Eating Vegetarian in China

Written by Brendan Nuse, (Oberlin College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2015

While reading through past CET blog posts, I noticed that pretty much every one that I came across talked about food. What new experiences have you had in China?: new foods. What do you to bond with local students?: eat food. What has surprised you most after getting to China?: the food. Although this initially made me think that I should try to branch out and discuss a topic other than food, I realized that my experience with food is actually markedly different from the experiences of my predecessors on these blogs.

2015 Fall- Standing outside a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant_Brendan Nuse

Standing outside a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant

Since coming to China, I have been asked several times what my hobbies are. This has, unfortunately, made me realize that I don’t really have any hobbies. I tend to respond by saying that my only hobby is studying Chinese, but it has become somewhat a joke that my hobby is “吃素” (eating vegetarian). While I would like to say that this is an exaggeration, it certainly has a grain of truth. In the U.S., I definitely have my moments when I’m that angry vegan yelling about anthropocentrism in the back of the classroom. Also, every student here has to take a one-on-one class where they learn about and then do research about a topic of choice, and my topic is contemporary Chinese attitudes towards vegetarianism (I know I’m ridiculous. I’m sorry). However, as this is my first time living in (or even visiting) a foreign country, and as I’m well aware of how culture and food are intertwined, I’m trying to be a little more flexible than I would be normally be. Nonetheless, food has definitely been my central source of culture shock and has certainly served as a basis for many of my first impressions of China. Therefore, I’m going to provide a list of my first impressions living without meat in Kunming.

  1. There are a lot of different ways to talk about the presence or absence of meat in a dish.

When we first arrived in Kunming, we were given a variety of resources, including a “survival guide”, which featured many different useful tips on how to live in China. There was a brief section detailing what to do about ordering food as a vegetarian. It said that if you say “我不吃肉” (I don’t eat meat), people will often misunderstand and think that you only do not eat pork. Therefore, according to this survival guide, you should instead say “我吃素” (I eat vegetarian). However, I am not so sure about this tip. I have had a few times that I have said that I am vegetarian or asked if a dish was vegetarian and been told it was, only to have to send the dish back because it had meat in it. I think that sometimes saying that something is “素” does not necessarily mean it is vegetarian, but rather that the main component of the dish is not meat. In my one-on-one, I also learned that vegetarian food can be called “斋菜” among other things.

  1. The CET roommates and professors are very willing to accommodate vegetarians.

My first real meal in China was dinner with my roommate, two of his friends who are also roommates for CET, and their roommates. Before this meal I was very nervous and honestly a bit unhappy about the few hours I had had in China. I felt that my Chinese was not as good as I had previously thought, and I was worried that I wasn’t up to the challenge of living in a country as different from mine as China was. However, on our way to dinner, I mentioned that I was vegetarian and asked if that was a problem. The roommates that we were eating with assured me that it was certainly not a problem and spent quite a while discussing which local restaurants had a variety of vegetarian options. In fact, for some reason I still do not understand, they were temporarily convinced that because I was vegetarian they were not allowed to eat meat in my presence, so, until I managed to use my somewhat broken Chinese to convince them that this was not the case, they had decided to try to look for an exclusively vegetarian restaurant. This display of acceptance really meant a lot to me. Over the summer, I had gone to visit some relatives of mine, and, when we had trouble finding a restaurant that worked for everyone, they decided that we could just go to a hamburger restaurant and if there was nothing for me to eat, I could “just drink water”. Therefore, my expectations for random strangers in China were fairly low, so this level of accommodation really caught me off guard. I’m especially happy that this has been a trend throughout my experience so far. When dining out with the CET faculty and staff, they always make sure to order many, many vegetarian dishes, despite the fact that I am the only vegetarian out of everyone involved.

Everyone is happy after eating food from the Muslim dining hall.

Everyone is happy after eating food from the Muslim dining hall.

  1. A lot of Chinese people are interested in vegetarianism.

Although I mentioned earlier that I’m sometimes “that angry vegan”, that statement was mostly in jest. In the U.S., I often try to avoid talking about my dietary habits, because it seems like people are very quick to take my eating habits as a personal judgment on their morals. Therefore, I was very wary at first when almost every Chinese person I met asked me why I didn’t eat meat- I initially would only respond with “到时候再说吧” (let’s talk about it later- a polite way to say that you don’t want to talk about a topic). However, I eventually ended up having a conversation with my friend’s roommate, during which she mentioned that she wanted to be a vegetarian but wasn’t sure if it was feasible. I think that conversation was a turning point for my time in China, and she and I have now become quite good friends. Since then, I’ve met Chinese people who have said they are “interested “ in vegetarianism, Chinese people want to reduce their meat intake, Chinese people who don’t eat meat at dinner, and many Chinese people who say they want to eat vegetarian (though I still have yet to find an actual vegetarian). While in the U.S. I feel that I have to get defensive when people ask me why I don’t eat meat, in China this question constitutes an opportunity to talk to interested people about a topic that is important to me.

  1. I should probably consider converting to Buddhism.

I have had quite a few people here tell me that when they first met me they thought that I was Buddhist. As a person who attended a Christian church throughout his childhood, but doesn’t consider himself especially religious, this assumption caught me very off guard. However, I’ve learned that Buddhism has had a big impact on the history of vegetarianism in China. Although there are some vegetarians in China who are not Buddhist, and, actually, only one of the three varieties of Buddhism in China forbids eating meat, if you meet a Chinese person who is vegetarian, there is a good chance that they’re Buddhist. This also means that, as a vegetarian, it’s good to seek out Buddhist restaurants. I know of two different Buddhist vegetarian restaurants in Kunming, both of which are cheap and have food that not only I but also my meat-eating classmates, have enjoyed immensely. I don’t really know much about Buddhism, but it’s certainly starting to look like an interesting topic.

There’s also a Muslim-run dining hall on campus that features (usually) great food at extremely low prices. While it only bans pork, it often features a variety of tofu dishes, which is always a good thing in my book.

  1. Even if you don’t eat meat, there’s still a lot of great food in China!

Although I will never get to eat the famous “北京烤鸭” (Beijing roast duck), and I usually can’t eat Kunming’s iconic “米线” (rice noodles), as they’re often served in a meat broth, I have still eaten a lot of great food here. The frequency of soybeans, red beans, tofu, and soymilk has been something I have enjoyed very much. I love 馒头 (steamed buns) and eat at least one almost every day. Also, Yunnan’s plethora of 少数民族 (ethnic minorities) and its proximity to Southeast Asia mean that there is a very wide range of restaurants in Kunming, and I’ve had the pleasure of trying many different dishes (rice and mango? Sounds strange, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life). There’s really something for everyone.