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 肉 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?