Cultural differences can be a huge barrier for vegetarians. The issue isn’t just being able to get hold of enjoyable food, its enjoying the meaningful cultural exchange which is one of the major draws of travel. One thing that is universal across the globe is human beings sharing food together to bond and relate; which has the potential to be more awkward than special for the wondering vegetarian.
Here are my top tips on how to face this challenge:
Rule No. 1:
Put the firebrand down, especially in poorer countries. Chances are most people in countries where vegetarianism is rare will have one of two reactions to you; curiosity or (more likely) they’ll think you’re soft in the head. Getting your soapbox out and preaching will not change this opinion. Imagine if a stranger came into your home or your work and started ranting at you that you shouldn’t eat carrots and eating carrots is morally wrong, in a foreign language to boot. That sounds like a stupid comparison, but to a lot of people, the idea that there is a moral issue with eating meat is as ridiculous as with eating carrots. You'll do yourself no favours if you don't acknowledge that. You won’t change their mind, but you will miss out on building relationships and meaningful cultural exchange if you keep going on about it, so pick your battles.
You might think to yourself, well who would actually do that? You’d be surprised. I once witnessed a girl berating a waiter, who earned the equivalent of sixty pence a day and had a family to feed, on his ethics, as he didn’t know whether the eggs in his restaurant were free range. The mind boggles.
Rule No. 2:
Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself. Your reasons for being a vegetarian are serious and the issues are important, but don’t be afraid to accept that some cultures just are not going to get it. Laugh at yourself with them. It won’t stop people thinking you’re odd, but it will stop people thinking you’re a stuck-up bitch who thinks she’s too good for their food. Flirt, buy them a beer, show yourself to be a decent person and they’ll look past the fact you’re really weird.
Remember; people aren’t mean and they’re not being rude if they don’t understand. Manners are relative. In Britain being different is usually celebrated, but this is not the case in a lot of countries. Explain that in Britain it is quite common and only give them the reasons why if they express an interest (see Rule 1). Don’t get bored and irritable with explaining it lots and always answering the same questions. Look at is as fine-tuning your argument. I never met a vegetarian that couldn't give a great argument, partly because they've been forced to justify themself every week for years. If someone's really persistent in asking you to try something, just say that you haven't eaten meat in so long that it would make you unwell.
Rule No. 3:
Tell people as early as possible. The issue lots of vegetarians are most concerned about is not actually to do with what they eat; it's about what to do in a situation where somebody kind and generous has made them a meal with meat in it. I can't tell you what the right answer is in that situation, you need to work out what right is for you. Personally I would probably try to pick round the meat if possible and explain. What I can say is that prevention is better than cure and despite travelling the world and staying with different families I have always made sure I don't find myself in that situation in the first place.
Tell people straight away. You don't have to make a big deal about it; you're not standing up at Alcoholics Anonymous or coming out of the closet, just slip it in to the conversation as soon as food is mentioned or people start to make plans about what they want to do later .
It goes without saying that if you’re organising any kind of couch-surfing, wwoofing or something that involves staying in someone’s home, you tell them as far in advance as possible. If someone just randomly says “hey, would you like to stay with me and my family tonight?” go for it, but say straight away “that sounds fantastic thank-you. Don’t worry about cooking for me though, I’m a vegetarian and I don’t want to be a nuisance for you.” In my experience people will always still cook for you anyway.