A Filipino Who Doesn’t Eat Rice

evan tan writer in manila: a filipino who doesn't eat rice, image of fernando amorsolo painting of people planting rice

At the risk of getting my Filipino card revoked, I will confess that I haven’t eaten rice for weeks now. I can’t remember when I last ate it. It must’ve been before my trip to Edinburgh: I vaguely remember cooking rice for lunch one afternoon. (That I vaguely remember means that I haven’t been eating rice as much as I used to when I was in the Philippines.)

These days I’ve been mostly subsisting on Huel vegan mac and cheese (mention Evan Tan to get a discount when you check out, you’re welcome), which makes eating better more convenient since it lessens the time to prepare meals: with just hot water and a couple of minutes, I don’t have to worry about going over my calories for the day.

I love eating. I do. People think vegans are fussy eaters with undiagnosed orthorexia, but I didn’t become vegan because I wanted to find an excuse to deprive myself of food. To be honest, one of the reasons why I found it so difficult to transition to becoming vegan from vegetarian was that I enjoyed sweets and pastries so much that I couldn’t imagine quitting them once and for all. Then I realized I just wasn’t looking hard enough: there were lots of alternatives, if only you were resourceful about it.

(It’s also strange now to realize that a lot of desserts could do away with milk: I’d go to the confectionery section at the supermarket, check ingredients, and end up wondering: what’s the point of adding that 1% milk in dark chocolate? And don’t get me started on the potato chips that have whey powder in them.)

The cognitive dissonance was driving me mad, so I became vegan. Taste pleasure just wasn’t enough reason to keep making animals suffer and propping up an unjustifiably cruel, climate-destroying industry. One day, should we survive the climate catastrophe, we’ll look at this point in our history and shake our heads at how barbaric we were to our fellow earthlings. But to ensure our survival from the climate crisis, we first need to stop eating animals, and I want to be able to say that I did my bit.

But moralizing about the ethics of veganism hasn’t really convinced a lot of my friends to transition. One of the arguments I keep hearing is that culture takes primacy over animal rights. Some of them have told me, “How could you say no to lechon, or chicharon, or kare-kare? How could you turn your back on dinuguan?”

A national language may not define what makes a Filipino, but food does. The most intimate way to welcome a loved one, or even a stranger, is to say, “Kumain ka na?” To invite someone to share your dinner table is to tell the person that you trust them enough to eat with them. So I could imagine how people thought I was being rude by refusing to eat animals.

To be clear though: my not eating rice has nothing to do with veganism, rice being obviously vegan-friendly. I like rice. But at the same time, being in a new country has opened up so many options that rice becomes just another carbohydrate source in the myriad of choices.

From another perspective, this is also my way of integrating into the new community I’m in. While convenience certainly plays a part in my choice of food, you could say that my decision to forgo rice––a staple that is imbued with cultural significance––speaks a lot about the malleability of my cultural attachment.

I was reading a blog from language learning app Duolingo which made me think. The author said:

“The absolute most important thing you should understand when you’re speaking a language is…yourself. This is the biggest, hardest task of all. To get the most out of your language use, you must know why you want to use this language. What is your own culture, and what attitudes do you bring to an interaction with another person? What are the social norms you value? Where can you compromise? Because speaking to someone from a different cultural background isn’t a matter of adopting their cultural attitudes; it’s impossible to do that without losing yourself entirely. Instead, ask: who are you, and who do you want to be in this new cultural environment?”

Whether it’s language or food (or any other cultural symbol, at that), can you still be faithful to your culture if you stray away from its shibboleths?

This reminds me of journalist Patricia Evangelista’s winning speech at the English-Speaking Union’s International Public Speaking competition in 2004, where she said: “Nationalism isn’t bound by time or place. People from other nations migrate to create new nations, yet still remain essentially who they are.”

Related to this, there was a huge debate last year about Filipino-Americans using the term Filipinx. The criticism was that they were shoehorning the gender-neutral word Filipino into the discourse of gendered languages in their side of the world: making a problem where there is none.

Is their denial of the gender neutrality of the word a sign that these Filipino-Americans have become something not essentially Filipino? Do they, and everyone else who has left the country, truly remain Filipino in essence?

Or do we simply hang on to the ideas and fantasies of being Filipino, like robots who could pass the imitation game? Is it enough that I identify as Filipino to count as one, the identity being valid because I fight for it to be me?

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