I remember the first time I saw an animal being slaughtered. It was in 2011 when I was doing an internship in Beijing, and our team did a team-building event in the grasslands near Inner-Mongolia. It’s a popular tourist getaway for city-dwellers - you go to a village in the grasslands and ride horses, shoot bows and arrows, eat fresh meat roasted over a fire, and generally pretend you’re getting back to the simple life. The grasslands are truly beautiful - it’s vast open air and shallow rolling hills in all directions.

As soon as we arrived, a car drove up with 2 small lambs in the trunk. The driver dragged them onto the ground and asked us which we’d like to have for dinner. The lambs were tied up up so they couldn’t move, and looked around at everyone with a confused, slightly inquisitive look in their eyes. I couldn’t help thinking how helpless they looked. My coworker pointed at one of them, and the man picked it up and brought it to a nearby table. He then took out a knife, held the lamb down, and cut its throat to let it bleed out. The lamb struggled a bit, then was still while it bled out over the next few minutes.

Cute lamb, before The lamb, before…

I forced myself to watch because, as someone who eats meat, I told myself that I was OK with this. This doesn’t bother me at all, watching the life drain out of this poor creature so that we could all have a good time drinking and partying later. This is fine. I’m ok with everything that’s happening. I imagined that it was me holding the knife to the lamb’s throat. Could I do it? Could I look into its eyes as I held it down and sliced? I convinced myself that I could, that I would feel nothing. Afterall, if I feel bad killing a lamb, how can I justify all the meat that I’d eaten my whole life? It’s not as if the meat I buy in a supermarket didn’t come from slaughtered animals just because I didn’t have to see it. And as far as farm-animal lives go, this lamb had it good. It grew up in the countryside, wandering around the grasslands. If I’m not OK with this animal being slaughtered, how can I justify all the meat I’d consumed from animals who’d never even been allowed to see the sky? No - I had to be OK with this. I was definitely OK with this.

Cute lamb, after The food and drink was wonderful that night

The meat that night was incredible. It was as fresh as it could be, and roasted over an open fire. Deep-down I knew I wasn’t OK with the lamb being slaughtered, and that if I followed the logic of that statement then I shouldn’t be eating meat. For the next few years I resolved this quandry by just not thinking about it. I wouldn’t allow myself to follow the logic of what I was doing. I would just mentally put all the ethical issues it raised in a box and keep it locked up somewhere deep in the back of my mind.

Eventually I decided this wasn’t acceptable, and so I’ve been trying to be vegetarian. I kept thinking about that lamb, and that question of whether or not I’d be willing to kill it. I’ve been using this as a guiding principle - the “Would I feel bad killing this animal?” theory of vegetarianism. That is - if I’d be ethically willing to commit the act necessary for the food I’m eating then I’m OK with eating it. Would I stab a wheat plant to death? You bet I would! I wouldn’t even feel bad doing it. Would I cut a lambs neck though to eat meat? I’m not OK with that, so I won’t eat meat. Would I milk a cow to be able to make cheese? Yeah, I’m OK with that - I wouldn’t feel too bad milking a cow.

It’s such a bizarre reality that in wealthy countries it’s possible - even normal - to eat meat every day without ever having to see or think about where it comes from. Meat is just something that comes in nicely labeled, shrink-wrapped packages in the supermarket. You can go your whole life without ever being forced to think through the ethics of what you’re doing.

I find that in China, when I tell people that I’m vegetarian, nobody understands why. I think it’s because in China everyone has grown up seeing animals slaughtered at some point, so it’s normal. Even if you grow in a big city like Shanghai, you’ve probably traveled to the countryside at some point in your life, or seen a market where live Chickens are sold and killed. I suspect this will change as China continues to develop over the next several generations. In the West, though, I find people tend to understand why I’m vegetarian if I explain it. I think that most people who haven’t grown up around animals being slaughtered are honestly just not that comfortable with it.