I recently was invited to go along with a fellow student on a field trip to the Botanical Gardens in Fort Worth. We are both enrolled in a DSLR photography class at UTA (University of Texas at Arlington). Since the weather was expected to be a downpour and the professor had insisted unless there was lightning the field trip would take place, I was happy to accept the invitation and avoid driving in the drizzle. I am not all that familiar with the area where we were going and it would save energy to carpool. My fellow student is a long-time Texan; I know I am not typical, being a California transplant and a progressively-oriented type, AND a vegan.
When we got to the beautiful gardens, it was only misting, but I received a call that the professor had decided to cancel the class – great timing, after being on the road for almost an hour! So we decided to go ahead and shoot our photos and call it a day – and a field trip. The lovely wet weather was perfect for photography; I took many misty photos with clean, green foliage. I even found a spot where I could place my camera on a post and get a slow shutter speed effect to allow lots of light and motion into the shot. I shot waterfalls, Japanese architecture, flowers, fountains. We has plastic bags over our cameras to protect them, and it did keep raining pretty hard intermittently, but I was glad to get the assignment behind me and get back home – I had articles to write.
On the way back, my very kind fellow student wanted to stop for lunch. I knew then that my cover would be lost – I would have to tell her I was vegan. I told her, among other things, that I was not particular and could find something to eat most anywhere. Her comment was thus: “On no, you aren’t particular, you just have the entire kitchen working to make you something to eat.” That was in response to a recent situation I shared, when my son invited me to go to lunch with him at On the Border, a Mexican restaurant that had nothing on the menu that was animal-free. I asked to speak with the restaurant manager and gave him my business card, explaining that I write for a dot com and would like to review his restaurant from a vegan perspective. He was lovely and brought out some food that probably required little effort and was most appreciated by this vegan: shredded lettuce, tomatoes, avocado in tortillas with lime cilantro rice and delicious black beans. The manager/owner seemed to appreciate the challenge and I certainly appreciated being able to eat. It seemed like a win-win and allowed me to let this restaurateur know that we vegans exist and to let vegans in the area know they will be accommodated at this restaurant. Let me set this up: this is cattle country, this is the area of barbecue and steak. I once went to a luncheon where there was not a single item I could eat. But there are over 400 vegans in the local DFW vegan meetup, so we vegans exist. And our numbers are growing. Still, the attitude in the comment seemed a bit hostile, but I let it go. This was a very nice woman; she had even brought a bottle of water along for me, in case I got thirsty.
Throughout the entire lunch, there were comments about meat. She would not eat a bison burger but her family member would – she could not bear to think about the dead bison. (I guess cows, pigs, chickens have no nerve endings and do not feel.) She told me that she doesn’t think chickens are very smart as if that made it okay to harm them. I interjected that it wasn’t about how smart they were but if they could feel. Right over that comment she went into a dialogue about meat again while I tried to change the subject. It was hard to face my vegetarian vegetable soup and my whole grain cracker, with images of slaughterhouses running through my mind. I said that I became vegan when I found out what happens to animals and my bet was that most people would become vegan if they knew the truth. She said she could appreciate someone standing up for what they believe just so they don’t try to change her. Time to change the subject again: How about that rain? Imagine that guy canceling on us? And two of the students had taken off work to attend. Bet were they mad! What on earth was going through her mind that forced her to discuss meat, a topic I obviously find abhorrent? Defensiveness, amusement at my oddity? Trying to figure it all out? I was perplexed.
When I returned home, I was left feeling relieved but a bit discouraged. I realize that there is no way for someone to know what I now know, not instantly anyway. Everyone has to find their own answers in their own time. Learning to walk the fine line between being obnoxious and encouraging someone to think outside their large enclosed box is challenging. There were political comments and religious comments that made me wince – I did not line up in any way. Still, I could tell she was trying, and for a Texan, she was moderate. At least she did not try exorcising my demons or any of that, and she did not offer to pray for me, as others have done in the past. She seemed like a good person. But I felt like I was unprepared, like there was something I could have said or done that would have given her more information or made a bigger impact. She did offer to call me again to go photoshooting; maybe getting to know a real vegan would make the biggest impact of all, as long as that vegan is not too over the top. Where is the line? It left me thinking…
A few days later, I was invited to go out again with the same fellow student. This time the weather was perfect, and I got shots of two turtles, bees, butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, trees, brooks – a great photoshoot. It was a wonderful break from nose-to-the-computer-grindstone that comprises most of my time these days. When she offered to take me to lunch, her treat, I told her to select wherever she wanted; I can always find something to eat. But instead, she went out of her way to suggest a soup and salad bar where she knew I would be accommodated (SouperSalad). It was a far better experience than my first meal and such a gracious gesture – and not a word about meat or my weird eating habits. Given how few vegans are in this part of Texas, I can imagine how shocking my stance must have seemed. But my colleague had time to reflect and I was touched by her graciousness. This time, I returned home, feeling slightly elated and very affirmed. I didn’t feel like an outcast or an oddity; I felt accepted and appreciated. At times, it really pays to take a deep breath and let the chips fall where they may. Beyond the veganism, we even found a few things we shared. It was a lesson for me in patience, towards myself as well as others. I hope her attitude towards vegans has changed as positively as my attitude towards omnivores and Texans!