Posted by Greg Brumberg on 4/24/2017
Back home I was vegan. I ate not meat, nor any animal products. I cooked for myself and did my own grocery shopping. I tried my best to make it easy for my parents. However, 6300 miles away, it’s a little different.
I knew it wouldn’t be feasible to be vegan while in China. I did not want to be a bother to my host family. I didn’t want to inconvenience them, and I also didn’t want to completely shut out many dishes.
I was forthright with my host family about my diet. I told them over WeChat before I came that I am vegetarian, and I told them again when I first arrived. At first, they weren’t sure what is meant. I got questions like can you eat eggs? What about fish? And of course, the age old questions: why are you vegetarian and where do you get your protein from? I simply answered their questions and explained to them my diet.
However, their response was equally valid: “but you won’t be able to try Peking roast duck.” There question speaks to the larger issue of being vegetarian or purposely limiting your diet while abroad. It’s not necessary to try all the dishes to be full immersed, but trying famous and celebrate dishes does give you a better sense of the culture and society. For example, Chinese people eat fish on the New Years because it is good omen. I had to make a choice. Do I want to participate in this celebration or do I want to uphold my values and not eat meat.
Ultimately, I struck a middle ground. I knew I was going to be flexible vegetarian before I came. I wouldn’t complain if my tofu was cooked with animal fat or cooked in a dish with meat. I would just give the meat to a friend. I also wasn’t going to fret meat broths. I knew there was nothing I could do about it.
For the first three weeks that I was here, I was paraded around China. I met various parts of the family and ate numerous large celebratory meals in the center of Beijing, the suburbs, and He Bei Province. For each one the meals, I would have a chopstick full of eat meat dish and then return to my tofu, rice, and vegetables. I ate meat. I tried dishes, and I pleased my host family. The majority of the food that I was eating was vegetarian, but I still tried some meat dishes.
After the honeymoon period of arriving in Beijing, I settled in for the day-to-day life of living in China. That meant no more fancy dinners. We had dinner at home every night. I do not mean for that to sound like a complaint, I love the dinners my host family cooks. From what I gather, Chinese parts show affecting my placing lots of food in their child’s plates. The parents will use their chopsticks to take food from the shared dishes and plop it down in front of the child without even asking. This is just an assumed part of the culture. I am fairly use to this sort of overfeeding and nourishment. I am Jewish. I love it when my grandmother places another large helping of mash potatoes on my plate. Still, this was more than I was expecting. I quickly got use to it and started to enjoy it. I wouldn’t have to take my own food, and my host family was showing their affection for me. This also meant that they would put meat on my plate. I would tell them that I would only want to try a little, but whole chicken legs would still end up on my plate.
Through tasting the meat dishes during the New Years celebrations and my host family giving me other meat during dinner, I feel that I have tried all the main meat dishes, and I can now focus on resuming a vegetarian diet.
For future vegetarian bounders, I have some advice. Learn the names of many different vegetables and meats, and know them well. Do not make the mistake I made of mistaking avocado (niu you guo) with bullfrog (niu wa). They may look very different, but when you first get here, people are speaking so fast and everything is a blur.
I believe you’ll be missing out if you remain vegetarian or vegan while in China. You will not be able to sample the local delicacies, and to some extend you will be inconveniencing your host family. I encourage you to try meat. To step outside your comfort zone. You may not like it, I definitely didn’t, but you will at least be immersing into the culture and trying something new. You can plan to be vegetarian, but know and expect to try some meat, and to be polite about your dietary restriction. The last thing we want is to give China a bad impression of the vegetarian/vegan community. We come in peace!