Being vegetarian in China is hard.
It’s not that there isn’t an abundance of vegetables, or that there aren’t enough options, it’s that the people preparing the food simply don’t understand what “vegetarian” means.
My first encounter with this happened one morning last week when the grandpa I buy my veggie buns from happened to run out of my usual order.
“Ah, it’s fine,” I told him.
“It’s okay,” he assured me. “This is also vegetarian.”
I eyed the bun he held, already packaged and ready for me to eat.
“No meat?” I asked warily.
“No meat,” he assured me with a grin.
I paid him the however many cents it was and went back to my room. Upon taking a bite, something felt… odd. There was an abundance of mushrooms, which usually meant that it was probably vegetarian. But then my teeth sank into something tougher. I inspected my meal.
Thin strips of meat were embedded between the mushrooms. My mind went through a series of evaluations: if I were to throw it away, I would be wasting food and the animal that died for this wouldn’t come back to life. If I kept eating it, I might have digestive issues in the next hour or so.
After weighing my options, I kept eating it. I was rather disgusted with each bite, but fortunately my bowels were fine. This is a scenario that would replay itself throughout the week.
The second time it happened was when I was getting lunch. I had ordered a tofu rice bowl and confirmed that it was 100% vegetarian, no meat whatsoever.
Then, as I was eating my tofu, I noticed something red underneath. Imitation crab, hot-pink ham, and some mystery meat. I gagged, but finished my meal nonetheless. Having not eaten meat in years, I’m actually surprised I didn’t throw up—or run straight to the toilet. But I think eating the mystery meat helped solidify my decision to be vegetarian—that stuff is absolutely gross and horrendously salty.
Now, the next two times this happened, I was in a group setting—more or less with the same group. Yamada-san, my former classmate, invited me to a dinner with the other Japanese students on Saturday night (Sep. 14).
It was a friendly, lively dinner with copious amounts of alcohol (I drank water) and seafood (I ate the tofu and veggies that garnished the dishes). But it was at that dinner that I realized I now wince when people are peeling shrimp, shelling prawns, and cracking lobsters. It just… feels barbaric.
Of the five students from Japan, four were from Okinawa: Uehara, Tomoyose, Miyagi, and a young man whom we called Sha-san because his surname was really long (something 謝?). Yamada-san, who I had assumed was from Kyoto, was actually from Osaka (eh, close enough). However, our host for the night, Oyama-sensei, was from Kyoto. He was teaching a two-week crash course on Linux at the university, and he has been doing this every semester for the past six years—possibly more.
The star of the show though, was Yamada-san’s Chinese boyfriend. He brought a bottle of very expensive-looking liquor to share, persisted through the night without understanding the conversation, and he got roped into preparing crab meat for everybody except me (since I don’t eat crab).
Oyama-sensei eventually caught on and noticed that I wasn’t eating any of the fish… or really any of the main dishes.
“You’re okay with tofu and veggies?” he asked.
“Mhm—I’m not much of a seafood person,” I replied.
“Do you want something meaty? We can order something else,” he offered.
“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I don’t eat meat.”
“Ah!” he exclaimed. “You’re vegetarian.”
I was actually surprised he noticed—nobody else at the table had mentioned a thing.
The rest of the dinner went smoothly, and we finished the night be exchanging WeChats information.
Then, a few days later, I got a message from Yamada-san’s boyfriend, Zijing.
“Hey, do you wanna get dinner?” he asked.
“Sure! Who else is coming?” I replied.
“Just you, me, and Oyama-sensei.”
And with that, I met them at the mall (a bit late because I decided to get a massage at a spa near the bank—it was really nice, and they gave me a cupping and guasha session too!). The dinner was at a sushi restaurant.
I walked in to find Oyama-sensei and Zijing already there. They had ordered, but the food hadn’t come yet, meaning I wasn’t that late.
“Can you eat anything here?” Oyama-sensei asked me.
“Mhm,” I answered confidently. “Egg, cucumbers, and inarizushi.”
He laughed, “That’s barely anything!”
Indeed, which is why I typically avoid sushi restaurants. But Zijing wanted me to come, and I think it would have been rather awkward with just the two of them, so I showed up.
It was all-in-all a mediocre meal over fun conversation in which we discussed anime, the overabundance of mayonnaise in Chinese sushi, and the difficulties of learning Japanese.
Since then, my meals have been smooth. I’ve figured out which dishes are truly vegetarian, and my accidental meat consumption has gone down to practically zero.
The one major slip-up was when I walked into Pizza Hut thinking I could just order a cheese pizza.
First off, the prices were essentially identical to the US. I ended up paying about $10USD for a personal pan pizza and a soup. It was kind of funny to me that in China, Pizza Hut serves pasta, steak, and is actually kind of high-end.
When I ordered a cheese pizza, the waitress stared at me.
“That’s just cheese, sauce, and dough,” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
“There’s nothing on it.”
“Yes, I know.”
“We can’t sell that.”
“You must put something on it.”
“Fine,” I relented. “Pineapple.”
“Ah,” she exclaimed. “One Hawaiian!”
She turned around and left before I could protest, and a few minutes later, a pizza with bits of ham sat in front of me. I sighed. A cheese pizza is literally the simplest pizza order, and yet it was unheard of here.
Among the various challenges of living in China, I honestly think food is the biggest one for me. And this is after being relatively open to whatever is put in my plate. Nonetheless, I’ve become familiar with the dining halls on campus, and my meals are now (almost) stress-free.