Within two months of marrying, my husband and I rescued a dog. This may not seem like a significant detail (with the exception that my husband was terrified of dogs having been repeatedly chased by a particularly cunning Jack Russell throughout his childhood in Swansea), but it turned out that Janie, the Boston Terrier rescued from a puppy farm in Ohio, would be a significant stepping stone on a path toward veganism. Like most things though, if one looks far enough back, every path ultimately starts at the beginning… and for me, the beginning began in rural America.
Northern Michigan is populated predominately by three things: national forest, expansive bodies of water, and agriculture. Of the fifty states, Michigan is the second largest producer of dairy. Driving down a highway, one is as likely to see a dairy farm as a political billboard paid for by the National Rifle Association. It is a place not unlike other parts of America’s middle; it can be insular, defensive, and protective of its traditions. Unfortunately, eating—and in large quantities of all the wrong things—has become one of those fought-for traditions.
I was raised on a diet of beef, wheat, dairy and sugar (all of which are produced en masse in my home state). My mother was a serial dieter who likely ate hundreds of animals during her adventures with the Atkins Diet, and my father had such a ruinous relationship with food that he received one of the earliest gastric bypass procedures in the ‘90s. (The surgery didn’t ultimately take as after losing all the weight, he re-expanded the newly shrunk stomach, continuing on with disastrous patterns, such as eating whole boxes of Girl Scout cookies—an American icon—in one sitting.) By the time I was a teenager, no plate looked the same in our house at dinnertime; though one of the only things we could agree on was steak. In fact, I remember ordering prime rib (medium rare) at my junior prom (not particularly ladylike) and steak juice staining the prom dress my grandmother had made me. It wasn’t yet enough to convince me to give up eating flesh.
That incentive came three years later when at nineteen, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
While, from the age of fourteen, having had an autoimmune disease that can often lead to thyroid cancer, no doctor had ever discussed nutrition with me—and while I am not here to say that my poor diet (which caused me to be an overweight, unhealthy adolescent) lead to my cancer, I can say with certainty that it didn’t help. Alarmingly, I have since learned that both wheat and dairy are major contributors to this particular disease and should be exclusively avoided. No medic has yet informed me of this; I have learned it through online research and my own experience.
Following full removal of my thyroid, fifty-three lymph nodes and two of four parathyroid glands, I was left so nauseous from painkillers that I preferred the nausea of pain itself—and I stopped eating entirely to the worry of my carers. I was fed macaroni and cheese at the hospital (which I vomited) and then my family physician recommended my mom take me to the Dairy Queen (another American icon) and load me up on blizzards (a thick milkshake laden with crumbled candy bars). I gained over two stone during the recovery period (likely both from the excess of blizzards, as well as the fact that the thyroid controls metabolism and my new medications hadn’t yet been adjusted). Yet, the incredible blessing of this experience is that meat made me sick in the months following the surgery. My body simply rejected it.
When I first became a vegetarian, my friends who had witnessed this period of illness in me, not only mercilessly mocked the decision, but also looked at my new vegetarian foods with suspicion. I distinctly remember the first post-cancer trip to a friend’s cabin (a trip we had been making for years) when my best friend refused to try my tofu. She actually said she was scared of it… this, as she ate a hot dog--a food item that contains parts of animals better left unmentioned.
Vegetarianism, simply, was and is, un-American (and veganism unspeakable).
Nonetheless, I persevered with this new diet (but fell into one of the many vegetarian pitfalls—replacing meat with diary products) and every time someone deigned an accusatory look or comment, I simply mentioned the “c word” and conversations were immediately halted.
Fast-forward to my twenty-fifth year when I discovered that juice fasting and higher concentrations of raw food enabled me to feel even better than I had before the cancer (despite my GP’s persistent warnings that vegetarianism and veganism would make me weak). Not yet a vegan, but suddenly realizing the incredible importance of nutrition, I began reading book after book on diet… and somehow this affected by Chinese-Welsh husband, who grew up eating “anything that moved.” One day, after three years of marriage, he simply came home and said, “I think I’m going to be a vegetarian t00.” When asked why, he replied, “If Janie and Elu [our second dog] have thoughts and feelings, so too must farm animals.” I agreed… and then two months later, while standing in the kitchen sprinkling parmesan cheese over a salad, Kwok called from his desk: “Honey, I think we should be vegan.” I paused—unsure if I had heard him correctly. Apparently, he had been reading… about the lives of dairy cows… and he wanted me to read about them too.
At the time, veganism seemed unfathomable (and if I already was losing my cultural identity having moved to Britain at twenty-two, I could fully say goodbye to my Midwestern heritage by becoming a vegan). Yet, in that moment, I made what I believe to be one of my first truly adult decisions: a decision not to live in ignorance. We gave ourselves six weeks to fully remove dairy from our lives (knowing then that “cold turkey” just wouldn’t be successful). Four years later, it is hard to imagine life before veganism.
Having not only grown up in an agricultural belt of the Midwest, I also grew up in America’s Bible Belt, in which one not only goes to church on Christmas and Easter, but one goes to church every Sunday, barring only such extremes as smallpox and death. From the age of two, I recited prayers with my father every night. After learning the basic prayers, he asked me, “What would you like to pray for?” The first words from my toddler mouth? “All the bad and good animals.” When asked what a bad animal was, I replied, “Snakes. Crocodiles. Things that eat other animals.” I wouldn’t learn till I was seven that I too ate other animals (when on a road trip, having just gotten fast food, I asked my parents where burgers came from and began to cry when they said it was made of cows—they laughed).
Having loved animals my whole life (and being that kind of person from childhood that every animal in need somehow seems to find), I marvel at how long I remained part of a culture of willful ignorance. Within weeks of becoming vegan, my life seemingly blossomed. I was no longer lethargic, no longer unable to rouse myself from bed in the mornings. Running was no longer a chore, but became a privilege in its newfound ease. Each stride, each bite, represented freedom—freedom of the body and freedom of the spirit (which never even knew just how burdened it was). Veganism brought me back to yoga (something I discovered during cancer treatments), and I actually credit this lifestyle with giving me the courage to leave behind an academic career and become a yoga teacher, a part-time writer and artist, and a full-time animal lover.
My husband and I now have eight rescue hens and are working toward purchasing land to continue rescuing animals in need. His Chinese family remains overtly concerned about our lifestyle and are yet unable to see the beauty in my husband’s own blossoming—from a child afraid of animals (unless dead on a plate), to an adult that will stop on the side of the road in the dead of winter to help an injured buzzard. We have learned that quietly living an example—and offering guests amazingly tasty vegan fare—is more effective than proselytizing and producing fear and judgment. I was raised in a culture of fear and judgment (and because of this, a culture in which people are exceptionally afraid of being judged). Veganism for me is living compassion—and that includes all creatures (human animals too)—and that, I have learned, is the only culture that I need.
© Julie Bolitho-Lee