As I parted the cooked spinach with my chopsticks, I noticed little shredded bits nestled between the leaves. I hoped against hope that it was garlic. It wasn’t. I sighed, and prepared the phrases again in my head.

“I ordered no meat,” I told the waitress in Chinese, gesturing at the bits of pork. “Like I said, I’m vegetarian.”
“Oh, you can just take it out,” she said, shrugging.

As a vegetarian from birth, the idea of just taking out the meat, leaving its residue on everything else I am to eat, makes my head swim.

People always ask me the same question when they hear I’m going to China, or have just got back: “What do you eat there?” Sometimes, they don’t even know I’m vegetarian. They’ve just heard stories of animals or parts of animals that they’ve never even imagined being served on a plate. In a way, I don’t have to deal with all that. I hear my friends complaining about the way meat is cooked, the way fish is served, the way the menu is confusing. I just turn to the server and ask my question. “Can you recommend me something vegetarian?”

I also get the opposite end of the spectrum—some friends, especially the Chinese-American ones, hear I’m going to China and exclaim, “I’m SO jealous of all the food you get to eat!! The chicken! The fish! The dim sum…” Before their eyes grow too large in their rapture I cut in and mention that I’m vegetarian, but am still excited for all the other food—and in the case of dim sum, the egg tarts. They give me a pitying look, as if I’ve just informed them that I have lost my ability to taste. “Oh,” they say. “Well…hope you see a lot of sights?”

In Chinese, “I’m vegetarian” is “wo chi su 我吃素.” The character “素” literally means plain, simple, and elementary. That’s pretty indicative of how most Chinese people feel towards the idea of living your life without meat. Why be plain and elementary, my dear Watson, when you could be extraordinary? Meat is a sign of social standing. Meat means you have the means to eat well. So, not eating meat, I’m down there on the social ladder fraternizing with the rabbits. And I love it.

I actually love Chinese food. I have to be alternately demanding and cajoling in getting it in a vegetarian format, but I’m willing to do it. For one thing, it gives me an opportunity to practice Chinese. How many ways can I tell someone I am vegetarian? I know there are at least five off the top of my head right now, one involving pretending I am Buddhist.

There are some great Buddhist vegetarian buffets in China, usually very cheap (like $2-$3 USD) and all-you-can-eat. The problem is, I don’t always end up at those places because eating in China is usually a very social activity. You have your round table that’s all Lazy-素san, and you need to find a way to pacify everyone around the table when you order, since everyone shares everything.

You’d think, being a vegetarian, it would be really annoying to order that way. But I’ve found that, actually, what makes it hard to eat in China is really how picky you are. I have my rule—no meat, no fish—and that’s all I have to stick to. It’s sometimes tough to communicate, but I have patience and I do it. But sometimes, people have very specific requests—they hate eggplants, they don’t like dishes that are too hot, they think it’s too oily, they think it’s not cooked enough, they hate tofu, and the list goes on. I spent two summers in China with a friend who had food allergies that you could count on all ten fingers, but in the end we found that we were less picky than the average laowai sitting at our table.

So to the vegetarians who go to China—don’t worry. Communicate with the waiters more—you’ll get to practice your Chinese! Make sure your friends know you’re vegetarian, and make THEM get the scorpions on a stick at Wangfujing Snack Street, so you have someone to take crazy pictures of. Marvel at mock meat even if you don’t want to eat it, and eat your heart out of vegetarian mapo doufu, spicy eggplant, broccoli with garlic, mushrooms, green beans with chili peppers, stinky tofu, veggie steamed buns, and dumplings. And when the fruit comes at the end of the meal, and everyone else is stuffed but you still have room for more—go crazy on that watermelon. You deserve it.

Originally published: Aug 09, 2012 by China Personified (link).