09/02/2014 02:37 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Vegetarianism and a Clash of Cultures

This past summer, a few weeks before my nineteenth birthday, I became a vegetarian. It was an abrupt transition - one day, I just decided to stop eating meat. I was taking a philosophy course, you see, and I was reading Peter Singer and other such philosophers, and I arrived at the conclusion that I couldn't justify causing unnecessary suffering. It is unnecessary, after all - we live in a day and age where it is no longer necessary to eat meat to survive.

That is a sentence straight out of the paper I wrote for my class.

But this isn't a treatise on vegetarianism. Before I go any further, though, let me explain the caveat in my argument, and that is the word "unnecessary." I have now gone without meat for over a month, and I'm doing surprisingly okay. But this is a luxury that I can afford because of where I come from and where I go to school. After all, my family is solidly middle class, and I go to Duke.

My parents, on the other hand, did not have this luxury. Sure, they didn't eat meat very often growing up, but that was for wholly other reasons. You see, they both grew up in rural villages in China, where the poverty line didn't exist but if it did, they would have been far below it. They survived off of what they could. And now, here I am, refusing to eat meat on a moral basis, off this philosophical idea of harm and suffering, and they are bewildered. To be honest, I am bewildered too.

I have not met any Chinese vegetarians. That's not to say there aren't any - I don't claim that I am the only one, or, even if I am one of few, that it makes me "special," or "better" - I'm just saying that when my family took me out to eat at a restaurant in Chinatown the first night I got back, my mother called in advance to make sure there were vegetarian options and I felt my face burn with shame.

I don't know what I'm going to do when I visit my extended family in China. I was there this summer, before I became a vegetarian, and I stayed at my grandparents' house and my grandmother bought fish and told me with pride that most people don't buy this kind of fish because it's too expensive, and she would ask me every day what I wanted to eat and cook far too much for just the three of us to finish. And, of course, she would tell me that I wasn't eating enough, and select the best pieces of fish or chicken or beef with her chopsticks and put them on my plate.

My dad is the only one of her children to have gone to America, and I do not see my grandparents as often as I would like and when I am there, they lavish me with attention and now, I can't think of going back without feeling a flash of shame, because when I return I will have to tell them I don't eat meat, and I don't know if I can.

I'm embarrassed of it - not around my peers, my fellow Americans, but I am humiliated at the thought of explaining my vegetarianism to my aunts and uncles, my cousins and my grandparents and all of the relatives that beam with pride when I go back to China, happy that I am going to a good school in America and confident that I will bring honor to our family.

Because this vegetarianism? It's dishonorable, almost. It's a denial of my culture, my heritage, and it feels like a mockery of my parents' childhoods, my family's past. It's the ultimate affirmation of my middle-class status, of a life that has been far too easy, and I can't help but think that I am throwing in my parents' face the struggles they went through to come to America and to give me a better life. When they were my age, they were working in the fields and walking miles to school each morning, and they could barely get by on the food they had. And here I am, turning down what they couldn't have, just for the principle of it.