“I’m a vegetarian!”; “So, you eat chicken?”

I am in no way a veggie. On the contrary, I am a big meat eater and all round food lover. My best friend however has been a veggie all her life. It took me a long time to get around the fact that she was so – in my eyes – picky!

I asked her before she departed for China, “How are you going to feed yourself there?” because of course to my mind, the Chinese are the biggest “eat-everythingers” I know! I seriously doubted she would be aided by practical foreign menus with veggie dishes pointed out by a little green leaf on the side. It was a very brave decision I thought for her to adventure out here for this fact alone!

And I was right.

A year on in Shanghai and we went out to dinner with a bunch of her Chinese friends last weekend. They often go out for meals together, so you would think they were used to her vegetarianism by now.  She let one of the guys do the 点菜Diǎn cài (order food). I saw dish after dish brought out to our table, all of them containing either fish or meat in pieces, shreds or scraps. Her friends seemed to think that because some of them only contained a little bit of meat, this made it OK, and they were trying to cajole her into eating some. “This one is duck, you can eat this, here, try!”…

Out of the ten dished he ordered, three were vegetables and one of those three was really too weird to eat, some corn cakes with fruit on top and hot orange juice poured over the lot. She nibbled quite a bit at it… Out of enjoyment? Out of hunger? I forgot to ask… But although vegetable dishes here are often amazing, the guy’s poor ordering made for quite a meager feast for my friend, or rather no feast at all.

I used to be the first one to pick fun at her, insisting that she was crazy for not eating meat, defending my view that it was a silly luxury to be so picky and go against the natural food chain. There was hardly a meat-laden meal that went by where the topic wouldn’t arise. I would munch on chops, steak or whatever the cut of the day was and gush over how succulent it was and how much she was missing out on. If she was unlucky enough for there to be another meat lover present there would always ensue a “You’re a vegetarian? God I’ve never understood vegetarianism” and me responding “I know!” with a glance at my friend speaking for itself “you see, I’m not the only one to think so!

I knew it would annoy her but I just couldn’t help it! Vegetarianism was beyond me and don’t even get me started (still today) on vegans!

We went on a near two-month long road trip together around Eastern Europe a while ago where we had had many a conversation – if not a few confrontations – about her choice. At the end, I was not wooed, but my understanding of it grew.

She rejected meat from her first bite and has never eaten meat in her life. Amongst many other reasons, her choice was backed by her strong desire NOT to encourage the already exploding animal slaughtering industry now based on producing way more meat than we actually need for a balanced diet. I’m talking about the inhumane treatment of the animals, super-farms, food-waste and basically, the ultra-large scale on which we operate today. I can kind of understand that.

So I came to accept this veggie perspective.

Today however, watching her close-up continue her continual struggle to defend her choices and beliefs, I feel great empathy.

It isn’t that hard to find veggie dishes in China, I speak for Shanghai of course, but there is a continual cultural reminder of your oddity, because here, far more than in the West, there are no vegetarians (well except Buddhist monks) and you order food as a group not as an individual.

The man joining in with that comment “You’re a vegetarian? God I’ve never understood vegetarianism” is now every person you dine with, but worse, because the average Chinese person doesn’t even understand the concept of vegetarianism. They will think you don’t eat only one kind of meat and will try to push meat onto your plate at every opportunity! They will, in their own way, laugh at the fact that you don’t eat meat, and the laughter never dies. My friend now basically has to suffer me, times ten, all the time.

So for those of you out there who, like my friend, are vegetarians too and unwilling to give that up to discover some of the meaty gems of China, here are some phrases that might help you at the 餐厅Cāntīng (restaurant): you will find this phrase 我是一个素食主义者Wǒ shì yīgè sùshí zhǔyì zhě around the internet but it is not only really hard to say but old Chinese.

Try either 我吃素食Wǒ chī sùshí meaning “I eat vegetarian food”, but as they might still think you eat some sorts of meat, you can also say “我不吃肉” Wǒ bù chī ròu (I don’t eat meat), and if asked “Do you eat chicken” (or any other animal) you should add “所有都不吃” Suǒyǒu dōu bù chī meaning that you don’t eat any at all (meats). It can also help to wave your head fervently when saying this and stressing each word!

Good luck veggie mateys! And for the rest of you who – like me – love meat: they’re still missing out, aren’t they?

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