For us, food is a symbol of love and identity, which is why setting new boundaries can be fraught.
During my sophomore year of college, I tried to be vegetarian and succeeded for about six months. After the semester ended, I went back home and my mom cooked her classic tofu with minced pork, dripping with savory juice and topped with her homemade mouth-numbing chili oil. I hadn’t yet informed her about my newfound penchant for plant-based life and I knew that rejecting her food after not seeing her for months would crush her. In our culture, feeding someone is one of the ultimate signs of love and affection. Plus, once I smelled that minced pork, my convictions evaporated into thin air.
My sister Elizabeth is different — some would say better — than me when it comes to going through with plans. Five years ago, she decided to go vegan because she wanted to combat climate change in her own way and she has stuck with the decision ever since. Growing up, I would have never imagined that someone in our family could physically quit eating meat but somehow, she’s done it.
And yet, I would never want to endure the BS she has. Each time we’re all home together during holidays, she gets into at least one argument with my parents about what constitutes vegan cuisine. For a long time, my mom refused to adjust her cooking and my sister ended up having to make separate meals whenever we were all home together. Our family dinner dynamics were awkward, with everyone eating at different times while trying not to start a fight about my sister’s new lifestyle choice.
I grew up in an immigrant, Chinese-Mexican household, where food was always the main way we all bonded. Growing up, my mom would brag about her fusion Chinese-Mexican cuisine, which was the envy of many of my friends; one of my favorites was white rice with ribs bathed in a spicy green sauce — a happy splicing of two countries’ cooking styles. The painstakingly crafted meals embraced me constantly. I can’t remember a single day growing up that I came home and there wasn’t freshly made food on the table.
In POC and immigrant households especially, food is not just something you eat — it’s a profound expression of love and an assertion of our identities, which is why coming out as a vegan can be fraught. Here’s how to do it while being sensitive to everyone, including yourself.
Explore why your family might be offended at your choice
In case you’re not versed in the ways of immigrant households, here’s a quick lesson: Sometimes your parents will take the things you do personally. My sister’s switch to veganism was perceived as selfish, a deeply individualistic choice, and a rejection of my mother’s food — and by extension, a rejection of my mother. Dinner had always been a bonding experience where we all showed up and ate what was served, no matter how busy any of us were.
Although our mom is better at accepting my sister’s veganism now, she often asks her why she can’t break her veganism every so often for the sake of communal harmony. Apparently, this happens in other immigrant families, too. “I was at my sister's wedding last year, and I asked whether they would cater for me, and my mom said 'can't you just eat meat for one day, don't ruin your sister's wedding with your vegan stuff,’” Elena Dyulgerova, a 24-year-old Bulgarian chef living in the UK, tells me.
Your immigrant parents might take your choice to go vegan as a rejection of larger cultural values, which they might already feel are under threat by the dominant culture. On top of that, for parents who already feel like they don’t have much say over their child’s life outside of the home — my mom, for example, barely spoke English when we arrived in the U.S. — the food they feed us is the only way they feel they can guarantee our wellbeing.
Ultimately, their rejection of your veganism might be coming from a place of hurt, however misplaced. Try to hear them out and so you can move forward with compassion versus anger.
Supply enough information for them to empathize
My sister went vegan because she cares about the environment. But when coming out as vegan to immigrant parents, reasons like “climate change” or “deforestation” might not do the trick because it doesn’t register as an immediate, existential concern (even though, of course, they are). Be ready to explain why you’re going vegan in a way that they can relate to. I find that with my family, something they can culturally accept as a valid reason someone might change their diet is to improve their health; that’s because I have uncles with diabetes and low blood pressure, which dictates what they can and cannot eat at family gatherings.
In a situation like this, I would give my parents health-related reasons for going vegan, of which there are many. Just to name some quick examples: Eating too much meat has been linked to cancer and drinking cow’s milk could actually increase the risk of bone fractures in adulthood.
Of course, on the flip side, some parents will worry about whether you’ll be getting enough nutrients on a vegan diet because they might not be informed that a vegan diet can actually be really healthy if it’s done right. “I know family members and loved ones often express concern about recent vegans not getting enough protein,” Lily Allen-Duenas, a California-based vegan nutritionist and founder of the Wild Yoga Tribe, tells me. “Whatever the case or the concern, if vegans are conscientious in making sure to incorporate a variety of foods from different food groups — fruits, nuts, seeds, carbs, oils — into their diet, there will not be an issue. Variety is key.” Also, remind your family that with a few creative substitutions, you’ll be able to replicate the most beloved family faves and enjoy them at the same table.
If an argument about health is not their jam, pointing out to them the fucked up way America produces its food could help. “My parents had both grown up in rural farm regions in Mexico before moving into the inner-city when they were young adults and told me the stories of their relationship with the land, food, and culture,” Isaias Hernandez, a vegan influencer who goes by Queer Brown Vegan online, tells me. “They also agreed that within the United States, there was ambiguity about where our food comes from, such as an unethical supply chain.” For immigrants who come from cultures where our families were more in touch with the land, explaining that American factory farms are essentially the tenth circle of hell might sway them in the right direction.
Keep reminding yourself that you’re doing what’s right for you
Going vegan as a person of color or immigrant can already be tricky because of family dynamics. Add to that the fact that vegan culture can be painfully homogenous and it can be too easy to opt out.
Admittedly, part of me still associates veganism with a white, affluent, and elitist culture to which I do not belong. Many people of color feel the same way. “I didn’t anticipate finding a space in the vegan community because my experience led me to believe it was a very white and ‘granola’ space, and I was neither of those things,” Dominique Side, a Houston-based entrepreneur and founder of The Luxury Vegan, tells me. “I have since created a community to extend for myself.”
When being questioned from all sides, it’s important to keep reminding yourself that veganism, actually, isn’t “a white people thing.” “White Veganism harms veganism as it approaches BIPOC communities with interrogation rather than education,” Hernandez tells me. “White Veganism fails to make the interconnections in how white supremacy is actively depleting natural resources, ecosystems, and culture.” A
pproaching veganism from a holistic perspective that takes into account your communities and how the system of factory farming is built on a hyper capitalist and imperialist ethos is actually one of the most anti-white supremacist things you could do. By being aware of your impact on the planet and other living organisms, you’re not betraying your cultural values — you might actually be honoring them in ways that transcends mainstream vegan culture.