It had been almost a month before I began to consider the goat.
I was on my way to a local government office, mentally preparing for yet another certain quarrel with local visa officials when it caught my eye. Suddenly, parked on the side of the road in the back of a motorcycle carriage, I came upon a large and mature grey-colored goat, obviously suffering in the mid-day heat. I stopped to consider the beast for more than a few minutes, and wondered about how many of his brethren I had consumed over the past month during my travels in Western China.
For the past several years my diet has consisted almost exclusively of vegetables, with the odd serving of fish thrown in for good measure. I am one among thousands of pseudo-vegetarians who write off a tendency toward seafood, convincing themselves that an occasional indulgence is justifiable, and that fish surely cannot feel the pain of a chicken, or a cow. Though my internal debate regarding fish and suffering is by no means resolved, childhood fishing trips often convinced me that the matter was simple: Upon witnessing the gills struggling for air upon entering the boat, my father tearing the hook out of its cheek, I can recall experiencing a distinct sympathy. "Surely, this creature suffers, and I am a collaborator in its suffering." This afternoon's encounter with the goat left me with similar conclusions about my complicity in one animal's strife.
The city of Kashgar sits in the westernmost portion of China on the precipice of a massive desert, thousands of miles inland from the nearest ocean. Owing to the harsh climate, religious beliefs, and a local palette steeped in centuries of culinary tradition, dining options are limited. As my travel partner and I discovered moments upon arriving in the region, one is never far from mutton. Whether it is a kebab, a pastry, or a steaming bowl of innards, Kashgar is steeped in the smell of cooking goat flesh.
Raised in a devoutly carnivorous family, I've adjusted to my new surroundings with ease, though I've made the decision to eat goat out of more than sheer necessity. A sincere effort to acclimatize, appreciate, explore, and ingratiate have all entered into my reasoning, and what's more, the food has been delicious, and -- crucial, when traveling on a backpacker's budget -- cheap.
Several years ago I decided to drastically reduce my intake of meat because I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of supporting factory farming, and the insane cruelty to animals and environmental decay inherent to the practice. Owing to my current location, and the rather spartan methods of animal raising I have witnessed in the region, I believe I can safely assume that my goat friend has led a relatively pleasant existence until now, when surely, a blade will soon find his throat, and the life drained from therein. Thus, what truly makes this practice any "better" than factory farming? What has allowed me to consume his flesh with -- until now -- minimal guilt?
One is tempted to overlook moral quandaries regarding the consumption of meat when spending an extended period of time in a setting like Kashgar. Walking among a people who have displayed remarkable cultural resilience in recent decades, one desperately wants to "buy into the life," so to speak. Food, and the sharing of food, has permitted me entry into social settings, conversations, and exchanges that would have been impossible had I clung to an evangelical vegetarianism, and has immeasurably enriched my experience as a traveler. Food is about more than sustenance in a place like Kashgar; it is a way of life, and a source of pride and community. Neglecting to consider the goat is, in a sense, neglecting to consider the history of the region, and the remarkable determination of its people to survive.
When I return home to Canada next month, I will not maintain a carnivorous diet, nor will I preach from on high about the universal evil of eating meat. I will return with more questions about how we should best go about feeding our species and respecting others as we move forward in the 21st century, while at the same time avoiding historical amnesia, and maintaining traditions crucial to the preservation of culture. I will also realize in a new way that making the decision to "go veg" is sometimes more than a moral imperative, and a luxury afforded by economic and/or geographic circumstance. It is also a decision to close certain doors, and neglect to truly consider the goat.