Going vegan was never an easy decision. Since middle school I had always thought about going vegetarian or vegan because of my absolute love for animals, but it was not until college that I really put my values into action. Being away from home allowed me to stop and think about my family’s long history of obesity and heart problems. My family grew up very poor and we did not have access to nutritious meals, so we depended on greasy and high-fat foods. In an attempt to unpack this history and understand the community conditions of the Hmong people, I made the decision to devote my life to veganism. While embarking on this journey, I have encountered cultural challenges for being Hmong and vegan, the horrors of the food industry, and myths about a vegan lifestyle.
CULTURAL CHALLENGES OF VEGANISM
As a UCLA student who identifies as Hmong first and vegan second, it is very important to me to preserve my cultural identity while also abstaining from nonvegan cultural foods, even if they have sentimental value and meaning to me. When I went home to Madison, Wisconsin, for winter break, my whole family criticized me for refusing to eat any of the foods that they usually cooked: beef pho, pork eggrolls, chicken curry, Hmong sausage, BBQ ribs, and shrimp spring rolls. Though it may have at first seemed arrogant for me to cook my own vegan meals at home, I found the words to explain to my family that being vegan did not have to do with some resentment of my Hmong identity. Being vegan is merely a conscious effort and personal pledge to resist the American food industry’s unethical treatment of animals—including the practices of dairy industry—and emphasis on profit over public health. My parents began to understand why I chose to go vegan when I shed light on the diet-related health issues in the Hmong American community. As 26 percent of its people live below the poverty line and the incidences of cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, and gout are high, the community faces many health challenges. One of the best ways to combat them is to introduce people to a healthy, well-planned vegan diet! But first, let’s tackle some of the common stereotypes surrounding veganism.
MYTHS ABOUT VEGANISM—BUSTED
- Veganism is too expensive.
Things got serious when I stepped into Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s for the first time. A brand-new world of veganism, healthy eating, and fresh produce greeted me at the door. I walked around and explored all the great vegan foods that I had been missing my whole life: vegan versions of mayonnaise, kimchi, cheese, baked goods, and frozen dinners as well as new (to me) foods like nutritional yeast. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s taught me that going vegan does not mean going broke. All I had to do was pick the right recipes for myself (foods that I thought would taste good) and buy the ingredients! I was lucky enough at that time to receive a vegan cookbook called Thug Kitchen 101, which contains hundreds of vegan recipes that I could choose from. My groceries usually cost up to $50 per week, which is roughly the same as when I was not vegan. Vegan products may be a little more expensive, but they last longer! Taking advantage of the farmers’ markets on Bruin Plaza or Westwood will save you lots of money. Budgeting for a vegan lifestyle really depends on what you choose to cook and eat, but in any case, a vegan meal plan can easily accommodate a budget of about $50 per week.
- Vegan food tastes weird.
I must admit, vegan food does taste weird—but in a good way! “Weird” is a relative term based on your taste buds. I love that vegan foods taste different. Vegan versions of chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, fish, etc., are extremely delicious but naturally can take some getting used to, as with anything new. After eating these vegan proteins, I don’t feel heavy or overly full. They make me feel healthy and satisfied. One of my favorite restaurants is Vegan Glory, which has (in my opinion) the best vegan beef pad Thai. I’ve taken many nonvegan friends there and have heard only positive reviews! I will probably never be able to replicate that dish in my home kitchen, but it is definitely a goal of mine!
- It’s hard to find vegan food.
At first, I thought vegan food would be hard to find, but that is absolutely not the case. All it takes is a few minutes of googling. Los Angeles is home to a very diverse choice of vegan restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets. A vegan lifestyle may require a little more label-reading or a little more googling, but it is so worth it. I like to think of it as a treasure hunt for vegan meals. There are also many vegan recipes available online for free, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s stores are plentiful in L.A., and restaurants make vegan versions of a wide variety of cultural foods, such as Ethiopian, Italian, Asian—including Thai—and many more.
- It’s difficult to eat out with nonvegan friends.
Not really. Choosing where to eat with nonvegan friends can be challenging—say goodbye to McDonald’s, all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ, and the traditional bowl of beef pho—but it’s doable! Because there are vegan versions of nearly everything nearly everywhere. Rather than making things complicated, try just asking friends to go to a vegan restaurant with you. Instead of McDonald’s, try Veggie Grill. Instead of beef pho, visit Thank U Pho, where both vegan and meat options are available. Also, if you ask your server if anything on the menu is vegan-friendly or can be made vegan, you will often be richly rewarded!
BEING VEGAN NOW
I have never felt better in my life. My emotional, physical, and mental well-being are excellent. If I get sick––which I rarely do––I recover quickly. When I exercise, I see rapid results. I do not feel heavy. My skin feels smoother. When elders in the Hmong community approach me about my “disrespectful” ways at the dinner table when I refuse to eat meat, it gives me the opportunity to bring up the subject of diet-related health conditions in our community and describe my personal efforts to inform people about combatting these problems with vegan foods, which they appreciate. Veganism has helped me gain control of my life, and I cannot think of a better way to take care of my own body while also helping to tackle my community’s health conditions as well.
Johnnie Yaj is a 3rd year World Arts and Cultures major and a Visual and Performing Arts minor at UCLA.