Monday, April 27, 2009

A Vegetarian's Introduction to China

Here is another repost of mine from Lost Lao Wai. You can find the original post, with some VERY interesting discussions in the comments here.


Since I moved to China eight months or so ago, I've came across a large amount of challenges. They have ranged from communication breakdowns, to awkward stares, to being witness to things that you just can't unsmell. However, the question that I have been asked the most by my friends and family back home have centred around one clear topic, food.

I have spent much of the last five years as a practicing vegan. While this decision is one that I certainly consider to be a great one, it has certainly not made dining easy, especially in China, where meat is less an option and more a way of life. Worry not though, fellow herbivores, maintaining your lifestyle choices can be possible in the Middle Kingdom.

Eating an animal free diet in China is indeed a challenge, but one that is certainly possible to overcome. But before you step right in, you need to be clear of meat's place in China, both on the tables and in the minds of the people.

Meat is considered by many Chinese to be a status symbol, as it is generally more expensive than fruits and vegetables. As a result, the wealthy people tend to eat the most meat. This is a huge reason as to why the global consumption of meat has increased so rapidly in recent years. The Chinese are getting richer, and therefore consuming far more meat. This means that a wealthy foreigner should obviously eat lots of meat, since we clearly have lots of money.

Clearly, this in itself gives you quite the uphill battle. I had many occasions were I would communicate that I do not eat meat and it would be followed up with some very quizzical looks from the locals. It's not that I felt judged or harassed for my beliefs, I was just alien to them.

That being said, it still doesn't hurt to try to tell people that you are a vegetarian. If you can say the following phrase (or show the following characters) to a waiter, you could be off to a good start. "Wǒ shì sùshízhǔyìzhě" (我是素食主义者), this translates pretty directly to “I am a vegetarian”, which is of course a very useful thing to say. However, to be honest, I find it to be quite a mouthful to say, and don't feel that I can do it properly with all of the “sh” and “zh” sounds being thrown around. So if your Mandarin sounds as garbled as mine, try the much easier "wǒ bù chī ròu" (我不吃肉), which is saying “I eat no meat”.

Also, in many traditional Chinese dishes, meat is used less for substance, and more for seasoning. There are many great dishes in China that use just a little bit of meat to add flavour to the food (I would assume because the original cooks were too poor to use all of the animal), so be prepared for many dishes to contain some sort of meat in them.

Menus at Chinese restaurants can often involve some interesting, and unintentionally misleading translations, which can lead you to get tofu full of beef chunks, or a plate of broccoli given to you covered in ham. This can be avoided by a simple bit of character recognition. The character means “meat”, and it appears on most menu items that would contain any meat, as the direct translation of beef and pork are “cow meat” and “pig meat” respectively. So if you think that you see something like “Grandmothers fragrant garden roots”, check to find that character, because those garden roots may end up smelling like pig intestines. I find that character easy to remember, as it looks like a few cows in a pen unaware of their fate, or two wishbones sitting on a table waiting to be cracked.

If you still aren't certain, sometimes it can be helpful to point at something on the menu and ask "zhè ge yǒu méiyǒu ròu" (这个有没有肉) which is “Does this have meat?” and hope that they say "méiyǒu (没有)" indicating that there is no meat and you can stop stressing about the ordering and get back to enjoying your meal.

Of course the most important thing to remember, is to relax. There will more than likely be times were you are brought something with eyes or a beak on it despite your best efforts. My best advice in those situations is to just give the food to your friends (Chinese meals are meant to be family style anyway), and enjoy your rice or whatever else you may have. Then get ready to try again for the next meal, which of course may be soon given that you only had rice for dinner.

China can be a very frustrating place for a lao wai, but if you try to skip the food and stay with the Western establishments then you are missing out on an interesting and important part of Chinese society. So, Veggies out there, please do yourself a favour and try to brave some Chinese restaurants. After all, with the rate things are going here, all the Western restaurants will just be KFC soon enough anyway, then what are you going to eat?

Safe journeys,


Monday, April 13, 2009

A Cultural Conundrum

Before I get into this, I have a wee bit of news to say. I have started blogging on a Chinese Expat blog site called Lost Lao Wai (Lao Wai = Chinese slang term for foreigner) as of a few minutes ago. I have just submitted my first post, which will be reposted here, for people too lazy to click on a different link.

So I present to you the first of (hopefully) many posted that was originally made on Lost Lao Wai!


For those of you who have been in China know that “Hello! Where are you from?” is not an uncommon thing to hear from a complete stranger. However, last weekend, while I was on vacation in Qingdao, I was asked this in a rather uncommon way, that has got me thinking a rather uncommon thought.

I was enjoying my long Tomb Sweeping weekend in the breezy, quaint (by Chinese standards) city of Qingdao. It was my last day before I had to fly back to reality, so I was enjoying a nice stroll on the beach. The goal was to start at the May 4th Monument, and make my way down, past the Granite Mansion, and work my way back to the hostel that I stayed at.

On the second stop on the scenic walk, I came to a place called Music Square, which in reality is just a very large tent with a bunch of people singing, being lead by a group of very enthusiastic individuals in the middle. I walked along the outskirts, looking in, and having a smile. I have always enjoyed, and slightly envied, the Chinese outdoor singing and dancing that takes place frequently over here.

And that's when I heard it.

“Hello! Where are you from?” a stranger panted to me.

It was a guy dressed in bright red from head to toe, including his microphone headset. Upon spotting me, he ran out of the centre to introduce himself. I told him where I'm from, and he asked me, with a host of spectators, if I would go and sing a song with them. I tried to duck it by saying that I didn't know the words, and he assured me that it would be in English. Running out of excuses, I caved to the peer pressure, and agreed. In I went, dragging my Chinese travel companion in with me, whom he had somehow neglected to ask to join.

Now would be a good time to say one thing. My singing voice could be best described as the auditory love child of a growling badger and a dentist drill with a faulty motor.

As I stood in line with all of the other wannabe-pop-stars, the man who dragged me in said a few words in Chinese, all that I could clearly make out was “jia na da ren” and “ying wen” which translates to “Canadian” and “English”, clearly he was talking about me, but it must have been good because it was met with a rowdy ovation from the crowd. I was handed a microphone and my heart sank a bit.

A familiar tune struck, and I knew that I had heard it before, but where? A song from my youth? No. Something that I had heard in Scotland? I think so. As a few bars passed, I realized it. I had heard it sung very drunkenly every January 1st for as long as I can remember.

Like most people, I have heard Auld Lang Syne many times, but either myself, the singers, or all of the above, were far too inebriated to say the words properly. To my surprise the crowd started singing a Chinese version, leaving the English/Scots version to me.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind.
Something, something, something, something, something, something, something.
Uhhh uhhh uhhh uhh hmmmmm hmmmm hmmm uhhh uhh uhhh uhhh uhh hmmmmmm
For auld lang syne my dear, for auld lang syne!

...and so on, and so forth.

As the audience clapped out the finish of the song, I felt my Scottish ancestors roll over in their grave.
After I left the song circle to more applause, and resumed my leisurely stroll, I got to thinking. One of the main reasons that I moved here to China was to be exposed to a different culture, and maybe learn a few things about this fascinating place, a goal which has been met with varying degrees of success over the past few months. But what parts of my culture and identity have I been able to show these people here?

Before anyone starts to clamour that I am some sort of a Western imperialist here to “civilize the hordes”, please hear me out. I am of the firm belief that no cultural interactions can ever be one sided. The countless stares that foreigners receive is imparting some view of Western culture onto the locals, whether it is the clothes, hair styles, or public comportment, we are making some sort of impression, right or wrong, on the people that we interact with. This means that my major cultural contributions have been zip-up hoodies, shaggy/receding hair, and giggling in public, I'm a regular Marco Polo alright.

Now, of course, the longer we stay in Asia the more we can see that Western culture is absolutely everywhere. So, perhaps any curious parties around here do not need any Westerner to teach them about their culture, since they have probably heard enough Western music, worn enough Western clothes, and celebrate enough Western holidays.

But surely there has to be more to Western culture than Nike and McDonald's right? I think that it is our duty to try to pass on the less known, and dare I say more real aspects of our culture and traditions to anyone who is curious and interested, which judging by the stares and random questions, is probably a lot of people here.

Yet, here I was, with a chance to show of my Celtic tradition, by singing a very famous song written by the Scottish National Poet, and yet all I could fumble out was the first line and part of the chorus. I know that I could have easily sang more words of Ice, Ice Baby and Oops, I Did it Again, neither of which I'm very proud of.

So, with all of you blogees as my witness, I am going to make more of an effort to learn more about my real culture to be able to pass on to any interested parties on this side of the Pacific, because lord knows I'm interested in them.

However, I'm really at a bit of a loss as to where to start. I've tried to explain hockey, bilingualism, maple syrup, apologies, and other things Canadian, but as for my family's British roots, I am a bit lost. So I am making a very public vow to talk to members of my family, and do some research on my traditional culture.

I am not certain if I will be taking to Highland Dancing, Irish Jigging, Burns recitals, or anything else of that sort, but surely I'll be able to think of something. I think that Western Culture can offer a great deal to anyone who is interested, however, a number of us laoweis here seem to be stricken with a great deal of guilt and perceive ourselves as neo-imperialists, and are paralyzed to share none of our rich histories or traditions with many people who may be interested in learning about them. As such, we are leaving the impression that there is little more to the West than Britney Spears and Wall-mart, and if we don't do something to show people otherwise, then they may just be right.


Safe journeys,