I just got back from a work-related trip to China that involved a lot of official and hosted dinners. What that means is lots of meals with more food than you can imagine, platters and platters of it being delivered to the table in an endless procession. It’s all served family style, placed on a turn-table that allows you to spin the dish you want to the spot in front of you.
The focus is on the guests’ enjoyment, and it’s a cultural expectation that there will be more food than can comfortably be eaten. If the plates were cleaned that would indicate poor planning, insufficient food for everyone to feel satisfied.
As a vegan among omnivores, this arrangement challenged me on several levels. First, the most obvious: vegan / vegetarian cuisine is not as readily available in China (or easy to explain) as you might think. I’d been warned ahead of hidden animal products–minced meat tossed in with veggies (which I never encountered), animal stock as the base for soups (yes, on a number of occasions), veggies possibly cooked in animal fat or stock, that sort of thing.
There was also the issue of protein. Since the cuisine (at least in the area where we were) relies heavily on meat, fish, and poultry, there is little need for the locals to worry about protein sources. Yes, you can get tofu and I did have some other legumes at one point (a local bean dish that was quite good), but I never really get around to communicating clearly about the difference between a vegetable dish and a vegetarian dish that includes protein.
I also felt painfully conscious of my desire to be a gracious guest. What happened most frequently at these meals was that, recognizing that I had special needs, the vegetable dishes would suddenly start arriving en masse on the table. And everyone would nudge them my way — “here, we ordered this one for you…” Protein or not, there was a heck of a lot of food coming my way and I had at least to try all of it.
Shortly into the trip, probably at the second hosted meal, it dawned on me that the top struggle I confronted was that I simply do not like being ordered for. I may be an intuitive eater, but I am happiest when I get to choose what foods are put in front of me. This is not to say I don’t mind trying new things, but entire meals (indeed, a series of entire meals) consisting of new things in which I had no say, turn out to be unbelievably stressful for me. This is not something I’d ever been consciously aware of quite to this degree before because I have never had so many meals in a row of this kind.
It was like the perfect storm of uncomfortable food circumstances for me: incredibly large amounts of new foods, many of which were ordered specifically with me in mind while I remained unconvinced that my vegan needs had been successfully communicated and at the same time keenly aware that I was a guest (and manners matter to me).
I also like to think I’m at least a little bit cosmopolitan and I am for a fact well-traveled, so it’s always a shock to me when I struggle in a new country (with something as basic as the food). This has happened to me in a serious way only once before, and that’s when I went to Tanzania shortly after becoming vegan. There, it seemed like a ridiculous abuse of privilege to insist on vegan food everywhere that I actually stopped doing it while there.
I’ve always associated food control issues with the diet mentality. But I don’t eat that way anymore. I’ve thoroughly converted intuitive eating. But if you think of intuitive eating as eating what you want, when you’re hungry, in amounts that satisfy, it makes sense that when practiced that way it requires some control over the what, when, and how much of eating.
And that is exactly what was absent on this trip. From the first meal, I almost never felt hungry on this trip because there was just so much food at the hosted dinners and lunches. I’m not the only one who felt this way. The colleagues I traveled with had similar feelings of not being hungry. Towards the end of the trip, we actually skipped dinner three nights in a row, one of the nights after walking 10K through the streets of Suzhou.
I’m not down on myself for having this need to have a say in what I choose to eat, when I choose to eat it, and how much of it I eat. Yes, I recognize it as a “control issue,” but I’m okay with that even if it surprised me when I experienced it so acutely in China. I didn’t have it one bit in India, but that’s because it’s one of the easiest places in the world to be vegan and for the most part I was able to communicate more clearly what I needed — less of a language barrier and far fewer hosted meals. Culturally and linguistically, China was more difficult for me to navigate. I imagine with return visits and some strategic language learning, I will do better than I did this time.
One thing I cannot complain about at all is the abundance of fresh fruit available in China. And they have the every best pears I’ve ever eaten anywhere — juicy, sweet, textured, and bursting with flavour.
Do you think of yourself as controlling or relaxed about your food choices?