April 26, 2016

The Dilemma of the Vegetarian Traveller: Should our Diets Adapt to the Local Culture?

Sometimes as vegetarian travellers we find that our fellow travellers don’t approve of our choices.

Every so often a fellow traveller insists that we should forget our principles temporarily in order to get the most “authentic” travel experience, or that we should forego our lifestyle in order to not offend anyone.

In my experience, I have actually felt more pressured by people staying in the same hostel as me than local people to explain my life choices.

Do any of these sound familiar?

“Rejecting local food is culturally insensitive.”

“You have to adapt to the local culture.”

“Why can’t you just eat meat while on the road?”

This is an opinion shared by many people I have met during my travels, but there are a few problems with such statements and questions that I think we should reflect upon.

Saying that vegetarians are culturally insensitive for practising our beliefs in another country implies the assumption that the culture we are going to should be treated differently to the culture we are coming from. I would argue that it is actually more culturally insensitive to assume that the people we meet in other countries won’t understand that there are different people in the world with different beliefs.

If I were in the United Kingdom—my country of origin—I wouldn’t worry about my offending my host by explaining that I am vegetarian before going to a dinner party. Sometimes people express their disapproval, but generally people are more than happy to provide vegetarian food.

Why should I assume my host in another country would be any less accommodating?

I have travelled far and wide, and everyone has been hospitable and understanding when it comes to vegetarianism.

Sometimes people are confused as it isn’t something they have already encountered, but once they understand, everyone has tried their best to meet my needs. In infamously carnivorous Kazakhstan people did their best to feed me. The world is fast becoming an easier place for vegans and vegetarians. Even Mongolia now has numerous vegetarian restaurants.

Other countries in Central Asia such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan don’t have quite as many options, but it is still quite possible to be vegetarian—and, as far as I am aware, I am yet to offend anyone with my dietary requirements.

Referring to the local culture when arguing against taking our vegetarian diets travelling with us also alienates vegetarians who exist in whichever country we are in.

There are vegetarians everywhere. It’s not an exclusively Western way of life.

Ironically a fellow traveller in China told me “you have to adapt to the culture and eat the local food”. But in countries such as China and Japan there are also Buddhists who practice vegetarianism, in accordance with the principle of harmlessness. Telling someone that the only way to live the “authentic experience” is to suggest that local people who adhere to vegetarianism are somehow inauthentic.

If we’re going to be so strict about adhering to common cultural practices wherever we go in order to be culturally sensitive, then where do we draw the line? What if we were to travel to a country where slavery is acceptable? Should we temporarily let go our principles and participate in such a practice so as not to offend the local people? I’m not saying that this is exactly the same, but dropping the principles we felt passionately enough about to adopt in the first place just because we’re travelling seems pretty hypocritical and nonsensical to me.

If it were a different moral issue at stake, I’m sure people I have met during my travels who’ve expressed disapproval at my life choices would say that we should stick to our principles.

If we have to risk being “culturally insensitive” for what is in our mind a utilitarian purpose, then I say so be it. However I have found that most people in the world are more open minded than we might believe them to be.


Relephant read:

5 Reasons to be a Vegetarian Traveler Now!


Author: Elizabeth Cool

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Image: Aaron Burden/ Unsplash


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Elizabeth Cool