia).

The first summer we were together I was living in an apartment with 3 Nepali guys. We would take turns making dinner, and eat together at the table each night. Not long after moving in one of our Nepali friends took away my fork and insisted that I eat with my hands. “The food tastes much better this way!” he insisted (something I’ve heard again and again). At first it was mostly a joke—pick on C and see if she could eat without making a mess, but eventually it was more about feeling comfortable eating that way, and learning the way that they did it. It wasn’t long before they didn’t have to take the fork away; it was my decision not to use it.

School started and I was back to my old ways of eating at the university cafeteria, but when we would cook in the International House kitchen late at night, I could pull out my “yeah, I’m a white girl, but I can eat with my hand just like you” skill, which felt particularly satisfying when sharing food with other non-Nepalis, like I was “in the club” because I knew the “better way,” the “more authentic way” of eating this type of food. It was the same type of pride I still feel when I get compliments on my momo wrapping skills.

The second summer we were back in an apartment—3 Nepali guys and I, sharing the cooking duties and eating with our hands. That spring P’s dad had come for his graduation and he stayed with us a few nights at the apartment before traveling to visit other relatives. When we all sat together to eat, P’s dad asked one of the boys to get me a spoon, but P explained that I knew how to eat with my hand—again a source of pride, my skill had been unexpected. This would come back to haunt me my first night in Nepal, when nerves made me eat so slowly with my hand that I was demoted to a spoon.

Not such a flattering picture of P, eating daal-bhat with his hand at a Phakding guest house during our Solukhumbu trek in 2009

The semester after that summer I studied in India, and felt like a rockstar when I was able to show off my hand eating skills the first few days we were in Delhi to my American colleagues. They wanted me to show them “the right way” to do it so that they would also look competent and “in the know” when staying with local families and eating dinner. In a silly way it made me feel more “cultured” and more prepared, like I had an extra “in” with South Asia.

At some point after I returned from the trip and after being demoted to a spoon in Nepal, I just stopped doing it. I don’t remember when, or why, it just lost its appeal. I didn’t like that the turmeric tinged my finger nails yellow and that my hands would smell more strongly of onions and garlic even after washing them. It was like all of a sudden I didn’t have to prove that part of my “in-ness” with people any more, and it allowed me to “see” that I didn’t really want to eat with  my hands all the time. Where I once enthusiastically dug in fingers first at home with P, I now grab a fork or spoon.

It’s not that I stopped eating with my hands entirely—I’m still a voracious momo eater with my hands, but I just don’t feel I have to anymore. Even in Nepal, I often ate with a spoon during our visit in 2009, unless I was visiting another family’s house, in which “American eating with her hand” was a surprise revelation.  So I guess that means I’ve transitioned in this regard to phase 3—Re-Integration to my fork using world.