Porkless Days

Thuy Nguyen '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

It was the day of my cousin Nu's engagement ceremony, what we in Vietnamese call "dam hoi." It's a time when the parents of the bride-to-be and groom-to-be exchange vows. Or to be more exact, a time when the parents tell the person marrying into their family that he or she is accepted, but only on a temporary basis. That status, of course, changes after the wedding day.

In order to secure that acceptance, according to tradition, the groom-to-be has to lead a procession from his home to the home of his desired bride. The procession consists of his family members, relatives, and also eight people carrying the gifts he will offer to the bride's family. The gifts range from rice cakes to clothes and even to jewelry. After the parents of the groom offer their son to the other family for marriage, they proceed to open each gift, stating the value of their son and what it means to be a member of their family. The gifts were small in size but they were placed on a gold tin tray covered by a gold tin lid. The outside of the lid was bright red scattered with gold designs of dragons. Covering the lid was a red cloth with the same design pattern, only the cloth had gold tassels dangling from the edges. This whole ensemble bearing the gift inside is called a "qua."

I was present at the ceremony, along with other members of my family, to be witnesses of the vows between the two sets of parents. Although the ceremony was interesting, the image of two eyes staring blankly at me kept popping into my head. I didn't know whom the eyes belong to until I saw a small table that my uncle placed by the front door. On the table was the most important gift any family could offer a bride: a roasted whole pig. The pig's stomach was slit open and all the innards were taken out. The legs on each side lay awkwardly flat on the table as if an anvil had fallen on it, forcing all the organs to shoot out and splitting the pig into two halves, connected only at the spine. The skin of the pig was a crispy brown. The adults commented on the pig, practically drooling at the thought of their teeth crunching through the skin and tasting the juice of the "other white meat." I, however, was left numb staring at the dead animal; I couldn't think of eating the meat. All I could see in front of me was a set of eyes, dead, but also deathly captivating. It was as if the pig was daring me to eat it and I, the live one of the two, was too scared to meet the challenge.

After the ceremony was over, the pig was taken outside. My aunt asked loudly, "Who wants to chop up the pig?" I made a face at the question and looked around to see if anyone would respond. I didn't hear an answer to the question but moments later heard the thump of the butcher knife coming down heavily on the wood of the cutting board. Chomp. Thump. Chomp. Thump. The sharp silver blade sliced through the crispy skin carving the soft meat and finally crushing the bone. The pieces were placed on a plate. I picked up the plate and looked at the delicate pieces of meat. I tried rearranging the pieces like a puzzle to see if I could form a whole picture — a picture of the dead pig — but I was missing some important pieces. I could no longer find the eyes.

Needless to say, I didn't eat any pork that day. Actually, I swore I wouldn't eat pork again a few years ago. I don't remember what specifically prompted my decision, but as I sit and think about it now, I realize that pork and I have a complex relationship that began in my childhood days.

From the day I was born to the age of five I lived in Vietnam with my grandparents and my mom. I was born after the Vietnam War and grew up during a time when the country and its people were trying to live through the destruction of the aftermath. My family was poor and depended entirely on livestock and fishing for survival. I remember my grandparents having a pigpen in the back of their house. The pigpen was small in size but it was big enough to house at least two fully grown pigs. Every morning I walked to the pigpen to watch the pigs snort and roll around in the mud. Once I even climbed through the fence to join the playtime. Of course I was caught and harshly reprimanded for soiling my only clean outfit for the year later by my mom. I remember being attached to a piglet. I fed it, played with it and watched it grow. Soon it was no longer the little piglet I could hold in my arms but a pig at least twice my size. For some reason I stopped coming to the pigpen as often as I did before. One day when I did come to visit my once-a-piglet friend, I saw that he was gone; the pigpen was empty. I looked around for him and even snorted a few times to see if he could hear me, but got no response. I ran crying to my grandmother. I asked her where my pig went. She shook her head and told me that he simply "left," as if he could stand on his two hind legs, open the pen door with his front ones and walk right out of the yard. I didn't understand what she meant and wondered why my friend had left me. I was still thinking about my piglet when I put a piece of pork in my mouth days later.

I know meat comes from animals and animals need to be killed and slaughtered in order to get meat, but somehow the link between the two didn't exist in my mind. I thought meat, any kind of meat, magically appeared in the form that we see on our plates before we put it in our mouths. It didn't dawn on me that the meat came from something and that something was alive before it was killed and transformed into a morsel of food. I never questioned what was placed in front of me. I ate everything. I've eaten fish's eyes, cow tongues, liver, intestines, heart and even brain. I didn't know which animal the body parts belong to. I just remember the flavor gushing out of the meat, exciting all my taste buds as I chewed and squished the different textures around in my mouth. I made sure I sucked all the juice out of everything before I swallowed. I was a true carnivore.

It wasn't until third grade when I read Charlotte's Web that I was reminded of my departed childhood friend. Similar to the piglet in my grandmother's pigpen, I became attached to Wilbur, the pig in the story. I thought back to the days of feeding the pigs, talking to them, and even that one day when I became a pig myself and rolled around in the mud of the pigpen. I was smiling through the pages of Wilbur growing up. I was his friend Charlotte who spent most of her days in his presence. When the plot of the story changed, however, I was completely surprised. Also, it took me a while to realize what was going to happen to Wilbur. I was angry with Mr. Arable for wanting to kill Wilbur. I didn't understand how he could love Wilbur so much and then wanted to kill him. I was proud of Charlotte for what she did and for eventually saving Wilbur's life, even though she died in the end.

The thought of Mr. Arable wanting to kill Wilbur made me connect the dots of my childhood to finally realize what happened to my piglet. It dawned on me that my piglet played a larger role than the role of being my friend: he was sustenance for starving people. The necessity of the pig's death made me think about what Charlotte did for Wilbur. Sure she saved his life, but what good did he do being alive rather than dead? He's a pig and he's only going to keep eating until he eventually dies. Wouldn't it be better for him to be slaughtered so that people could be fed?

Even though I was contemplating these questions of life and death, the thought of putting a blade to the skin of something living and watching life ooze out of it did not sit well in my stomach. Instead of quietly swallowing the meat placed in front of me as I did before, I started questioning my mom about everything. I didn't want to have to read a book to find out the truth regarding the things I put in my body. Although I wanted to know the truth, I wasn't prepared for the unveilings of my favorite dishes. I soon found out a handful of truths that were too acidic for my weak stomach: the brown, jelly-like "tofu" I ate in the noodle soup was actually congealed blood; the chewy white "meat" was intestines; the other "meats" in the rice soup my mom served for breakfast were tongue, heart and liver. I was in disbelief when my mom revealed to me the truth. I made a face of disgust when she told me, but continued to eat the food with the hope that she was lying to me. One day, I came face to face with the truth. I opened up the freezer to look for the chicken I needed to cook dinner. I rummaged through the plastic bags and the boxes of frozen dinner. I picked up a piece of meat and brought it closer to see what it was. It took me a moment but I soon realized that I was holding a frozen heart in the palm of my hand. I threw the lifeless heart back into the freezer and closed the door. From that moment on, I banned those dishes from my body.

Experiences like this one made me think about my carnivorous behavior. I contemplated being a vegetarian and even made attempts at being one. For a while I only ate rice, vegetables, tofu and fruits. I had to turn away from everything my family cooked. Because of how I grew up, however, I soon found it to be impossible for me to stay away from meat of any kind; eating meat was a part of my life. Taking meat out of the equation made me incomplete, also unhealthy since I wasn't getting the necessary nutrients. Because of this, I justified my meat eating habits by saying that it was a matter of life or death. In this case, I chose life even though it meant the death of someone else. Although I began eating meat again, I couldn't bring myself to eat pork. It was the one meat that I refused to eat.

When I studied abroad in Cuba the spring semester of my junior year, I once again had to question my eating habits. In Cuba, the most common type of meat, the one that was cheap and most easily accessible, was pork, or "cerdo." It was usually flavored with only salt and served on rice and beans "con gris," or cooked in fat. For the first two or three weeks in Cuba, that was all I ate: una cajita con cerdo(a box of rice and beans with a piece of pork). There was also a vegetarian option but the vegetables only included tomato and a piece of lettuce. To feel like I got my money's worth, I always ordered the "cerdo." Each time I ate the cajita, however, I felt ill to my stomach. It seemed as if my body was protesting against me. After a few times of being sick, I decided to become a vegetarian. I went to the "agro" (little stands where farmers sell fruits and vegetables) every day and bought tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, green peppers and onions. For dinner I stir-fried the vegetables and ate them on rice. Other nights I cooked the tomatoes down to a sauce and ate it with spaghetti. For lunch I ate fruits. I remember running home in the sweltering heat with the sun burning my shoulders just so I could eat a cold mango, papaya (or fruta bomba since papaya meant the female genitalia in Cuba), or orange. I was truly converted.

It was ironic but some people who were vegetarians in the United States reverted to eating meat in Cuba. They said it was too difficult to maintain their meatless ways. I thought it was funny since I had no trouble dropping meat completely from my diet, especially since the only meat they really had to offer was pork. My newly adopted vegetarian habits made me feel healthier and somehow more connected with life. It was as if the guilt of eating meat was lifted off my shoulders. This strange feeling made me wonder why people decided to be vegetarians in the first place.

I began my research by asking friends who were vegetarians. I discovered that some of them have never eaten meat in their lives; their families have been vegetarians since they could remember. Others had the opposite experience — they were the only ones in their families who didn't eat meat. Their reasons range from a love for animals to a disgust of blood to even a love for vegetables. There were different levels of vegetarians within the group. For the time that I was in Cuba, I was a member of this meatless group, by choice but also by force of economic circumstances, or in other words, due to a lack of better meat options.

My vegetarian habit was an advantage on my weeklong trip across the country. Every restaurant my friends and I stopped at to get food only offered "un sandwich de jamón" (ham sandwich). Instead of eating in the restaurants, we bought fruits from the stands on the streets. When we hiked through the Sierra Maestra, all my friends and I ate were oranges and mangoes for three days. Had I been in the United States, I don't think that kind of diet would have sustained me given the physical exertion from climbing up the mountains. In Cuba, however, the fruits were enough.

Before we began our hike through the mountains, we stayed at a little camp at the base of the trail — el campo de las mulas. The camp was very plain. The cabins were small consisting of four bunk beds. Each bed had a thin mattress placed on two thick sticks. The mattress was too small to fit the frame so the sticks were key to keeping the person on the top bunk from falling down on the person at the bottom. There was no floor and the roof was made of logs tied together.

The people at the camp were also simpletons: kind, quiet, and reserved. They went on with their daily lives as groups of foreigners come and go. My friends and I stayed two days at the camp. I spent most of that time wandering around and observing people. One morning, outside of our cabin, I saw a pig tied to pole. The pig was fat and pink. I looked at it and remembered my own pig. I made oinking sounds to see if it would respond to me. The pig simply stared at me as if I were crazy. I jumped up and down uttering strange sounds. I finally gave up and accepted the fact that this pig didn't like me. As I walked away, I saw a wooden table to the side of the pig.

After I made a loop around the camp, I walked back to the cabin. On the way back I saw a man wearing a dark t-shirt that was too big for him. I think he had shorts on under his long shirt. He was wearing black rubber boots. On his right hand he was carrying a bucket of water. On his left was a large and gleaming butcher knife. I walked quickly by him and into my cabin. I closed the door and sat down on the bottom bunk. My friends were staring at me intently.

"What's wrong?" One of them asked.

"I think a pig is going to be killed outside our door," I told them. As I said those words, the pig started squealing. I imagined the man was pulling on the rope, pushing the pig toward the wooden table. The squeals were punctuated with snorts. The volume of the squeals escalated and became more frequent. I pictured the pig tied to the table. The butcher knife rose in the air and came down on the flesh. I didn't hear the thump of the wood but I heard the shrieking cry of the pig. As the seconds ticked by, the cries became more deafening. I saw in my head the cut of the skin, the blood, and the body of the pig falling apart. One of my friends cupped her hands over her ears. Tears were streaming down her face as she tried to block out the piercing death cries. I looked at her and then at my hands placed gently on my lap.

"It's okay," I murmured knowing that it wasn't. She shook her head. I stared at her tears and made no attempt at blocking out the horrible sounds. This was what happened to my pig, I thought. He cried for me and I wasn't there to help him; I let him die. I felt so helpless sitting there. I knew I couldn't save this pig, just like I couldn't save my own pig years ago. The difference this time was that I was forced to hear the cries — piercing, haunting, and murderous — cries that came before a painful death. I sat motionless with the sound of death ringing in my ears. I tried to shake myself free but the cries overwhelmed all my nerves. Unable to move, I sat there with my two friends until death disappeared from outside our door.

I will never forget the screams I heard that day. Because of that experience, I will never look at pork the same way again.

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Last modified 12 May 2005