Vegetarianism and veganism are growing movements around the world, but in China, the concepts seem sparsely understood. Meike Sell talks through some of the challenges of veganism here in Qingdao.
In Germany, where I’ve been vegan for 8 years, everyone kept telling me it was going to be easy to eat vegan in China (I know). The first Chinese foods that came to my mind were rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables, and really really spicy food. Vegan eating has got easier and easier the past few years where I live, in a city where a large number of young, planetsaving students dictate the market.
I thought China wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. I had made sure to tell my intern agency about my vegan lifestyle. When I finally arrived around lunch time at my host mom’s house, I was greeted with a big bowl of soup noodles, from the middle of which — to my surprise – squid tentacles smiled up at me. I sighed inwardly. Maybe they forgot to tell her.
I sat down with my host mom to carefully discuss my requirements while she was preparing dinner, explaining that I don’t eat any animal products: no meat, no fish, no eggs. She offered me something small and white to eat that I had never seen before and didn’t understand the name of. It didn’t really taste like anything, so I just said “hao chi” and smiled.When I went upstairs to my room to look up what it was in my dictionary, after dinner, I found out that it was a type of shrimp.
Ok. I must have not been clear enough. Again, using my best Mandarin I tried to explain that I do not eat meat, fish or any other animals. This time I was sure my host mom had understood, because she even asked about the reasons for this (to her obviously very strange) way of living. The next morning at 8 o’clock I was called down for breakfast. Still starving from the long journey and the not very satisfying lunch and dinner the day before, I happily walked down the stairs awaiting a good Chinese breakfast — only without animal products. And what did I find in my bowl? — squid in my noodles. It took an exasperated call to my intern agency to stop the animal products appearing in my food. Was it a language barrier, or a refusal to understand? Out of curiosity, I started asking on the street what Qingdao’s people think vegans/vegetarians are.
In Chinese there is no real distinction between veganism and vegetarianism. 素食主义 sushizhuyi means “vegetablefood-ism”, but the perception of that word varies. Older Qingdaoren explained to me that although “vegetarians” did not eat meat, they still ate fish and shrimp and drank milk; younger people seemed a little bit more informed. 21-year-old June told me vegetarians would never eat meat, fish or shrimp. She also knew that some vegetarians do not eat meat out of compassion for animals. Another girl I interviewed was actually a vegetarian, but only because she doesn’t like the taste.
The only way to eat truly vegan in China would be to cook everything myself. But then I would miss out on so much of the experience I came here for. When you eat out in China, you have to be a “flexible vegan” and willing to turn a blind eye sometimes, because you never know what the cook uses to prepare your food and what little Mandarin I do have does not help there. Even if I were able to ask how the vinegar he uses is filtered, I think he would probably just laugh at the crazy waiguoren.
Being a little flexible with my food choices in Qingdao but still not letting go of all my values has proven a challenge, but it is manageable and even enjoyable. So all you vegans and vegetarians out there, don’t fret, you will not starve in China!
USEFUL PHRASES TO HELP YOU ORDER!
I am a vegetarian/vegan.
wǒ chī sù.
I do not eat any meat or fish.
wǒ bú chī rèn hé ròu lèi hé yú lèi
I do not eat milk, cheese, butter, eggs, honey, chicken stock, meat broth, fish stock, fish sauce or lard.
wǒ bú chī niú nǎi, nǎi lào, huáng yóu, jī dàn, fēng mì, jī tāng, ròu tāng, yú tāng, yú jiāng, zhū yóu.