Written by Zoe Stephens
Veganism involves not consuming or using any animal products. It is more strict than vegetarianism, as vegans don’t eat eggs, milk or cheese, and don’t use anything in their daily life that comes from an animal, i.e. leather or wool. There are multiple reasons why someone may choose a vegan life, but the top three include animal rights, health, or environmental reasons.
With the rise of clean eating in the Western world, veganism has come into the social media limelight. Instagrammers, bloggers, and vloggers alike go crazy for a buddha-bowl, and avocados have never been so popular.
China, however, manages to tick all of the wrong boxes. It has no animal rights laws, enjoys a primarily meat and oil-based cuisine, and is well-known as one of the biggest polluters in the world. This, and other contributing factors make it one of the most difficult places to live as a vegan, practically and mentally.
But, is it possible?
Simply put; Yes! But it’s not going to be easy…
Attitudes to veganism in China are very diverse, depending on where you go and who you meet. Veganism as a Western term isn’t too popular and hasn’t quite seen the boom in China like in the West. Animals are seen as less-than second class citizens and many may be shocked at the thought of treating them as anything more, although pets are becoming more and more popular. You may often find yourself singled out as the only one with awkward dietary requirements and should therefore also be prepared for the usual 50 probing questions about your weird and bizarre lifestyle choices.
However, a vegan lifestyle is a part of ancient tradition in China stemming from Buddhist beliefs, so it’s not an entirely foreign concept. If you manage to find anywhere around with a Buddhist temple, you’re in luck! The array of mock meats, tofu, and freshly prepared vegetables you’ll usually find there is unparalleled to anything found in the Western world and will surely satisfy a hungry vegan tummy. Usually, they’re incredibly cheap dishes or work on a “pay as you feel” basis.
Knowing your Limits
The first thing you have to do is address and know your limits. Ask yourself the questions; How strict am I going to be? Is cross-contamination an issue? What to do if nothing is available? Chicken or fish broth, how do I feel about that? Many vegans will not be prepared to compromise, but they’re your limits and they’re personal. Only you can know how far you can push yourself under difficult circumstances.
You have to be realistic, and will have to adapt these from your current lifestyle. Something you wouldn’t dream of eating in your home country suddenly seems not so bad when it’s the only thing you’ve been able to find all day. Also, unless you have adequate Chinese skills, the chances that something will be cooked in chicken broth, or fried in the same pan as whatever other meat the last person just ordered, are very high.
Preparation is key
Make sure to research the area you’ll be staying in; have a look on Happy Cow for any nearby vegan restaurants, join some groups on Facebook for advice and support, and make sure to pack a bag full of your favourite snacks.
Shopping at the supermarket will be difficult at first, so having staples with you such as rice, pasta, seeds, and nuts will be a life-saver.
Another great way to prepare for your adventure in China is to learn some of the language basics. If you’re going to be in China for an extended period of time, this is an absolute must. Even if it’s just the basics to get yourself understood. You may also want to make sure you can read some key characters, especially useful for looking at ingredients in the supermarket. If you don’t manage to learn anything in time, here are two super simple but key phrases you’ll need for Chinese cuisine:
Wo bu chi rou – I don’t eat meat
Wo chi shucai – I eat vegetables
Another good idea is to bring round a translation card with you.
If you want to be respected, you have to respect others too. I know many people who are against going to China or will boycott it completely because many practices here go against their beliefs. It is true that it’s hard coming across so many things that are so clearly wrong, however, it’s important to remember that you’re in a different culture, and things are done differently.
Also, don’t forget to look out for yourself whilst looking out for the animals – especially if you’re going to be in China long term. Make sure you are getting the right nutrients in the correct quantities, and if you are struggling it is ok if you slip up now and again. It may take time, but it is definitely do-able, and once you’ve overcome being vegan in China, you can do it anywhere!