Blissfully Aware: An Interview with Alyson
Recently I had the chance to do a sort of long distance sit down with my dear friend Alyson. Alyson currently lives in Macau, China and is one of the owners and operators of a vegetarian restaurant, The Blissful Carrot. She has an amazing and VERY interesting bio with loads of traveling and animal sciences being a major theme. Her time in Macau has led her to her passion in food. She works hard to teach people about sustainability in farming and the environment. She has broken incredible barriers in Macau and has been a staunch supporter of her community. If ever there's a situation that needs assistance on the streets of Macau, you're sure to find Alyson there busting her tail feathers to make things happen. She was one of the first civilians to hit the streets and start to rebuild after last years typhoon and she will be one of the first on the streets for the next one. Her passion and enthusiasm is contagious and she serves as a great inspiration for others across the globe.
Read on to find out more about Alyson, and what she is doing to make big changes in Macau.
1) Tell us a bit about your background. Where your from, who you are, what you do, etc.
I'm from Washington State, I grew up in a very conservative small farm town and went to University at a really progressive green school, Western Washington University.
I'm a Mama. Earth Soldier. Animal Lover. Ferment Enthusiast. Farm Obsessed. Lady.
And I've found in Macau, China of all places, a village to make my passions my entrepreneurial mission.
2) Tell us about your travels. Where have you been? What led you there? As a kid I had world maps plastered all over my walls. I hoarded almanacs and even driving maps even though I had never been out of my home state. I don't know why I was so fascinated with geography, roads, borders, topographic mountain ranges. At the same time I secretly sent away for National Geographic animal cards and obsessively reviewed their facts. That's normal kid stuff, right? I took a year abroad to the UK from Western Washington University and that was it for me. I solo traveled on all my breaks there through Scandinavia and Europe and came back a changed person. I was no longer satisfied with a predictable life. My degree set me on a path of field research with sea turtles and at risk marine mammals. For the better part of a decade I studied marine mammal populations and stranding seasons around Hawaii, Texas, and Florida. My position in St. Pete, Florida was my first long term job working in marine mammal strandings. My itchy feet got the better of me and I decided to take one more short term field work job in the Caribbean in St Croix. Leatherback sea turtles were one of the last species I had yet to work with. That serendipitous decision to leave a permanent job led me to a dive shop that my future husband would own and the rest is a very unorthodox history! We moved around the Virgin Islands, ran a luxury charter yacht that took us from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, to Turks and Caicos and all around the islands in between. We eventually found land again. And more traditional work in animal fields and boat work respectively.
3) How did you end up in Macau, China? One afternoon, I got a call at the animal hospital I was working at in St. Thomas, with my husband asking if I'd ever consider China. At that moment I was covered in puppy diarrhea and holding a very angry iguana and answered without hesitation: If our dog can go, I'm in. My husband accepted a diving job in a massive scale Vegas type show in "Vegas of the East" centered around the biggest commercial pool in the world. We left a few weeks later after nearly 7 years in the Caribbean. I always tell people that one of the best things about Macau is it's proximity to everywhere else! The international airport is a 5 minute drive from our place, 20 if you feel like walking. A 1-4 hour flight in any direction can put you on a completely different adventure; the beaches of the Philippines, the nightlife of Bangkok, the floating lantern rivers in Vietnam, or yoga in the rice terraces of Bali. After nearly 8 years here we actually find ourselves going back to the same places. Surprisingly instead of checking off a never ending bucket list, we find ourselves missing the people we've become friendly with in familiar places around SE Asia, the restaurants that feel like home, and the places that we can navigate lazily and like a local.
4) Tell us about the Blissful Carrot? How did it come about? What led you on this path? The Blissful Carrot is the story of a whim that turned into the experience of a lifetime. I met my best friend in Macau, Marisa, just a few weeks after arriving. People told us we should meet. That we would "like each other!" I was kind of put off by the idea that people thought we would like each other just because we were both American and in the same age range. But then we met. We kind of looked alike. And we loved each other from the start! We found we both loved any adventure that involved food or collecting unique ingredients to make food with! We traveled to Hong Kong a bit, packing suitcases of organic kale, finding new green shops...doing "research" at local beer festivals. We would make food for our friends for get togethers. Marisa soon became a private chef on the fly for some of the performers and staff at the show both our husbands worked with. (Her husband Aaron is a world class diver and acrobat. ) We both started our families. One day she came around for lunch when my little guy was just 10 days old and her son had just turned one year old. She had walked past a place that an agent was showing someone else in the village. Her spontaneity and "anything is possible" attitude led to keys to the space just a few days later. A completely spontaneous decision that, I suppose, we thought would just be a creative outlet for us to feed our friends in family has evolved in the past few years to become a model of sustainability and a place that people seek out to get real food. We've gotten to do some really fun things, we started a Farmer's Market, we catered for movie sets and Hollywood actors (which payed for a complete renovation just a year in!) we've served Madonna, Bruno Mars... The Blue Man group helped me make kombucha one night (lol)...but the thing I am always most proud of is that we have become a friendly community hub.
5) What was it like starting a business in a foreign country? How did you incorporate yourself into the community? Two foreign women. A government system that can move at sloth speed. Two national languages. We speak neither. Not a recipe for success. Not to deter anyone, as we would do it again in a heartbeat, but it has definitely had it's make or break challenges. I think a lot of people would have stopped at the first several very expensive lawyers visits, or when they got served a deportation notice. And someday we'll tell the story of the time my partner got hauled off to jail with her three year old in tow, lol.
I am glad that we didn't have the foresight to know the challenges ahead and instead led with our hearts and a whole heck of a lot of blind determination. Only now, in our fifth year have we seen how persistence and pure determination has led to more local acceptance. Hands down one of the most satisfying experiences has been being recognized as one of the first visits most new expats make when they move to Macau. I have so much pride in knowing that we are a comfort for people to find food that can accommodate specific diets, a hub for connecting new people with old timers in Macau, and a place that gives hope that sustainability as a lifestyle is recognized here. That they can recycle their bottles, buy reusable ecowear, and get connected with local eco initiatives under the umbrella of our shop.
6) Tell us about why you are passionate about plant based lifestyles. What are your greatest aspirations for creating a plant based food community When I first got to Macau I really mourned what a career with animals would have looked like. I would never be able to attend vet school on this path, I had a hard time even volunteering because of the language barrier (although none the less have had great experiences!). My journey of The Blissful Carrot has evolved into a way that we can talk about how your food choices directly impact the earth, your fellow human beings, and ethical treatment of animals on a massive scale compared to the small populations of endangered species exclusively. It took one walk through the Red Market in Macau to see chickens being bled out alive, frogs being skinned alive, fish heads still moving, to realize there was zero difference between the food I was eating and the animals I thought I was so vehemently protecting. I became plant based and made a quick decision to go vegetarian. We are also at a massive disadvantage being as there is no farm land here. We are a tiny, people dense, urban jungle. Nearly every bit of fresh food here is imported. If you are a meat eater, guaranteed even the nicest cut of steak has traveled for weeks to get to your plate. We lack any kind of organic produce. As a matter of fact our tiny shop was the first to break red tape and team with a family owned organic farm to bring in 100's of kilos of produce every month as the first community supported agriculture (CSA) program in Macau. Having met so many people coming from so many different eating perspectives, we realized that you don't have to be an animal lover to come to plant based eating. My husband is a vegetarian because it makes him feel better. I know people who are plant based because they are passionate about supporting farmers and ethical consumption. I know people who are plant based here simply because they don't trust the food system As a plant based platform I argue simply for moderation and conscious consumerism. Know where your food is coming from. Understand that the way you eat directly impacts not just your life, but everyone's.
7) What are you most excited about right now? Upcoming projects? Family life? I am most excited to work with groups like Macau Urban Sustainability ( we our serving as founding members) and GreenFuture Macau on projects that will bring small working food gardens into schools and push for fair trade and organic menus across Macau. We are also helping to collaborate to bring green packaging to any restaurant who wants to make an ethical switch. Family wise...I am excited for some R & R! We are off to southern Vietnam next week and next month to the green forward city of Tulum, Mexico to gather some inspiration and reunite with my newly relocated partner and bestie Marisa and her family. 8) You are passionate about the environment and removing single use plastics from your community. How did you get started with this? From the very beginning we have sourced the greenest packaging we could find. It's hard to admit, but at the start we had to import from the UK. There was just nothing available. When I say it was difficult to find, we had taxi's dropping us off in vacant industrial areas and literally knocked on factory doors. Our demand coupled with with the burgeoning awareness of what we are doing to this planet created a demand and in the past several years, factories are pivoting away from single use. I don't know of any restaurant who was using all plant based packaging before we were. That being said advances are being made and we are constantly trying to find even more sustainable solutions. It is really difficult to do on a large scale, cost wise because the minimum orders are high for a factory to work with you. It's an absolute non-negotiable for us. 9) What struggles have you encountered with building a community in your area? How have you overcome them? Language! We try. When people say--ohhhh but you've lived here so long, why don't you know Cantonese? Well, Cantonese is only spoken here and in HK. It's different than Mandarin. The written language takes a literal genius to learn if you ask me :) This contributes to a great separation in our overlap of communities, but we have been bridging the gap as a mission this past two years! We try hard to translate everything now and I have attended more Chinese speaking events with someone "whisper translating" next to me than I can count! It helps that my new partner, Syen is not only a genius foodie with a heart of gold, but Cantonese is also her native language. I see a veil of comfort when people speak to her instead of me sometimes, and I am ok with that! 10) What is your favorite thing about living in Macau?
I love me some temples, traditions, the absolute safety, and the family oriented culture here. I love how warm and open people are in involving us in customs and holidays. I love the village we live in and the local people who insist on keeping it old and funky.
From an entrepreneurial and social change viewpoint, I love being able to be part of a movement on the ground level with a really passionate base of people from all corners of the globe. I wouldn't trade our hardships here that have created long lasting change for anything.
It also doesn't hurt that Bali is always a plane flight away :)
Thank you Alyson! You are truly an inspiration. My favorite take away message from all of this is that the path you think you've chosen may not be the one you end up on. Never let anything get in the way of your dreams and passions. Kudos to you friend