Earth to Belle: Open Letter to Friends and Family

Belle Zhao

“So if you ever plan to take me out on a date, don’t worry about what I can and can’t eat. I can eat anything anyone can, and I’ll just omit the meat.”

I have a confession.

It was my friend’s birthday a few days ago, and I was so excited to spend the day with her. She had a tough year, and a great birthday was just the thing she needed. The day before we were to meet, she called me apologizing and telling me that she didn’t know where we could go out to eat because she knew I was vegan.

This bothered me. It was her birthday, so why was she stressing about me? The day was supposed to be all about her, and here I was stealing the attention without even meaning to. I feel like this happens all too often. I seem to always feel like a giant inconvenience to people. Sometimes people think that I can only go to strictly vegan restaurants because the presence of meat would be insulting to me. I understand that my friends are coming from a kind place when they are worried and concerned about my vegan lifestyle and I really appreciate their thoughtfulness. I feel so blessed to have such caring friends.

But also… don’t worry about me! As long as we’re not going to a strictly steak festival, or rib convention, I think I’ll manage.

This burden I feel when I’m with my friends has always stuck with me. I used to feel the need to apologize for my dietary choices, and over time, I started to almost feel guilty.

But I have a confession.

And before I explain, let’s clear the air on what veganism even is…

“The word “vegan” was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson of the Vegan Society of the UK. This definition states: Veganism is a way of living that seeks to exclude, as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing and any other purpose.”

There is more to this vegan lifestyle than expensive food and the stereotypes that come with the pretentious title. For me, to fit into my own personal set of values, I identify as a label-free vegan. I stick to excluding animal products out of my lifestyle when I can, but when it’s impossible, it’s truly impossible, and that’s okay. I’m not going to beat myself up because when it comes to sticky situations, I’ll be fine eating vegetarian. It isn’t worth it to make a fuss over something I don’t necessarily have control of because there is so much more to life than food. So I’ll live. I’ll survive. I’ll be okay.

“When the term “vegan” was coined, times were different, and animal products weren’t in almost everything. You could eliminate all animal products and still live a relatively normal life. Nowadays you’d have to eliminate the use of phones, books, computers, cars, bicycles, planes, etc. (all of which contain some elements of animal products) to be “vegan” by the original definition. So, since I’m assuming you’re not willing to do that, you’ll have to define your own version of veganism, and live your life accordingly.”

-Fred Fishman

Originally, I felt like explaining my label-free diet would almost make people think I’m unqualified to discuss veganism. I was hesitant to disclose this personal part of me with readers on the internet, but I feel like label-free veganism is worth speaking about. I also felt like the concept of being label-free might be hard to understand because of how personal veganism is to me. But I’ve come to realize that the first step to acceptance is starting a dialogue. So I’d like to share my take on veganism with you all.

And the thing is, since I’ve gone label-free, that’s exactly how I felt: free. Because my diet doesn’t need a label, and neither do I. I’m passionate about veganism and what it represents, which extends far beyond food. But in reality, I won’t always be put in situations where dairy and eggs are 100% avoidable. For example, I went on a study abroad trip to rural Thailand last summer. It was easily my most memorable summer yet, and I still look at the photos I took during that trip from time to time and reminisce. I made amazing friends (shoutout to the bf crew) and memories just as great. But one of the more striking issues I experienced was when I stayed with different homestay families throughout the trip. And again, we were in rural Thailand. To be vegetarian alone is unheard of in these communities, and I didn’t want to inconvenience my host family even more than I probably already was. But then I realized that even being able to make a choice on what kind of lifestyle I want to live in the first place is a very first-world problem; it’s a first-world luxury that I’ve begun to call normal. I’m not saying that veganism is bad. I still do strongly believe that it’s incredibly important to consider the ethics of what you’re eating and wearing. And I do think that society would be better off swapping out cruel farming practices for non-factory farming alternatives. I agree that discussions about the impact that animal agriculture has on animals and the environment need to be popularized. But I do also think that supporting your cause also calls for self-awareness and respect. I could be complaining about my food not being organic while there are people who don’t have food in the first place. I acknowledge my privilege and I understand that it truly is remarkable. But life is also remarkable, and that’s why I want to lead a lifestyle that allows me to savor each and every moment, without having to worry about the small details that distract from the greater experience. After all, I wasn’t studying in Thailand for the food, but I flew across the globe for the country itself, because the life I’m living isn’t just about food. I still eat primarily plant-based food while focusing on living a balanced life, promoting wellness, and trying to save as many factory farm animals as I can, but my life doesn’t revolve around what I eat, so I stopped treating it like it did.

Just like how when I hung out with my friend on her birthday, I was there for her. Food was secondary. I can eat as I please when I cook at home, but I don’t always have the opportunity to spend time with my friends. When I’m with you, I’m there for you, not the food. Sometimes in life, we have to make sacrifices, we have to prioritize, but in the end it’s all worth it.

So if you ever plan to take me out on a date, don’t worry about what I can and can’t eat. I can eat anything anyone else can, and I’ll just omit the meat. But what you should worry about is your bad breath. Just kidding.

Happy belated birthday, Janice.