By Amy Burbidge, long-term teacher in Guizhou (2015-2016)
For me the choice to move to China was a simple one, it offered the two opportunities that I wanted when leaving university: the chance to gain some more teaching experience and also to travel at the same time. However there was one question which could have derailed me choice to move to China- Can you be a vegetarian in China? Although this may not be a question for many people, choosing to be a vegetarian has been on the increase in the UK in recent years. I personally made this decision over 10 years ago now, so for me it was not an option to move somewhere and have to eat meat in order to have a meal. Having done some research on this topic before I applied I found it very difficult to gain a conclusive answer as I found conflicting information of people saying they found it easy and others saying it was impossible. While speaking to Arnold, the director of Teach English In China he assured me that it would be possible to be a vegetarian in China. With this the move to China was now in motion and I have found the challenge of being a vegetarian is not so challenging after all.
As I arrived at camp in Beijing being a vegetarian I was handed a lanyard with the words vegetarian wrote on in mandarin. At meal times all we had to do was to take this with us and the cooks would make sure that we had a vegetarian meal- so far so good. After a few weeks I headed to my new home in the southwest of China. Being greeted by two of my new work colleagues they suggested that the three of us should go and get some food together, with this they asked if I had any preference of what to go and eat. I replied that I was happy to eat anything barring the fact that I don’t eat meat as I’m a vegetarian- this was greeted by them exchanging a surprised look and one that I thought didn’t hold too much promise for my remaining 11 months in China. We headed to a restaurant where they ordered one of the local Guizhou specialist foods which translates to silk babies. We were each handed a stack of extremely thin pancake like food and a huge tray of small bowls filled with a variety of vegetables were placed in the centre of the table- a few bowls did contain some meat but I easily avoided these and still had plenty of choice. I made different combinations of fillings each time I ate for the different pancakes and then added the sour and spicy juices. As I started to feel full I was told by my fellow colleagues that I hadn’t ate enough and I had to eat more with this I believed that being a vegetarian in China would actually be a doddle.
Later into the evening when being shown my apartment I noticed that although I had a kitchen in my apartment it consisted of 4 walls a ceiling and a floor meaning cooking would be a slight challenge as I had no facilities to do so at all. Due to the fact that I live on a campus where the students aren’t allowed to leave during the weekdays the facilities available are quite extensive to the point of it being like a miniature town with multiple canteens, supermarket, restaurants, cafes and coffee houses. My first week exploring the different places to eat was great however I was also quick to realised that with being a vegetarian I needed at least to learn how to explain that I didn’t eat meat. This may be something which may sounds quite basic to anyone else but for someone who struggled to learn how to speak French at school learning Chinese would not be an easy task. I started practicing my Chinese but I was often, by often I mean always, received by blank looks from the staff serving food. Being the first ever foreign teacher in the school meant I was received with some excitement but with the language barrier of their English being as good as my Chinese they tried to be friendly though piling on and personally paying for meat which I had carefully avoided while choosing my vegetarian meal. After explaining to no avail that I don’t eat meat I had a brain wave. I paid for my meal and gestured that I would be back soon. I walked back to my apartment after 5 minutes I began my return to the canteen and presented them with vegetarian card after they read it they realized that I am a vegetarian after what I assumed was an apology they made up my meal again this time without the meat and gave me this meal for free even though I tried to insist on paying.
I was soon to learn that the concept of getting meat free meals in China can be daunting task. Even though it is a country known for the large population of Buddhists and also for the invention of tofu sometimes getting a meat free meal can take some time or the use of a translator app to explain what you want. During my time traveling to more developed and westernized city I have found getting a vegetarian meal much easier as they understand the term vegetarian a little more than people in rural areas. Smaller places will often say they understand, serve you a meal and yet you will still find small pieces of meat in the dish as for them this is a way of improving the meal and/or garnishing it. There are vegetarian restaurants which you can find out about with some research and they are generally some around Buddhist temples too however if you are planning on living or travelling around China cheaply these restaurants often won’t be suitable as they can be expensive. Western restaurants which I have visited have always had a vegetarian option but again these can be quite expensive and are generally a treat meal for me and my friends when we decide to indulge.
I have found that the longer I have stayed in China the easier I have found being a vegetarian. Where I live I have my regular spots where I eat and now the people who work there understand that I am a vegetarian and will help me with my ordering. Also in my still very limited Chinese I can ask if there is any meat in the dish and explain that I am a vegetarian. I do also have a picture of my vegetarian card which I keep on my phone so if I really am struggling to get my point across I can use this. Here’s 5 tips about being a vegetarian in China:
1- Be patient. I have not yet met a Chinese person that hasn’t been willing to go out of their way to understand what you want. They just don’t necessarily understand the concept of being a vegetarian, however you will get there eventually.
2- Carry around a snack. I have often heard stories of vegetarians missing a meal due to them being busy then having to look for a meal and it taking a long time and causing them to become angry through hunger. Carrying a snack can help you subside the feeling of being overwhelmingly hungry if you have to search for or spend some time explaining that you want a meal with no meat.
3- Learn different ways to explain you are a vegetarian or even a Buddhist. I have found that sometimes as it is not expected that a foreigner will know Chinese, you can say the right thing for them to reply that they don’t understand. Or if you use the wrong tone they will not be able to work out what you are saying. To help with this problem I asked some of my Chinese friends to help with my pronunciation and now I can quite easily order no meat meals.
4- Try and learn the Chinese characters for meat- they are pretty basic. Although some places have English translations on the menu many don’t so knowing the characters for the different meats can come in very helpful.
5- Take everything with a pinch of salt. In my time in China I have not ate any meat but I also realize that I will have most likely ate remnants of meat, meat juice and possible broths that have had meat in them. Some occasions I have myself took out small pieces of meat and I know that when cooking they don’t change pans for food that doesn’t contain meat.
Most places do vegetarian meals or if they don’t the staff will normally happily alter a meal for it to be a vegetarian meal. The places to avoid are generally very easy to spot as they’re meat specialty shops and will have assorted meat hanging around the shop or stall. So for me at least even living in a rural part of China where their English is very basic if you are lucky being a vegetarian is possible it just takes some getting used to and practicing a little Chinese.