(CNN)As public attention focuses on the impact of policy changes on the climate, we may overlook an important contributor to the climate crisis: our food systems and the daily food choices we make. It may sound hyperbolic that our roast beef sandwich is contributing to environmental degradation of the planet. But mounting evidence of the impact requires our attention and action as global citizens.
As a Chinese-American whose culture is centered around food and family (the typical "hello" greeting replaced by "Did you eat yet?"), my diet is an integral part of my identity. Part of the standard Chinese diet, there was never an absence of pork and chive dumplings or kung pao chicken at the dinner table, eaten with matching wooden chopsticks. Celebrations were filled with meat-based traditions, such as fish to bring abundance for the New Year and "longevity" noodles, dressed in a ground pork and black bean gown, to symbolize a long life ahead. Though our fridge was constantly filled with produce such as bok choy, napa cabbage, and taro root, it seemed impossible for me to give up my carnivorous ways. Those were the days I was shielded from the reality of factory farming by the fluorescent advertisements for the latest greasy bacon bomb. The slaughterhouses for me were still covered by images of happy cows prancing in lush meadows, eating their fill and enjoying long lives with their families. This couldn't be further from the truth.
After watching a snippet of the acclaimed documentary Earthlings and reading Dr. McDougall's The Starch Solution, the "eating" component of becoming a vegetarian was surprisingly simple once I set my mind to it. I told myself I could only have one omnivorous meal a day, and within a week, I was completely away from meat. After a couple more months, I had weaned myself off of dairy and eggs. At first, my mother believed that it was just a phase, like Kool-Aid hair dye or a fad diet. While the rest of my family feasted on multi-faceted meals, I was served a plate of boiled broccoli, and my mother told me to just "pick the meat out" of the stir-fry as another option. However, I was determined to stick to my new lifestyle, and the next day I attempted to cook my first dinner.
Enter tofu. A spongy, soft substance that had been part of my culture since birth. If my mother hadn't invited half of her American co-workers to my first birthday party, I'm sure that my cake would have been a slab of firm tofu slathered with tofu cream cheese and silken tofu mousse. Despite its constant presence, I had rarely chosen it over animal-based dishes, proclaiming it bland and oddly textured. However, converting to tofu has taught me many more lessons than plates of chicken fingers ever have.
Treasure all support. Not every restaurant serves meatless options, and not every human will support your decisions. Every encounter with a fellow vegetarian or vegan has brought me excitement and relief that I am not the only one who has seemingly seen the light. Though I have received my fair share of judgement, I have also received an overwhelming amount of support. Despite my mother's initial reluctance to provide a vegetarian option at the dinner table, on my first "veg-iversary," she too decided to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. One of my best friends has committed to becoming vegetarian, and every time I remember that I have made a difference, I can only help but smile.
Open your eyes. Suffering occurs all around us, in the forms of handbags, shoes, and restaurants. Tofu has taught me to see things beyond its glossy packaging. No celebrity has worn a tofu-stache on their lips and asked us to consider it for its high calcium and iron content. No happy soybeans have been pranced around on national television, asking you to sample a new chocolate or strawberry version. Beyond its extravagant packaging, meat is a euphemism for "flesh." Tofu, on the other hand, is simply the translation of the Chinese word "dofu" or soy bean curd. And soy bean curd it surely is.
Find the lifestyle that works for you. Nobody can become the "perfect" vegetarian or vegan. We are all at different places on our journeys to "making the connection," and it is important to respect that. Not everybody is ready for tofu in their meals, but perhaps they are ready to give up beef, or pork, or seafood. Tofu is accepting, still welcoming me with open arms even when I covered it with a meat sauce and forced it to play a supporting role alongside an animal-laden main dish. However, eventually, it became the star.
Use every resource. Without all of the books, blogs, and YouTube videos promoting a plant-based lifestyle, I would never have escaped my usual meat-eating habits in search of self-development in the aspects of health, sustainability, and ethics. In order to give back to the online community that supported me during my transition, I've slowly began coming out of my shell by posting some of my favorite cruelty-free recipes, answering questions on cruelty in the cosmetic industry, and sharing a fresh perspective from a Chinese, high school vegan who faces daily challenges. No matter your ethnicity, your religious beliefs, or your age, it is possible to eliminate animals and animal products from your diet.
Though tofu may not have played a major role in other people's journeys to finding vegetarianism or veganism, I have it to thank for allowing me to find a sustainable lifestyle that has assimilated with my culture. Long gone are my days of wrapping pork and chive dumplings with my grandmother; however, I'm sure she'll agree to make some tofu and vegetable ones instead.