Being a vegetarian is a fulfilling and life-changing experience. It causes you to re-examine your life and to reorient yourself around your most basic understandings. You begin to develop ideas and the world feels like it is much clearer. You feel in control of your life, but largely detached from everyone who does not share your beliefs. Albeit everyone who has ventured down this fruitful path has their own distinct experiences to call their own, that is at least what it felt like for me.
To preface this attempt at solidifying my thoughts, I must admit I have had something that I would call a looming identity crisis. After graduating university, you realize the scam that that ritzy piece of paper holds. The whole system is a nexus of conflicting ideas and the promise you have been expecting falls up short. You believe you will get a prestigious job after university and you are too confident in yourself to really put the extra effort forth. Then you realize it was more about the experience you gained and the people you met. Four years later, you realize you are back at square one. Throw an upheaval on your diet and lifestyle, and everything seems like a convoluted mess.
Then I found the elixir of independent travel. I am currently teaching English in Pohang, South Korea, a fishing town that is nationally considered rather small (though bulging with life to my small-town eyes). I found myself debating if I really needed to be so stringent on my beliefs. Do I need to keep eating so strict? The challenge to stay fully vegetarian has proved to be near impossible, as language barriers cut you off with even the most basic of conversations. To ask for no meat or fish seems like a joke to Koreans, as their livelihood has traditionally always been based on animal products. I began eating some fish in an attempt to stay healthy and to find some sort of balance in this atmosphere of miscommunication. When I started to feel comfortable, I visited Pohang’s Jukdo Market.
For those that have the luxury of visiting a foreign country, the ability to experience their food markets is arguably the most essential activity for a conflicted vegetarian. I say this from personal experience, as no vegetarian has exactly the same world views and daily workings. I found so many excuses to reason with myself that eating fish was somehow alright. However, a thick cloud of burgeoning guilt continued to loom above me, slowly suffocating me of all my senses of reason.
I suppose I was naïve to think that I would enjoy visiting a fish market, as it has been rated as one of the best sites to see in Pohang. What did I really expect? Likely fish swimming in massive tanks, happily wandering until their time was up. It was nothing like this. They were not like markets at home—and how could I expect them to be? It is an entirely different culture with vastly opposing views about animal cruelty and rights. What I saw were rows and rows of fish clamouring on top of one another, gasping for oxygen though the flat air gave nothing back. They were suffocating, I could feel it. My heart was thrashing in my chest and all I could think about was how to deal with this violent sensory overload. There were pungent smells and intense chatters of foreign tongue that filled the air. I had to carefully watch my feet from stepping on fish entrails that strayed from the dumping bucket. I felt waves of nausea rush over me, making my skin sticky and dense. I had to be reminded by my friends that this is what a Korean fisherman’s life is like, their entire existence; I could not look so visibly disgusted. But what else should I have done? I snapped into what I could only describe as a survival mode, I just had to make it through to the other side. It felt like I was crossing a battlefield.
The saddest sight of all was the gentle giant octopuses, squished into half-foot bins barely lined with water. Their laboured breaths swished the water in thrashing waves in the bucket, they just wanted to live. Interested customers asked for a closer look and the seller nonchalantly picked up the octopus by the legs, splaying him out for all to see. I just looked into his eyes and I was overcome by an intense connection with a creature that I could not communicate with, at least orally. Staring into his soulful eyes I realized how important this experience was for me.
I somehow convinced myself that eating fish was not the same as eating other creatures, as they could not feel. I forced myself to believe that I was making the right choice and that it was a natural decision for someone who moved to a land of fish and meat products. I had to be a little lenient, I told myself. I was feeling conflicted and unsure of what was right and wrong. In a country where you are largely left to eat rice and salted seaweed, affordable nutrients are hard to come by, unless you have an open pocket with money willing to be spent on $20 watermelons. As much as I felt disoriented and disgusted by what I saw, I knew I was meant to experience that market. It pushed me to realize how much I do connect to my original beliefs and that my core values are still resonant within me. Even with being as far away from home as possible, my ethics were still deeply embedded. It was an incredibly enlightening experience. For anyone with similar confusions as myself, try to embark on a journey such as this to test your moral fibers; you just might learn something.
Everyone experiences life and deals with its curveballs, knowing that each bump has a lesson to teach. Listen to the silent stories that these inconveniences tell. Decipher what they mean, and if you can do that, you will eventually uncover the very truth about who you are. It takes a lifetime of learning and living. Dorothy would not be Dorothy without her experience in Oz. You will not be you without your own story of growth and enlightenment. Pay attention to each passing second as they hold each and every secret. Realize that you will never stay square in the past, even if you wanted to. Life moves on and so should you. The questions are all bare but the secrets are hidden in the tiny random caveats of everyday life. Become the master of reading between the lines to reveal all of life’s secrets… if you attain that before your years of wisdom, let me know how you got there!
Images Courtesy of Emily Major