Sunday, August 15, 2010

Vegetarianism vs. Nihilism: Guess Which Prevails

I'm a vegetarian.  I don't eat meat because I think doing so is morally objectionable for several reasons which aren't worth getting into here.  When I went veggie however many years ago, I understood there would be times when I would have no choice but to skip a meal or eat around a pile of meat if I wanted to uphold my principles.  I accepted responsibility for feeding myself.  Principles have costs; if you aren't willing to bear the costs, you can't have the principles.  I've paid my dues whenever the need arose:  during my month in China, the staple of every meal was meat but I steadfastly refused it all, no matter the social awkwardness, and got by with the help of rice.  I planned to do the same in Korea. 

Let me set the scene for you.  I was at my hotel and had just showered and shaved after something like 40 hours on the road.  I was hungry.  For provisions I had 3 granola bars and a roll I retained from my last airline meal.  I went to the restaurant in the hotel and discovered it wouldn't be serving food for the next 6 hours.  Okay, so my options were a brunch of granola bar and roll or an expedition to find other food nearby.  I'd already combed the area and knew the lay of the land as far as eateries went.  There are two restaurants across the street from the hotel, and about 2 miles away (yep, walked pretty far on the last expedition) is a convenience store which could supply me with Korean junk food.

I knew I could handle the junk food transaction, having already bought water from the store, but why walk 4 stupid miles to fill up on empty calories when there are two restaurants right across the street.  Sure, they were plastered with hangeul signage and literally overflowing with Koreans, but I refuse to allow myself to be intimidated by things foreign.  Hiding in my hotel room/apartment is a waste of my time in Korea.  Better to sack up, get outside my quarters, and jump right into it. 

So I thought "let's start this Korea thing off right:  I'll just cross the street and get something from one of those restaurants.  They surely have rice."  I first tried the restaurant on the left.  Observing all the etiquette I knew and feeling fearless, I left my shoes at the door and looked for a restauranteur.  The place reeked of fish:  an ill omen.  I was the only non-Korean in the place.  I made eye contact with an exasperated-looking server type lady and tried to communicate my desire for a bowl of rice to her.  She said "next door.  Next door!"

Okay, maybe the left restaurant is seafood only.  Fine.  The restaurant on the right boasts a sign which reads "Korean restaurant."  "Sounds good, Korea," I thought.  I entered, again removed my shoes, and began the search for another restauranteur.  The frustrated-looking server type lady I engaged directed me to one of the low tables, at which I sat down fearlessly, on the floor, as is the local custom.  I neglected to fetch myself a quilted pad to sit on, but the server lady brought me one.  This minor hiccup daunted me not at all.  She next brought me a menu.  It was a picture of an oyster soup surrounded by fishy-looking side dishes.  She pointed at the oyster soup.  "Oyster," she said.  I tried to communicate my desire for a bowl of rice.  She turned to the menu's other page and showed me a picture of some other kind of soup surrounded by fishy-looking side dishes.  "Bowl of rice," I said.  "Bowlofrice..." she said.  "Tofu," I ventured.  She turned her right ear towards me and cupped her hand behind it.  "Dofu," I said, wondering if she understood any Chinese.  She did not.  I tried another variation on "rice," and she nodded in agreement and departed for the kitchen.

I'd been sitting there for a few seconds before I realized she was probably going to bring me a bowl of oyster soup and many fishy-looking side dishes.  What I read as a moment of understanding and agreement was more likely her giving up on our dialogue in the interest of hurrying the affair along to its inevitable conclusion:  oyster soup.  The food took perhaps 10 minutes to arrive.  I spent the time watching traffic through the front window and pondering what I would do when my oyster soup arrived.

I considered my options.  I could eat whatever plant matter I was served and leave the rest:  this would be rude and, judging by the menu, quite wasteful.  I could attempt again to explain my desire for plants alone once I had been served:  this would be rude, wasteful, and unsuccessful.  I could get up and leave before any food arrived:  very rude.  All these options would fail to solve the hunger problem which motivated the whole expedition.  There was only one choice that would:  eating the food I was served.

Obviously this last option needed to be considered first, as all the preceding choices assume its rejection.  It would mean abandoning my principles and doing something I believe is wrong.  Willfully doing wrong is seriously unethical.  If I willfully do wrong when other choices could be made, I must conclude that I am an unethical person.  If I value being an ethical person, this is a problem for me. 

This is where nihilism entered my mental debate.  I feel an affection for ethical behavior.  However, my reason has led me to conclude that I am completely unimportant and that what I do or feel has absolutely no meaningful significance.  Ethical behavior may make me feel good, but my feelings have no value beyond my illusory self--which wouldn't be important even if it were real.  So does it matter if I do or do not eat the animals the nice, if impatient lady brings me?

She brought me bulgogi (a kind of beef stew), 11 side dishes (mostly plants) and a pot of rice.  It looked like food for 2, maybe 3 people.  I took up chopsticks and ate everything in front of me except the red kimchi because that stuff is seriously vile.  Afterward, I felt full and little else.  It seems I am an unethical person and not overly troubled about it.  But I do intend to resume a responsible diet once I have full control of my food supply.

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