It's been months since my last outing sans stroller, and I am delighted to be perusing a non-laminated, non-sticky menu at a "grown-up" restaurant. I skim through it quickly, looking for the small carrot image that will be printed near the entree I will be eating this evening. There's one. It looks like I'll be having mushroom pot pie tonight. Not bad, I think to myself.
Most people are faced with dozens of food choices when they go out, which might make the decision-making process confusing. Not me. Most restaurants have a menu with no more than two or three carrot-marked entrees. I don't find the lack of choice frustrating or bothersome at all -- but that's probably because I know of nothing else. I have been a vegetarian my entire life.
When I tell people I am a vegetarian, they are often surprised, in awe, or just confused. Regardless of the emotion, the response is always amusing. "You don't eat ANY meat? Then what do you eat?" is one that I hear far too often. I always explain how lucky I am to have been born in an Indian household where the vegetarian options are so numerous, you could have a different vegetarian meal every day of the year.
The challenge exists only when I step out of the house. That has always been the case.
My hair is tied back in a tight ponytail. I fix my skirt, and make sure my shirt is tucked in.
I love being a school prefect. I wear my badge proudly. Sometimes I wear it at the grocery store, too. I'm the youngest prefect in my school, and I am honored by this fact. It's Pizza Day today, which means I am going class-to-class handing out pizza.
Morning gym class and math olympics have left my mind and body exhausted as well as my stomach grumbling. I finish up my deliveries and rush back to my third grade homeroom to devour my own lunch. The lunch supervisor hands me a pepperoni slice.
"No. I ordered cheese. I always order cheese." I speak with conviction, but wary not to be disrespectful.
"Sorry," she says. "We're all out." She picks off the pepperoni with her bare fingers, and hands me the slice.
I eat it. The slice is meatless, but I can still smell the pepperoni. I am distracted all afternoon, and rush out of the building as soon as I hear the bell. My walk home is quiet and slow. As I finally arrive at my doorstep, I start sobbing uncontrollably. My eyes search through the waves of tears for my mother's eyes. Only she will understand.
As an adult, I am eager to explain the reason behind my vegetarianism. It is not because of cultural or religious reasons, as others often presume based on the color of my skin. I am not another person to jump on the veggie bandwagon because it is the fad of the month. No, I am a vegetarian for moral reasons. I do not think it is right to eat animals. That's all there is to it.
I have felt this way as long as I can remember. However, even as an outspoken child, I did not have the courage to speak up about it like I do now. Instead, when my 6-year-old brother shoved a chicken nugget in my mouth, I made quite the dramatic scene in McDonald's. Through the screams and tears, I even managed to send him on a guilt trip with a detailed story about how the nugget was probably the mother of the cute little chicks we were taking care of in our kindergarten class that year.
So when we began to think about my son's upbringing, the decision to raise him vegetarian was an easy one. For me.
I know I have my work cut out for me. I know the dreaded day will come when he will want to try something from his father's meat-filled plate. I know I will have to hear other parents question whether vegetarianism is healthy for a child, or why I am imposing my own dietary choices on my child. I know the day will come when I will be the one opening the front door to find my little boy drowning in his own tears, and I will witness my heart shatter in front of my very eyes as I realize that even a mother's heartfelt prayers and tight embrace will not shield him from this world.
The challenges I will face, the words I will hear, the heartbreak I will experience -- they will all make me question my decision.
Only for a second.
But then, I will realize that all parents dedicate their lives to teaching their children what they believe are good values and morals. Parents are always telling their children, "Don't lie. Be kind. Respect your elders." So if my set of values includes "Be kind to animals," why shouldn't I share this with my son?
Like all parents, I will do my part to share my beliefs. I will show him where his food comes from because it is my responsibility to arm him with the power of knowledge. The intent is to give him opportunities to experience healthy and delicious vegetarian meals so he realizes that living a meatless life is not impossible. As he grows older, I hope that he will think critically about his food and understand that even dietary choices are moral decisions, and not simply made for health reasons or reasons of convenience.
When that dreaded day does come and he asks to try a chicken nugget, I know I have no choice but to oblige. In the end, we hope to raise a child who will form his own sense of morals and values that resonate strongly with him. They may match mine, or they may not.
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