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?
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