Conflict of duties – a vegetarian insight

I became a vegetarian just over two months ago, after spending three weeks living in a vegan household in Stockholm. I took the first step last year – cutting off all seafood (except oysters and mussels) and strongly reducing meat and dairy – when I drafted a section of the Global Challenges Annual Report on ecosystem collapse. This three-week meat-free stint with a bunch of effective altruists convinced me to take the next step, and entirely cut off meat (I did sneak out at times, and bought a yoghurt from the supermarket, a buttery Danish, or even a four-cheese pizza – each time, with a delightful sense of doing something very very nasty). It seems, I have now developed a level of empathy for other sentient beings, and no longer feel indifference when eating meat (and even feel some residual guilt when eating eggs and dairy).

I extended vegetarianism in settings that I would once have found rather challenging – and with great results. I am writing this on a two-day stopover in Guanghzou, notorious for a diet that includes all things that breathe – and famous for its seafood, pork and chicken. So far, I managed an exquisite range of snacks and meals, from BBQ’ed eggplant with garlic to sautéed peppers in black bean sauce, Portuguese egg tart, red dragonfruit, and a fabulous not-on-the-menu baked rice with egg and mushrooms at a street stall who responded creatively to my ‘no meat’ request. I flew China Southern here, and for some reason, wasn’t able to book a vegetarian meal on the website for that leg of the journey. I hesitated – would I get the beef or chicken – but instead, asked the stewardess if there was a vegetarian option. There wasn’t, but they made one for me: I had a special meal delivered on the first service, and on the second, was kindly handed over one of the crew’s fruit platters with an extra bread roll – and had not only my healthiest meal, but also one of my best ever experiences of bonding on a plane.

I did, however, consciously and deliberately broke my vegetarian diet on two occasions. Both times, I was taking people to Chinese restaurants: two visitors from Singapore to my local Sichuan, and a gourmet friend to his first encounter with DongBei cuisine. In both cases, we would be sharing dishes, I was hosting, and meat should be part of the full experience. On other occasions, when I joined large meals at a Chinese place, I gently mentioned that I no longer ate meat, and refrained from dipping into some of the dishes. But as a host, I felt it was my duty to politely say that I ‘ate meat only on special occasion’ – and that my guests offered such a special occasion. I experienced a conflict between two duties – respecting the life of other sentient beings and hospitality to fellow humans – and in both cases, the latter trumped the former.

I reflected on this while eating my baked rice with egg and mushroom. Why do people keep eating meat – why do people more generally keep on making all sorts of other choices that harm ecosystems and ruin the global climate? And when I say people, I think of myself too. Simple words come to mind easily – selfishness, indifference, ignorance. But, I wondered, could the answer be different? Could it be that we maintain environmentally harmful behaviours for an entirely distinct reason, because we encounter a conflict of duties, and a certain other duty trumps our responsibility to the planet.

What could it be? Well, I thought, there could be duty to friends and family for all meals taken in common – a duty to conform, a duty to let others have their way, or even a decadent ‘duty to celebrate’ translating as constant collective excess. But when it comes to meals taken alone – and to account for conformism defaulting to meat – I realised there could be something else: a certain ‘duty to oneself’, to look after one’s health, under the deluded belief that meat is essential, but more deeply, that I must ‘look after myself’. I have long cherished those words by Andre Gide, ‘it a duty to make oneself happy’ – but how easy to deform. For we live exposed to non-stop propaganda, telling us that such happiness will come from consumption, giving in to passing whims and desire, embracing convenience and constant hedonism. And so, when meat is advertised, convenient, appealing, no more expensive than alternatives, it becomes a – mistaken – ‘duty to ourselves’ to choose it. In the same way that single-use plastic bags, private cars and holidays overseas are not an expression of selfishness, indifference or ignorance, but the result of a conflict between ‘duty to the planet’ and ‘duty to ourselves’, where the latter trumps the former.

Or – and this is a much darker prospect – is it possible that we live such alienated lives that hospitality, calling to sacrifice an animal whenever a special visitor is sharing a meal with us, now applies for every single meal, with friends, with family, and even with our very self.

Temperance – Week 4

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

This week, I cut snacks off my diet, and reflected on hollow spaces and social coordination.

The sharing of a meal is the symbolic heart of the Christian ritual. It is central to building and maintainting relationships, whether in business or family. Eating together is an act of peace: the shared meal is an equalitarian utopia, where each gets according to their needs, irrespective of status or performance. For the magic to work, however, appetites must be coordinated, so that neither will eat too much or too little. The first rule of a polite guest is, don’t arrive at the feast with a full stomach. Loose eating habits signify more than a general lack of discipline: snackers will satisfy their hunger before considering the welfare of the group, and cannot be fully trusted.

Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. A friend came for lunch with cake and slice on Sunday and asked, surprised: ‘So you can eat snack food, if it’s part of a meal?’ The same applies to snacking and pornography: what exactly qualifies as such? The categories we use to guide ethical decisions are often vague. This is the cause of many conflicts. Yet this vagueness is not in our heads only: the world is full of things that do not fall within clear-cut categories. Some foods are clearly snacks: chips, lollies, mars bars, packaged in small individual portions, optimal for a quick rush of energy. Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. Yet ‘whenever’, we’re more likely to consume certain types of products, support the companies that produce them, and strengthen their underlying antisocial norms.

Snacking is rarely mindfully. The distinction between a snack and a meal is primarily one of attention: do we carve time out for the purpose of personal reconstitution through food? Meals give structure to our daily experience of time. Breakfast marks a beginning. Lunch ends the morning build up, and opens an afternoon movement towards completion. Dinner transitions to rest and sleep. Meanwhile, we consume snacks when things did not go quite according to plan, and we need an energy boost to face unexpected needs, whether cognitive, physical, or emotional. Snacks equate not only slack planning, but an attitude towards it: rather than pause to reconsider goals and deadlines, then compromise, postpone, or decisively renounce – we choose to embrace more. Snacking is lack of prudence. Hybris. For if our days are so full that we cannot afford a restorative pause, surely, we’re making wrong decisions. And a lunch eaten at the desk, while staring at the computer screen, should count as no more than a snack.

Meal times are set on the basis of a ‘standard’ day – but what happens when the schedule shifts? On Wednesday, I ran a workshop from 6 till 8, immediately followed by a Skype call. Should I plan dinner at 5, or at 9? For the whole morning, this questions nagged at me: if I don’t eat before the workshop, I won’t have enough energy to run it properly – but for a 5pm dinner,  I have to leave my co-working space at 4, and that’s too early. Then I realised, I was not looking at the situation honestly. Slack preparation was the root of my anxiety. And so, deciding to face the challenge head on, rather than schedule a 5pm dinner, I went on a long walk from Footscray to the City, during which I redrew plans for my workshop, stimulated not by an external fix of food, but self-generated movement. The workshop went well, then I had my Skype call, and a happy late dinner at 8:45.

During my childhood, meals were the most important moment of the day. On holidays, I stayed with my grandparents. I would wake up to find my grandmother in the kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner. Nothing took precedence. Yet this was not at the expense of social engagement or other pursuits: rather, this focus on preparing meals seemed to ripple into more general discipline.  After three and a half weeks of fasting, I sense a temptation to let go of anything other than the fast, and hibernate until Easter. I need to resist, weaving courage into my practice of temperance: social pursuits must take precedence over the quest for pleasure – anorexic retreat is just another form of indulgence.

After a while, you find new balance. When the week started, I increased portions, afraid I would starve between meals. It passed. I had a 5pm dinner on Thursday, woke up at 7h30 the next day, and didn’t feel the need to gorge. I tuned in to my own sense of satiety. Our  culture is built on excess. High input, high output. We snack to face our busy lives, then go to the gym and burn out excess calories. What would it be like if, when we feel pressure if, rather than shift into higher gear, we took time off, and focused on saving energy. Fasting supports deliberate efforts to maintain our inner space. If I feel a drop in my attention, if I feel upset, if the cognitive load increases, the solution is not ‘eat honey’, but go for a walk, stand up, reflect. Cyclical rhythms alternating fullness and emptiness underpin every part of our lives. If circumstances threaten to fill up our days, the wise response is not to balance off that pressure with more food intake, and sink deeper into the treadmill – but to more preciously guard our inner hollows.

Temperance – week 1

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

On my first week practicing temperance, I explored the paradoxical relationship of constraint and freedom, and started my seven-week Lent by cutting meat.

As I did on the First of January, I started on Sunday with a simple commitment to mindfulness. Mindfulness led me to deprioritise food and, as a result, I did unexpected things. After a light morning tea following a church service, rather than shape my afternoon on the basis of lunch, I decided instead that I would go to the park and do some work until I got hungry – the scone and slice of quiche from morning tea was enough for now. I had plans to complete a quarterly report project that day, with vague intention of repeating what I did for the last one: treat myself to a fancy cocktail as a way to celebrate the ritual completion of my executive summary. Guided by temperance, I went for a simple beer instead. A friend was coming over for dinner that night. I bought a chicken from the David Jones FoodCourt and put it in the oven – I had not roasted a chook for years, but haven’t lost my hand. Money saved in the afternoon was used for better quality product in the evening, and a shared experience.

Gluttony takes many forms – excessive quantities, excessive refinement, excessive speed. At the core, it is an excessive interest in food. I have been brought up in a glutton family. My grandmother used to repeat a phrase from her father: “little belly, rejoice, rejoice, every penny I make is for you.” Temperance is a serious challenge to my heritage. On Monday, waking up, I decided I would not care about food that day. The surprising result was a day indulging other obsessions. February was a professionally demanding month, and as a way to compensate, I resumed re-watching of Gossip Girl, picking up where I left in September, at Season 4(in another post, I may write why this is a favourite drama). Now, however, I had to focus on new things, and had about 10 hours of episodes left to the end of the last season, distracting me from anything else. To give myself space over the week, enjoying a gorgeous late summer day, and geared by my deliberate focus to seek freedom from food obsession, I spent a day with Gossip Girl – interrupted in the late morning by a whimsical affogato stop on Bourke Street followed by a chicken and bacon burger on Russell – then  again, in the evening, by a function followed by a home meal of smoked salmon and salami. At 11h30, I finished the last episode, and went to bed ready for a return to my PhD. Over the course of the day, I felt extremely relaxed, with not a touch of guilt from this complete indulgence.

Two characteristics make temperance difficult. The first is structural: the virtue requires balance rather than complete abstinence, and therefore includes an element of personal judgement. The second is historic: our consumerist and sexually liberated culture defines identity through taste rather than effort, and equates fulfilment with the satisfaction of our appetites, not the capacity to moderate them. The practice of temperance therefore requires that we re-learn to think of desire as otherness, and resistance as an expression of the self. It also requires that we get ready for opposition: temperance is not aligned with the spirit of the time, and if we practice too conspicuously, we may well irritate many.

Wednesday was the start of Lent. This chance alignment of the lunar calendar with the change of season encouraged me to weave Lenten abstinence into my engagement with temperance. Over the next six weeks, every wednesday, I will substract one thing from my life. Meat is the first to go. In this, temperance ties in with justice. Whenever we mindfully consume meat, we weigh our enjoyment of food against the life and suffering of another sentient being, and give the former priority. This may but reflect our status as a predator species. What I noted, however, in just one day of resolute vegetarianism, is how matter-of-fact the consumption of meat has become. This may also explain why we consume so much, in spite of its environmental impact. Avoiding meat had a clear liberating effect. As happened on Sunday and Monday, creating a constraint on food opened a space of freedom elsewhere. I marked off the day for PhD work. High level narrative construction was required – this would be better done among eucalyptus trees than in a closed office. And so, I went off on a walk from Belgrave to Ferntree Gully. I had lunch at a bakery in Upwey. There were about a dozen types of pies; only two were vegetarian. Lent had this added benefit: choosing food was made simple. I could devote my attention to more important things.

On Thursday, I reflected on the connection between food and my own body. I grew up in a family where women were both obsessed with food and constantly dieting. I inherited this tension. During a Qi Gong class on Tuesday, I had a postural breakthrough. Our instructor told us that our back should be firm, while the front part of our body should be soft. My breath seemed to be shorter than most other people in the class. Then I realised that I had been holding in my stomach, and thereby disturbing natural breathing patterns. All through Thursday, I gently patted my soft abdomen, rising in smooth rhythm – and reconciled myself to the idea of a potbelly.

On Friday, I focused again on mindful eating, reflecting on this paradox: is temperance increased indifference to food, or increased attention? Mindful eating made me better appreciate the act of bringing a grape to my mouth, touching it with my lips, cracking the skin with my teeth, the juice exploding on my tongue and palate,  and the pleasant act of swallowing. Could these sensations form a more solid ground for temperance than blindness to them?


On sugar

Last week, I watched an Australian documentary called ‘That sugar film’. The main storyline follows the director experimenting the effects of sugar on his own body. After years of a no-sugar diet, he converts to the Australian average of 40 grams a day, which he sources entirely from food usually perceived as healthy: low-fat yogurt, cereal bars, fruit juice. Result: in two months, he gains 10cm of waist circumference, shows early signs of fat liver disease, and suffers from lower attention spans and mood swings.

It was impactful: after watching the film,  I cut my sugar consumption. It was already rather low – I don’t eat much processed or so-called ‘health’ food, I never drink juice or soda. But I do like ice-cream, cake and chocolate. I went from three to one a day – usually one of the delicious pastries from Gills Diner.

Speaking with friends about low-sugar diets, I used to quip that cutting it is good for physical health, but keeping it is good for mental health. As it turns out, it might not be the case. Sugar highs and sugar lows might affect our moods and attention. But implications go deeper. My memories of eating sweet things are associated, mostly, with comfort and happiness. It’s my grand-mother’s apple tart, generously sprinkled with pure white sugar. It’s her mashed strawberries and cream. It’s the lollies I bought from the shop across my school as a kid. It’s the tub of ice-cream I dug in while watching TV with my parents.

More deeply still, sugar is involved in many social celebrations. Yesterday, I was invited by a friend to join the celebratory eating of a gingerbread  house. There were also brownies. I joined, and ate – then soon after, felt the effect of too much cake: heavy stomach, slightly dizzy head. How much of it was nocebo from watching That Sugar Film, I don’t know, but it took a 1h walk back to the city to shake it off. And yet – while we were at it, I had a very good time.

My evening walks often headed to the cake shop or the ice-cream shop. The prospect of an evening treat took me out of the house. Now I’ll have to find a replacement. But it will take effort, beyond committing to sugar cuts, to develop more than an alternative diet – build alternative daily rituals, social, and personal.

On gluttony

Today, I calculated my body fat ratio. There is a website for it. The result is a factor of your waist, neck and hips circumference in relation to your height. I took out a tape, filled in the blank slots, and was placed in the ‘acceptable’ category.

From there, I fell into an Internet burrow, and discovered a number of facts I didn’t triple check. You burn 350 calories in one hour of exercise. One pound of fat is 3500 calories. Tips to lose weight include, drink more water, eat vegetables, cut sugar, reduce carbs. Sustainable weight loss requires long-term lifestyle adjustment.

When I was growing up, all adult women around me were on rotating diets. Sometimes it was all meat and fish, sometimes it was alternative foods on alternative days, and sometimes it was protein shakes and cold wrapping sessions. Then they put weight back on, and the cycle started again.

We may think of weight loss as a vain pursuit, but I am curious about its odd, contradictory status. Half the magazines currently selling will offer weight loss tips. Meanwhile advertising – and our surrounding urban environment – bombard us with images of desirable food in extreme quantities. Yet one word is absent from the debate between ‘an epidemics of obesity’ and ‘body positive’ movements: gluttony.

Old Medieval Europe identified seven deadly sins, one of which was excessive desire for food, or the pursuit of it as an end in itself. But who would be radical enough now to simply condemn recreational eating? Let us appreciate slim bodies as a token of character strength – only by resisting the pressure of consumerist messages can you maintain one. But let us not develop a transparently moral tone when talking of controlling our appetites. Our economy might collapse.

Living in China: top 3, bottom 3

In 2013, I spent five months in Nanjing on a Hamer scholarship. At the end of my stay, I took some notes and reflected on the best and worst things about my time there.




  • The internet


By very far, this was the worst component of my stay in Nanjing, and the one that most often caused anger. Frustration came in multiple form. Wifi not working at wifi cafes –outrageously slow, suddenly interrupted, with no clear reason. An expensive, yet unreliable 3G stick I bought, and replaced, with a card from the wrong region, so that I had to replace it again. And the annoyance of using a VPN, with sudden loss of signal. I wasted hours refreshing windows and waiting for pages to load, and every single day of my time in China, have experienced extreme frustration at the quality of the internet. It was a surprise: I actually came expecting better access than in Australia


  • The weather


I arrived in a furnace, and left an ice-box. Two of the five months I spent in Nanjing had unbearable weather – too warm, too cold. In the end, I was unable to stay home. With just a low quality air conditioning unit, even if I left it on all night, the cold humid air did not let me concentrate on intellectual work. I spent extra money to go out in heated cafés, but experienced such cold on the street my mood was strongly affected. In the summer, it wasn’t much better. Not something I had anticipated.


  • The road-works


They were building a new metro line in Nanjing when I arrived, very close to where I lived. And so, they were digging: works from 7am, the gentle sound of jackhammers. There was even a week-long water cut halfway through, because they broke a pipe when digging the ground. And the dust in the air. This was a nightmare.




  • Online communities


The best things that happened to me in China came from online connections.

I attended a meetup of IT entrepreneurs organized that led to dinners, lunches, cafes, and new friendships. I connected with local gay people. By posting an ad on Douban, I recruited a local guy called Zhou. He put me in touch with an English practice group. Together, we ran an eventattended by the head of the Nanjing University business club who brought his friend Brian along: a recent graduate now working for Publicis in Shanghai. Brian introduced me to Kenny Choi, who opened the first co-working space in Guangzhou. I went there when I visited Guangzhou, and through him heard of a ‘walking’ event, which I joined. A sense of companionship and possibility.


  • Bookshops


I found a few stunning bookshops in China. The most striking was probably the Avant Garde in Nanjing: a gigantic bookstore built in an underground car park, with a large cross hanging from the roof. I spent hours there – as did many. For that bookshop, and many others in China, are less a store, and more a place to be. People stand or squat reading in the aisles, talks happen, there is a café somewhere. It is its own community centre. On my first visit, I noticed a young woman wearing a school uniform reading Kierkegaard with visible fascination. I mentioned this to a Chinese friend who said: ‘Well yes, when I was in grade 11, if you didn’t read European philosophy, you’d be bullied.’ It brought back to mind conversations I had with a friend in Middle School: he grew up in communist Romania, and migrated to France in 1991. He always told us how his friends, over there, would voraciously read the classics, and mocked our mushy consumerist brains.


  • food


Everyone knows the food in China is good and inexpensive. I would like to give a particular nomination for

  1. the fruit: from fruit shops to street-sellers, it’s excellent. Special mention to the dragonfruit.
  2. the little baked cakes – I’m not sure what they’re called. Some are filed with Gingko nuts, others with candied fruits, slightly savoury. Delicious.
  3. A Nanjing specialty: candied lotus root filled with sweet glutinous rice. Divine.