Vegans in Asia: Spreading the Message… or Neocolonialism?

Vegans in Asia: Spreading the Message… or Neocolonialism?



I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable
with the vegan movement’s tendency to generalize,
exotify and appropriate Asia. The Asian continent,
which includes nearly 4.5 billion people and
48 different countries, is often reduced to
one monolithic entity which is thrown around
to make huge generalizations in favor of plant-based
diets, or to be seen as an ahistorical paradise
where Western vegans can settle down and live
a fun, free, and fruity life.
In this video, I will talk about the mass
migration of vegans to Asia. If you are even
vaguely active in following the vegan movement
on youtube and instagram, you know that there
is a huge push around traveling or permanently
moving to Asia, where you are told, you can
live like a King for relatively cheap. These
vegans in asia post pictures and videos of
the life of freedom that awaits you, full
of abundant food, lavish accommodation, cheap
massages, bike rides, and pristine landscapes.
Before I get started I want to say that this
video is really not about shaming any of the
vegans who have travelled or even moved to
Asia. I backpacked through southeast asia
on my own for 5 months las year, so it would
be dishonest of me to act like I always new
this stuff, and had no personal stake in this.
I also visited Chiang Mai for 2 weeks where
I met many vegans, some of whom I connected
with and love and respect deeply. Looking
back on my trip however, I see many things
that I find problematic in it, and I don’t
think I’d feel comfortable taking this sort
of trip again today knowing what I know now.
I don’t want the fact that I once took part
in this to keep me from talking about it forever.
I think that developing a more intersectional
awareness of your place in the world and being
able to critically examine your behaviors
is part of growing, and becoming a better
person. So yeah, this video is coming from
an honest, compassionate place; it isn’t
about judging others. It is about sharing
my honest thoughts about an issue I’ve been
mulling over in my head for months, and that
I think is important to address.
First I want to talk about white people traveling,
and the sort of privilege that goes along
with it. You might be thinking, oh no she’s
making this about race again… but yeah I
am because everything is about race and travel
is definitely no exception. As a result of
centuries of colonialism which allowed the
European empire to steal huge amounts of wealth
from Asia and Africa, most people who can
afford to travel today are white Westerners,
and most of the “locals” in the countries
they travel to are brown and black. I particularly
talk about being a white person travelling,
because it can’t be compared to being a
Black person travelling, even if you are from
the West. For all sorts of historical-politcal
reasons, White travelers are both feared and
respected as the face of wealth and imperialism
abroad, while Black travelers still experience
racism at the hands of white supremacy, which
is also present in Asia.
Most countries in South-east Asia, have a
bloody history of being colonized by white-
European nations, and of being destroyed by
racism, slavery, imperialism, and militarism.
Thailand is the only country in the region
not to have been directly colonized by the
British and the French, but its history is
still deeply shaped by western imperialism.
Colonialism may have ended, but it takes on
a warped form today, in these countries that
have had to develop their entire economy around
selling themselves as exotic tourist attractions
to lure white travelers, who’s money they
depend on for survival.
Unsurprisingly, White people feel perfectly
comfortable walking into these spaces, and
boasting about being free, adventurous, “off
the grid” world travelers, not realizing
that their experience is an active part of
maintaining colonial- capitalist structures
of power. They show up in “under-developed”
countries with fancy gear and more wealth
than the locals can imagine, and then just
kind of trample all over the place, feast
at the sight of local people, and take advantage
of the cheap prices.
For the rest of the video, I’ll be talking
specifically about vegans in Asia, and particularly
The Thai Fruit Festival. In case you don’t
know, this is a two-week festival which happened
for the second time this year in CM. It is
hosted by two popular Youtubers gurus named
Freelee the banana girl and Durianrider. I’ll
show you a quick clip that is about 1.5 minute
long of Durianrider doing a review of the
TFF with Banana TV because it really exemplifies
the type of ideology I’ll be talking about.
As you can see from the clip, but really from
anywhere, Chiang Mai has become repackaged
by vegans as this sort of deserted and exotic
paradise which is abstracted in time and space.
Since the first fruit festival a year and
a half ago, vegans have been flocking there
on vacation, or to settle down. Literally
tens of thousands of photos and videos have
since flooded Instagram and Youtube showing
basically 4 things: food, bikes, pristine
nature, and foreigners. From these photos,
you’d think these adventurous white people
have discovered a whole new land!
This is an example of blatant cultural appropriation.
Appropriation describes a particular power
dynamic in which members of a dominant group,
cherry pick elements from a culture that is
not theirs. When something is appropriated,
there is no regard for where the thing originated,
from what context, and who worked hard to
create it. It is just stolen and then used
to promote whatever the appropriator desires.
This is what happens when vegans go to Thailand
and custom design their experience, picking
and choosing tiny aspects of Thailand that
resonate with veganism, and leaving the rest.
There is generally a complete ignorance and
apathy about the history, language, geography,
culture, and politics of this land. There
is hardly any sense that Thai people actually
exist and live there. Well to be fair, vegans
do mention the thai people here and there,
but mostly just to point out that “asians
are skinny because they eat lots of rice,”
that they are friendly fruit vendors, or that
they give cheap massages. Otherwise, this
land could be anywhere and belong to anybody.
It doesn’t matter. What matters is that
vegans are there now.
But you might be thinking: well, if all travel
is problematic, why are you picking on vegans?
What I find particularly hypocritical about
the vegan movement, is that they juxtapose
this reality, which if we’re honest, is
nothing other than an exotic vacation, with
a noble discourse about saving the world,
living simply to cause “the lease amount
of harm,” and somehow doing all of this
“for the animals.”
If this festival is really about promoting
veganism worldwide, why aren’t these vegans
engaging with the local community? There is
not a single Thai local who actually attends
the festival, except if it is to serve them.
There are also very few thai locals who could
afford to eat frequent meals at vegan restaurant,
and that’s ignoring the fact they would
feel completely out of place in a huge group
of mostly white western vegans. The answer
to this question is painfully obvious. Vegans
in Thailand are not there to actually spread
and share this ethical philosophy around the
world. They are just using Thailand because
it is sunny, fruity, and as a foreigner, your
purchasing power is infinitely higher than
in the West. I’ve seen videos of Duriarider
telling attendees at the festival where to
get cheap massages, and how to effectively
barter the price of fruit down as much as
possible. Those are the real reasons why CM,
as Durianrider said, is the dream location
for a retreat like this.
The lack of examination about how this is,
and will continue to affect Chiang Mai in
the years to come is disappointing, especially
from a movement that claims to be about equality
and compassion. I’m no expert on Chiang
Mai. I can only make an educated guess on
its future based on what I know and what I
saw when I was there. I speculate that the
influx of vegan foreigners coming to vacation
and settle in Chiang Mai will continue to
hike up the prices so much that it will push
out Thai locals who are currently living there.
Vegans rejoice that their presence is causing
hundreds of vegan eateries to open in Chiang
Mai, a city cherished by thailand for its
rich historical and religious significance.
But from what I saw when I was there, these
restaurants are relatively pricy and there
is not a single local Thai person actually
eating in there.
So, I can’t help but wonder, what is the
point? Are vegans in asia just another elitist
and racist offshoot of the vegan movement
claiming to promote equality and inclusiveness?
Because all I see right now, is another exotic
disneyland in the middle of asia where white
tourists are being served by brown people.
This reminds me of the phenomenon in the West,
where relatively pricy vegan restaurants are
gentrifying poor neighborhoods of color. I
have a video on that which I’ll link down
below.
Instead of trying to address some of the complexities
that come with being a tourist in a foreign
county, vegans pat themselves on the back
for spreading the message and being good capitalists
who pumped money into the local economy. First,
I don’t see how having a festival of exclusively
already veganized Westerners in the middle
of thailand actually spreads veganism. But
that aside, this rhetoric of buying equality
with your dollar and having this lazy, dishonest
belief that veganism is the be all end all
of activism is exactly the hyper-capitalist,
single-issue, and elitist movement that is
not challenging the system in any meaningful
way. It isn’t revolutionary. You will not
change the world by vacationing in Thailand,
eating fruit, riding your bike up Doi Sutep
and posting about it on Instagram.
So I guess I need to wrap this up. I’m not
saying that white people can’t travel. What
I am saying, is that we need to be more aware
about what our presence means in these spaces.
Traveling “for the animals” doesn’t
mean you should feel entitled to ignore the
political, social, and historical climate
of the place you are walking into just because
hey, it is opening up vegan restaurants!


Vegans in Asia: Spreading the Message... or Neocolonialism?


All credits go to a privileged vegan