I tried being a vegetarian once, my first year of university. I was 18 and realized with delight that for the first time, my culinary options weren’t bound to whatever my parents came up with for dinner.  I could stop eating meat, and nobody could stop me! Besides, I thought vegetarianism would help me lose a bit of weight and ergo meet more girls, a goal of paramount importance at the time.

Anyway, I lasted a month. For awhile I liked it; being able to be picky, feeling light after meals, munching on protein pills, experimenting with exciting new foods like tofu, and feeling solidarity with the vegetarian masses from my exceedingly vegetarian-friendly hometown, San Francisco. But one day, a hunger pang so great came upon me that I instinctively knew only good old fashioned meat would satisfy it. So I caved and ate a chicken burger. Then another. I was deeply, deeply satisfied and haven’t considered vegetarianism ever since.

Kunming, where I now live, has a fairly sizable population of vegetarian foreigners, and as a result quite a number of vegetarian-friendly restaurants exist in the city. Yet the other day I met a foreigner who has chosen temporarily to give up on vegetarianism while living in China. He has by no means become a full-blown carnivore, but has simply accepted that occasionally he will have to eat meat, like it or not.

When I asked him why, he gave me two reasons. First was simply convenience. A number of vegetable dishes and even the odd tofu dish in China contains bits of meat, and this vegetarian simply grew tired of asking waitresses in broken Chinese to alter the dish for him.

More surprisingly, he gave up vegetarianism for what he termed ‘ethical’ reasons. He recalled traveling into the Yunnan countryside and being the guest for a rural family who obviously had little money. This family had slaughtered a pig to serve he and his friends, and he simply couldn’t bear to refuse them. So he ate the pig.

He told me that he normally avoids meat and when he returns to the West, he’ll happily resume being a vegetarian.  But for now, in a nod to his new environment, he’ll eat meat when he feels that it is appopriate to do so.

I found his story quite interesting, and wondered whether such behavior is unusual. So, a bleg to the LL community as I’m sure a number of you are vegetarians. Has your vegetarianism changed since moving to China? Have any of you temporarily or permanently begun eating meat in China?  If so, why? Also- have you encountered a situation in which you felt bad about refusing meat?

I’d be interested in reading your stories in the comments.

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About Matt

Matt spent six years in China, mainly based in the beautiful spring city of Kunming. During that time he worked in consulting, journalism as well as English teaching. Matt studied Chinese for 2+ years and loved exploring the mountains of Yunnan by mountain bike). He now lives in New York City where he is pursuing a Masters in International Affairs at Columbia University.

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  1. I’ve been a vegan for 6 years (and vegetarian for 8) and living in China hasn’t changed anything with that. I can sort-of sympathize with that countryside story, but I think it’s ridiculous to say “I’m a vegetarian but for ethical reasons I’m eating meat in China”. It’s sad when people’s ideals and morals can’t withstand a little bit of adversity.
    BTW, there’s a quite strong vegan community in Beijing, so it’s obviously not that hard to be a vegan (let alone vegetarian!) at least in urban China.

  2. My friend is vegan, and believe me, good thing that there’s a vegan restaurant near our school in Shanghai. It can get pretty difficult for her when cooking isn’t an option.

    However, I don’t know a lot who are vegan fans.

  3. I was strict vegetarian for 7 years before I came to China in 2003. I remained vegetarian for about 9 months, eating regularly in ‘the’ vegetarian restaurant in Hangzhou before we moved offices so it was no longer convenient.

    I became a vegetarian for the reasoning that I couldn’t kill anything to eat it so it seemed unreasonable not to eat it. That didn’t mean that I didn’t crave a decent steak or proper smoked back bacon.

    After 9 months here, it was a combination of a) being sick of the amount of ‘egg fried rice’ and other tedious food I was eating and b) the horrors of the banquets that I’d been to that made the idea of eating a hamburger seem more and more acceptable until I finally cracked.

    I can’t really understand vegetarianism being ‘on or off’ depending purely on location (when mine was off, it stayed off) but I can understand that in the west, factory farming is pretty horrendous and a good reason to stop eating meat is to stop supporting factory farming. Certainly in the countryside, the animal probably lives near the family all of its life so it is much more ‘natural’. Not that the conditions I’ve seen many animals in suggest that they’re treated particularly well.

  4. I eat meat rarely at home in the US, and somewhat more here. I am also gluten-free, so the list of things to ask a server to exclude from my meal can sometimes get rather long. I try to eat veg as much as possible, but if it comes out with a glop of meat on top, I won’t send it back. I feel like wasting food is a much bigger crime.

    I also hate spending the high prices at the restaurants serving western food, so I just get what I can get at Chinese places. I’ve eaten surprisingly well given that I can’t eat soy sauce.

  5. I once met a young Aussie in Shenzhen who was born into a vegetarian family, so his entire life he had always avoided meat. He was new to China and couldnt speak much more than 你好 and so whenever he ordered a dish he would spend the entire meal picking out every last bit of meat no matter how tiny. After every meal he would have a small pyramid looking pile of meat on the side of his plate. The looks we would get from other diners…

  6. I’m not now nor have I ever been vegetarian, but I can relate. When I was living in the states, especially in the few years leading up to my move to China, my diet was pretty consistently halal/kosher. So no pork. I’ve since given it up for no other reason than being in China. It’s just too difficult to know if a meat is pork or beef or whatever. Enough MSG and they all start resembling each-other. And as much as I love Xinjiang food, and as much as I enjoy an occasional bowl of 兰州拉面, neither are something I could do every day of the week.

    So in China I eat pork. And I’ve eaten dog. And blood. And surely a dozen other things strictly forbidden in a halal diet. I know vegetarians who’ve made some concessions since moving here, and others who’ve maintained the same level os strictness, though likely with some wilful ignorance involved. That 干遍四季都 isn’t really meatless, after all. All it takes is some oil reused from a meat dish and you’re disqualified.

  7. I was a vegetarian for almost 10 years in the US, for both ethical and health reasons. I didn’t feel like getting heart disease at 35, or gobbling down all the various additives (McDonald’s hamburgers are only 15% beef). I went back to meat gradually over a 2-year period; first fish, then chicken, then red meat. I look back on that meat-free decade as a boon to my future health. It certainly didn’t hamper me physically–I played sports all 4 years of high school, lifted weights, was an avid rockclimber, breakdancer, bicyclist, martial artist, and still had enough energy to party like a maniac on the weekends. I was strong as a horse without needing to actually eat said horse. However, in the US, being a vegetarian and still staying healthy is quite easy. It’s not just a matter of getting lots of vegetables, you need a variety. Also, when you take away meat, you’re not just taking away protein. There’s all sorts of other nutrients that need to be replaced, like iron. Spinach or 菠菜 just isn’t enough. Tofu has lots of protein but it’s not a complete protein. Rice and beans together is a complete protein but not very much. Anybody who does real exercise like weightlifting or the like really cannot be a vegetarian in China. I’m sure it’s quite easy to vegetarian, there’s lots of vegetables. However, since there is not only a lack of variety in the vegetables (a salad! my kingdom for a real salad!) as well as other means of supplementing your diet, being a HEALTHY vegetarian has got to be incredibly hard, if not neigh impossible.

  8. My habits have changed since being in China. When I first came I was vegan, but felt pretty constrained and lacking in protein, so I’ve since added dairy products to my diet. Not that there’s an ethical reason for that, it’s out of gluttony and needing to feel full. And being denied so many things I like to eat, I can’t help but need some milk in my tea and some chocolate cake.
    And my vegetarianism isn’t very strict. I will eat the vegetables out of a meat dish and things cooked in meat oil (as are most vegetable dishes, although I didn’t realise that for a long time!).

    My reasoning is, I’m vegetarian for the whole range of reasons – mostly to protest animal cruelty, because I don’t like the taste any more (been veggie over 10 years), and for environmental protection. These I guess are situational ethics – if I could confirm that the animals were treated well, and that the environment wasn’t being harmed by the industry, I might well eat meat. So I can see that when you can confirm the status of the animal, as in a countryside village, these objections fall away. I can also understand the whole ‘when in Rome’ reasoning, in that it’s polite and shows respect to eat what’s offered to you, but I don’t think that should outweigh other issues if you don’t know where the meat is from.

    I think one great thing about being vegetarian is your ability to influence others. Just mentioning you don’t eat meat gets people thinking about why not and how animals are treated. I’ve noticed that many people go vegetarian, or cut down meat consumption and so on after spending time with vegetarians. So we positively influence others all the time by being vegetarian, and overall people, not just yourself, will consume less meat. I think this is great – less meat consumption in general will improve the status of animals generally.

    So for this reason, I’m not a picky eater, and don’t refuse to eat vegetables out of meat dishes, or send back food etc. This shows other people that being vegetarian (or not a very strict one) and cutting down/cutting out meat is a viable thing to do – much easier than they previously thought. It decreases disliking of vegetarians (lots of people harbour dislike for veggies simply because they disrupt their dinner – not fair, but true). So it encourages more other people to go veggie or eat less meat.

    Also I think that being to strict can get stupid (and counter-productive, as shown above). You’re not really achieving anything, by being so strict. I heard about a vegen that wouldn’t even eat vegetables if they’ve been cooked with egg. I mean, what’s the point in that? You’re not achieving or changing anything, you’re increasing food waste and making others think that it’s impossible to be vegetarian/vegan. Too stupid.

  9. I’m not vegetarian, although have plenty of friends who are to various extremes. I used to spend most of my time in very rural China and have seen both approaches taken to the extremes — from wasted food and upset hosts to carnivores for a month. I really agree that it is often better to eat meat with the locals than it is to be awkward about it. Surely ideals can adapt to local culture? If the local culture won’t tolerate being picky about food and you don’t want to reconsider your ethics then consider staying in Shanghai!

    I’m also gluten free and so know what it’s like to be a picky eater. In many cases, especially in a large group I won’t tell my hosts and just pick dishes which are probably safe.

    I also know a Chinese vegetarian who will happily kill and prepare a chicken for others to eat then fry vegetables for herself!

  10. Did you really just say that “Surely ethics* can adapt to local culture?”? Do you seriously mean that?

    *because that’s what it is. Ethics. Morals.

    • actually morals and ethics vary greatly depending on whether you hold a universalistic or particularisic approach.

    • Max,
      Are you pointing out that ethics are absolutes whereas morals are more akin to “community standards”? Oftentimes people equate the two and they really are not the same.

      • Dave,
        I’m sure we’ve talked about this distinction in one philosophy class or another, but it has absolutely no signifance to me which label you stick to to what I believe to be right. I’m pretty sure that people can get my meaning, whether I used the exact philosophical definition or not.

  11. Yes — that’s exactly what I mean. Whether it is morally right to eat meat. Whether it is morally right to offend (or even inconvenience) the people you are eating with. Both questions of ethics, and decisions people choose to make will be affected by their ethical stance on many issues.

    I enjoy eating meat and certainly don’t mind ordering dishes with meat in them when I’m part of a group that includes a few non picky vegetarians, but at the other end of the scale I’m unlikely to go into a monastery kitchen and fry up a steak for my supper.

    • “I also know a Chinese vegetarian who will happily kill and prepare a chicken for others to eat then fry vegetables for herself!”
      This is really funny. BUt hey I know someone like that too! An European though. I went to my classmate’s home for a few days in the countryside, and the mom and 2 daughters are vegan, but the papa is not. So the mom always prepare all types of meat for papa, and cook vegatables for others.
      In the begining I tried to eat with all the women of the family, but I get hungary so fast, I just dropped it and eat with the father…

  12. I can understand what you are saying, but I’m actually the reverse – I became a vegetarian because of living in China. I have allergies and the only way to make sure they kept my food clean was to use the religious terms for “vegetarian.” The one word is short and simple and gains respect without having to go into complicated detail about sauces. I am also more comfortable eating vegetables when I go to poor homes because a. that means the family gets more of the chicken if I don’t eat it and b. vegetables are cheaper so the family has less pressure. That and playing with the animals before they are killed and cooked really makes my stomach turn…

  13. I have been a vegetarian for 16 years, since the age of 8. I’ve always been fairly strict, ie not eating animal broths and no Skittles or Starbursts, and in my last year in the US, I was eating more towards the vegan spectrum. Before moving to Beijing in September 09, I had seriously considered eating meat in China for several reasons.

    For one, I thought it would difficult to keep up my somewhat strict eating habits here. While not necessarily easy, I would say that being a vegetarian, or even a vegan in China is definitely doable, it all really comes down to a matter of personal preference as well as willingness to prepare your own foods or shell out the big bucks for specialty items. I echo ‘F’s’ response in flexibility as I believe that what you decide to put into your body is completely a personal choice.

    The second reason is that I thought that I would be missing out on cultural experiences by leaving out the animal kingdom in my diet. While animal protein isn’t a large component in a Chinese diet, there are definitely a myriad of Chinese delicacies that include meat. As for your friend’s situation, I was also worried that I may offend any Chinese person who served me meat as I understand that it is rude to refuse food along with the fact that meat is an expensive commodity. So far, I have not been in this position, but I do empathize with your friend and can’t say what I would do in a similar situation.

    While here, I’ve become a little more lax in my vegetarian ways, not by actually eating meat but by occasionally turning a blind eye to the pork broth in my noodle soup, but I still am steadfast about my beliefs in animal treatment. To spur the fire a little more, take a look at this article about why vegetarians and vegans should eat oysters. http://www.slate.com/id/2248998/

  14. I’m with Ericka. I am essentially a vegetarian while I’m in China, but definitely not at home. My reason has little to do with ethics or morality or allergies or anything of the sort….it’s because I live in a smaller town in China, where the cooks at the local restaurants are unflinchingly stubborn. It doesn’t matter what requests you make when you order; they will cook the dish however they like, assuming that the reason you made your requests is because you’re just an idiot who doesn’t know what you like. Therefore, the only dishes I ever order are various kinds of plain vegetables, qingchaode. I’m sure it’s much easier to order and actually get what you want if you live in a bigger city like Beijing or Shanghai.

    • “the cooks at the local restaurants are unflinchingly stubborn. It doesn’t matter what requests you make when you order; they will cook the dish however they like, assuming that the reason you made your requests is because you’re just an idiot who doesn’t know what you like”

      No its not because of that. Its becasue they dont really know what a vegetarian means…They probably never met anybody in their life that does not eat meat.
      And this reminds me of the gay story I read. The young man in CHina already told many times to his parents that he only like man, and is not interested in woman. His parents seem fine with that, but all the time still trying to fix him a wife. They just dont know the possibility in life that a man does not form a family with a woman.

  15. I’m a vegetarian and teetotaler at chinese banquets, and eat meat seldom , but when I want and enjoy a pint with friends.

    The vegetarian is on health reasons – lord knows the industrial conditions pigs are raised in this country (let alone others) while I definitely steer clear of all fish and seafood (think bottom feeders, and think all the heavy metals and other interesting tidbits floating around in China’s “fresh”water system). As for drinking, well I prefer to drink when relaxed with friends, not when imposed upon me because it builds up “guanxi” , another china fallacy

    Maybe I’ve been here too long, but wolfing down some meat because you dont want to offend someone , especially if you are vegetarian for ethical reasons seems absolutely absurd! thats like expecting visiting hindus to the US to eat hamburgers

  16. …how on earth have I not commented on this one yet?!?!

    Seriously, that friend needs a reality check. If he is a vegetarian for ethical reasons, then he should stay one for ethical reasons. You should *never* let someone else make your moral choices for you. I’ve been vegetarian for almost seven years now, and if someone told me to eat meat because that’s what everyone else was doing I would be mortified. That would be like going to the Deep South in the 60s and expecting me to join some lynch mobs. I will not do what I consider to be wrong just because.

    That being said, not eating meat in China is incredibly difficult, especially if you don’t have a firm grasp of the language (i.e. me). But it still is possible.

    Although, all of that being said, I must confess that I have given up the vegan mantle since moving to the Middle Kingdom. I found it too difficult to stay healthy without the occasional egg. I rationalize this by the fact that fewer chickens are factory farmed in China than in the West, so it is less bad here than back home. I feel like a bit of a sellout, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices to do the things that we want to do, and eggs to me are a small sacrifice, not nearly on the same scale as meat is.

  17. My grandma is a vegetarian because of her buddhism religion. She buys preprocessed vegetarian food from Buddha temples. But most of them are made from soya bean and tastes like meat.
    Vegetarian food is not a common option in most of the Chinese restaurant. For the special family occasions she eats at home first then go to the restaurant with us.

  18. I heard a language lesson that stated that if you told a waiter you were a vegetarian, that they give you a blank stare or assume you were a Buddhist. Is that correct?

      • Yes, the lesson was about eating vegetarian. The instructor said it was difficult to be a vegetarian in China compared to being in the West.
        The word for vegetarian is: 素食主义者. Like you, I am also a meat eater.

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