Ask the Yangxifu: On Being Vegan in a Chinese Family

Jocelyn and her Chinese inlaws at the table
Can this vegan and her non-vegan Chinese family share the same table in harmony?

Allison asks:

I’m a vegetarian in China and am finding that in general vegetarianism is a really difficult concept for people to understand here. Did John always know you were a vegetarian? How did that affect you guys when you were dating? and is/was it awkward with his family?

“You’re missing out.” That’s what one of my inlaws’ neighbors told me this past summer after my mother-in-law mentioned I ate “only vegetarian” (吃全素的 [chīquánsùde], the closest Chinese approximation of “vegan”).

But as far as my relationship on John, I never missed out on understanding. He knew about my vegan diet even before we started dating. I once asked him out for lunch when we were still getting to know each other, so the whole “vegan thing” came out well before the kisses. But he’s always respected it in a way I never would have imagined. He likes to joke that he’s “80 percent vegan” because, as a child, he ate little meat and came to prefer a diet heavy in tofu and veggies. In fact, when we had our big date night on my birthday many moons ago, he arranged for us to have dinner at a vegan restaurant in Hangzhou. He actually loved their food so much we continued to patronize them for many years — as well as many other vegetarian restaurants in China (Vegetarian Lifestyle has been a longtime favorite of ours).

John’s family definitely made sure I didn’t miss out on my vegan faves. Okay, his mom and dad puzzled over it in the beginning. But even if they questioned me or wondered aloud if I got enough nutrition, they sure didn’t show it. This past summer, my mother-in-law allotted half the table to vegan dishes for me — everything from homestyle tofu and simple fried greens to dumplings and even savory pancakes (yum!). My father-in-law famously went out every morning to buy soy milk from the market — but he stopped after my mother-in-law started using the soy milk machine my sister-in-law sent over to make fresh hot soy milk from scratch every morning (extra yum!). I’m not even sure the word “supportive” does them justice.

You know what helps too? The fact that many seniors in China choose to eat mostly or completely vegetarian. That includes my mother-in-law, who had to cut most of the meat from her diet because of high blood pressure. Even the neighbor I mentioned at the beginning of this piece — the “you’re missing out” woman — admitted my diet was much healthier.

But I understand why that neighbor said what she said. My mother-in-law shared stories of suffering and starvation in her youth (“we never felt full,” she admitted one evening). On another occasion, I watched my father-in-law slice a corn cob into mostly inedible medallions for dinner, and discovered it was one of his “comfort foods” — when he was a child, they had so little to eat they fried up even parts of the vegetables we’d never dream of dining on. For some Chinese, vegetarian diets still suggest starvation, and the shadows of a past they’d rather forget.

I feel fortunate my inlaws and husband always made room for my diet at the table. Still, I know it’s not always happily vegan ever after for everyone in China. So vegans/vegetarians in China out there, what’s your story? Did your diet ever get in the way of your relationship or family relations?

Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China/Chinese culture (or Western culture)? One Friday a month, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

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14 thoughts on “Ask the Yangxifu: On Being Vegan in a Chinese Family

  • October 28, 2011 at 7:26 am
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    There was a period in my life I was vegetarian while I was with my husband. It was actually pretty easy to be vegetarian in Taipei. There are so many fabulous restaurants that serve great vegetarian dishes to the point where you forget you’re not eating meat. Moreover, every time we have a family outting – there’s tons of vegetarian dishes due to the fact that a few members are vegetarians for health or religion. 🙂 I may not be vegetarian anymore, but I am still not much of a meat eater.

    Reply
  • October 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm
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    I am not a vegetarian myself, so I really don’t know what it is like to be one. And I also used to wonder if vegetarians felt left out or got enough nutrition or energy. A relationship in which one is a vegetarian and the other not can bring its own problems, unless the couple can compromise and respect the other’s choice. After all, love is about compromise too. Fortunately nowadays, vegetarian shops are everywhere and they do serve delicious vegetarian food. The same here in Malaysia.

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  • October 28, 2011 at 1:24 pm
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    hi, I have gotten married at last with my chinese gf, but this topic is not easy at all, I really have big problem with Chinese food, specially when i went to my gf family home……….

    Reply
  • October 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm
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    I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, but I think the problem in the future I’ll face is explaining someone about pork. I’m Jewish, but I”m more of a secular Jew than Orthodox. Few years back my family and I started to observe this custom; around Jewish holidays and late Friday nights and Saturdays, we don’t eat products made of pork.

    Reply
  • October 30, 2011 at 6:07 am
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    Lot of Indians, most of whom are vegetarian, find it hard to believe that there are actually vegans in China.

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  • October 30, 2011 at 8:17 am
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    I have troubles when it comes to say that I am vegetarian among Chinese people. The first question is why are you vegetarian if meat is so delicious! you don’t want a little bit, just for flavour? also they have asked me if I am a hardcore Buddhist, but it is not in their mind that you do it because of the animals! that’s not an answer …hehehe

    I am sure Chinese people see being vegetarian like if you are in starvation mode, one time a friend of a friend asked my boyfriend why I look so chubby if I am vegetarian. I couldn’t understand their Chinese conversation but I saw her pointing a bloated stomach 🙁

    Among my close Chinese friends they accept my vegetarianism and they cook delicious vegetarian dishes for me , my boyfriend respect me and cooks for me all the time. Next year I am going to China and I will meet my future mother in law, and hopefully she will respect me as you son does 😀

    Reply
  • October 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm
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    Hi Sveta,

    After reading several comments from this post and others, you seem to have very interesting tastes, in food, entertainment, etc. I’m very curious as to what type of cuisine or foods you like.

    Reply
  • October 30, 2011 at 4:46 pm
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    There is in fact varying degrees of vegan/vegetarianism cuisine in Buddism as described above (mind you Buddhism had its origins in India). The most strict interpretation would be as close to vegan as it gets. In Cantonese the colloquial term would be to eat “jai”. While the younger generation is spoiled with access to meat and other animal products, the generation of my parents and grandparents are quite familiar with it.

    I don’t recall a true form of Chinese veganism as in the complete lifestyle adoption, but there is a dietary standard. Aromatics such as onions and garlic are not allowed either because it would make it difficult to meditate as well. Which reminds me why I laugh inside when I see a Westernized Asian restaurant market “Buddha’s Feast” as an assortment of vegetables with onions & garlic. Some go as far as to eliminate root crops from their diet as well. Despite the very mellow flavours, there are very clever uses of soybeans like substitutions for meat, or thin sheets of paper that can wrap various mushrooms and fungi.

    What makes it difficult is that in China there are an incredible number of diverse and distinct sub-cultures within the country. Some are willing to embrace the Buddhist diet, but some cannot simply because of the circumstances. It’s a shame that with the ubiquitous fast food franchises in China that the younger generation forgets that a Buddhist diet even exists. Sometimes even my Vietnamese friends are much more dedicated with their Buddhist diet than my Chinese friends too!

    In short, it is absolutely possible to share a vegan diet with a Chinese family, but a vegan lifestyle may be a bit much extreme.

    Reply
  • October 30, 2011 at 11:38 pm
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    @Friend I enjoy Korean cuisine such as bul-go-gi, mandogoo soup, Kimchi, etc. I like Russian foods, my mom’s cooking, fast food like pizza or hamburgers, let’s not forget chocolates or sweets, salmon, tulapia, mackerel, etc. I’m not a fan of Mexican cuisine, or fried foods like KFC or anything with chicken bones.

    Reply
  • October 31, 2011 at 9:59 am
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    I’m not vegan/vegetarian myself, but many of my friends here are, and I think they find it quite difficult. One friend was previously vegan in HK, but when she came back to HK the second time decided to be pescatarian instead (vegetarian, and seafood is OK) because she recalled always being hungry when trying to observe vegan here. It seems doable, but certainly more of a challenge, especially when you eat out.

    I think that’s super fabulous about your husband’s family embracing you and your eating preferences like that. They sounds truly like awesome in-laws. You’re lucky 🙂

    Reply
  • October 31, 2011 at 3:10 pm
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    There is nothing wrong with having vegatarian dishes and steak at the same table at the same time. We do that all the time. That really show a lot of love there that the in -laws are cooking vegetarian dishes just for you. It takes a lot of understanding and love :).

    Reply
  • November 1, 2011 at 9:38 pm
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    @Sveta,

    Mmm….Korean food can be good. I think you might like the Kalbi (Beef Rib) Stew. Russian food I don’t think I had, but when I went to college, one of my Polish friend made a home cooked meal he ate back in in Poland. Don’t know if it’s authentic but it was decent.

    Reply
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  • December 7, 2017 at 12:33 pm
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    Good read! I’m always searching for restaurants serving healthy vegetarian food in China, or in Shanghai city. And found this great new restaurant named “Happy Buddha” in Shanghai cooking up veggiefied American comfort food for the people of this city. It is launching a crowdfunding campaign to help them make the move to become 100% plant-based in 2018! With your help, we will continue to make Shanghai healthier and happier. Please help them spread the news! Thank you! https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/help-us-spread-more-vegan-love-in-shanghai-restaurant-food#/

    Reply

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