I went to a barbecue that one of my old roommates was hosting last weekend and had a surprising encounter. As I am mingling with friends and strangers alike I come upon a young woman in the buffet line, spoon in hand. “Here is some carna asada for you.” “Oh, no thank you,” I said with a smile. “I don’t eat beef.” She looks at me with a quizzical look and replies, “You don’t eat beef, why? Are you vegetarian?” I explain I’m not a vegetarian but my family is Hindu and out of respect for them I don’t eat beef.” Clearly not satisfied with the explanation she asked if I were Hindu, to which I replied, “no”. “Well I think that’s stupid,” she says.
I am stunned by her comment. My not eating beef is stupid? Hinduism is stupid? Or is my choice to respect my family stupid?...What exactly does she mean I wonder? More so, why does she think it is okay to tell me, a complete stranger, that she feels that what I am doing is stupid? Not sure how to respond I take a few minutes to frame my words. “maybe you don’t understand the religious aspect of it," I say good naturedly. "Yes, that could be it," she replies. "Can you explain it to me?" She listens patiently as I give her a synopsis of why a cow is sacred to Hindus. In Hinduism, cows milk symbolizes life because as babies we need milk to live. In essence, without milk our bodies do not get nourishment and cannot survive. As basic as this explanation is, I’m still uncomfortable with the conversation as I find it unnecessary to go into detailed ruberic about religion at a barbecue. Still, she presses the issue, her tone taking on a hint of irritation she says, “It makes no sense to me, I mean there is soy milk, almond milk, goats milk...why would Hindus choose cows milk above all else...almond milk is better for you anyway.” Once again I stand there amazed by the fact that she thinks it okay to speak to me in this manner. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if she is genuinely questioning a religion to better understand the matter for herself, or if she is merely being flippant. Her lack of knowledge concerning Hinduism is not what baffles me in the least. Rather, it is the manner she has chosen to discuss the topic. It is the fact that she has either not been informed of socially acceptable norms or has a blatant disregard for them. She then turns to my friend (who is from the Czech Republic) and states, “ I suppose you believe in what Hindus do as well?” We are both equally surprised. Neither of us are Hindu, nor hold deep seated beliefs about a particular religion, so remaining removed from the discussion is not a difficult task. However, this woman’s lack of self awareness and respect for social norms continues to puzzle me, as I stand wondering what her emotional intelligent quotient is. I look up and acknowledge her points on the differences between milk products. I wonder if I should go further and state that I am pretty certain almond milk and soy milk haven’t been around as long as Hinduism, or that not all religious beliefs are universally accepted. In the end I decide that my statement is useless and move on, as anything I say will likely fall on deaf ears. But would a more thorough explanation have freed her from her naivete? If we do not teach who will?