fitness · food · traveling

Do you have control issues re. food? Tracy discovers hers in China

Image description: market stall in Suzhou of varieties of fresh fruit in metal baskets with two large metal scoops.
Image description: market stall in Suzhou of varieties of fresh fruit in metal baskets with two large metal scoops.

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?

12 thoughts on “Do you have control issues re. food? Tracy discovers hers in China

  1. I am like you about this for sure — I really get uncomfortable being ordered for and actually get a slightly panicking feeling when too much of the “wrong” food starts arriving and arriving. I’m not vegetarian, but I have a lot of weird GI needs and intolerances, and I get very particular about food when I travel, since it’s so easy to end up eating the things that are going to make me feel unwell after just a day.

    My biggest difficulty is the assumption that I’m turning down a cheesy or oily or cream laden food because of “calories” or something like that when I’m actually turning it down because I know it has something that I’m highly intolerant to, and if I ate that soup you think looks so yummy I will be groaning with cramps for two days. Explaining this while explaining that actually yes, I can put a little cold milk in my coffee, but the steamed version gives me a tummy ache? And I’m super wary about eating meat in countries where the meat supply chain isn’t steady, because I have had dysentery after eating roast goat to be polite.

    Most of my issues are related to richness and dairy, so most SE Asian countries are more easily navigable for me than many other places, but no matter where I go, I end up eating a LOT of eggs. And rice. And tilapia and whatever the local version of sauteed greens is. But it’s much much much much easier when I can order for myself and am able to communicate.

  2. Interesting. Some similarities and some differences between us. I love not choosing food. There’s a great study on reducing choice and happiness. I forget the author but he always orders the third thing on the menu whatever it is. I’m not that bad but I love the good food boxes for taking that decision away from me. I find it exhausting. That said, this only works if I can eat the thing that’s is the only option. So it works with good food and some restaurants and with some people ordering for me but wouldn’t work in the circumstances you describe.

  3. I develop a formula when I travel for what works for me and pretty much eat that every day. Like in Uganda, where I go frequently, I have narrowed it down to eggs, chapati and local honey for breakfast with whatever fruit they can manage, though it is often papaya and I hate papaya. If it’s a mango day I’m happy. Usually it’s bananas.

    Lunch is whatever I packed in my bags — tuna and crackers, peanut butter and crackers, nuts, raisins, figs, bars.

    Dinner is white rice, tilapia, avocado and dodo, which is a local version of sauteed greens. If there is no dodo I will ask for whatever vegetables they can make but that is a crapshoot and I am better off just with the avocado.

    So I’m not really making “choices” per se — I always order the same thing. My colleagues always roam around the menu. That scares me lol. If the above isn’t available and we’re in a bigger restaurant or hotel I order pasta with just tomato sauce. Which might be ketchup ;-). Or canned vegetable soup lol.

  4. If I’m traveling and it’s a fancy food city or place, I eat WELL, as people have seen in spades from my blog and insta — I have a knack for sniffing out the one good restaurant in a small community. But when I’m traveling more remotely, I develop a formula and follow it.

    Many guesthouses also just serve food without asking, which is fine — I eat around it. But I really dislike when I have to waste food also.

  5. The only times I have experienced that were, first, when being with people who served heavily spiced spaghetti sauce and mocked me as the only one at the table who did not have a palate for it. This was at an isolated cottage, the night before a bicycle race, where I really did need to eat but I could not manage more than one taste of the sauce. I became really emotional and felt trapped in that situation. The second one was with a couple that we used to socialize with. They would have an annual catered dinner party where they would let the chef choose what to prepare. Each year, it seemed like it was ramped a level higher in shock value, and to refuse to eat a dish was considered rude and would be remarked upon by everyone else. It became more and more stressful for me. There was great pressure to drink alcohol to excess as well, and this was in the years that I was struggling with my alcohol use. Eventually we were excluded from this dinner and I am certain it was because of my reluctance to eat everything that was presented. It was a huge relief to me that first year that the invitation did not arrive. My husband had a similar experience as you did, in China. He was ok with the food presented, but he had a hard time with the expectation to drink as much as the other men. Long story short, I can totally relate to your feelings about your experience.

  6. I’m extremely controlling, with a long history of disordered eating, And I’m celiac. A tough combination.
    I no longer like to eat out. Food is always complicated.
    Having someone else order for me would be brutal.

  7. I have definitely noticed a tendency towards control issues with food. As a teen with a diet mentality bordering on disordered eating and a new vegetarian I would accompany my parents grocery shopping to pick out my tofu and items like fruit (about which I’m picky) or vegetables. Ever since then I have needed lots of control over the food I bring into my house. It’s ridiculous but I still struggle to eat fruit other people have picked out, or worse if it is those apples in a pre-picked/packaged bag! In general moving in with my partner (who is more than willing to help cook and buy groceries, if I will let me him) has been great for helping me confront and release a few of my control issues around food. I have yet to be in a similar situation to what you’ve described, but I cannot imagine I would want anyone to order food for me.

  8. 100% need to be in control of what I eat and like you, no longer feeling down on myself for it. When I travel I have a plan for what I’ll buy and where I’ll buy it with regard to meal planning. As for being a gracious guest, I’ll participate in a hosted meal in ways besides eating, like asking questions or being present but I’ll bring my own food explaining why only if I’m asked. I’ve never been in a situation where it would be rude to pass on what’s being offered.

  9. Thanks for this post— in 2 months I’m traveling to China for the first time, for an academic meeting, and I expect a similar experience as our Chinese hosts will no doubt feed us well! My diet is high protein and very low carb so that’ll come with its own set of challenges, but I’m also able to be flexible (as long as my digestive system cooperates)!

    When you traveled, did you bring any food from home?

  10. When we went to Burgundy region in France, then Barcelona, Spain and then a medieval town in Germany in 2016, I meat nearly every dinner. That is highly unusual for me since I dropped that habit over 13 years ago. I also had red wine nearly daily because I was in a world premier area of red wine production..high quality at low prices.

    I was surprised that the choice of veggies at restaurants was lower and not very diverse…compared to big city restaurants in North America. So I got constipated..and tried to make sure I had yogurt for breakfast, etc. I did suspend my normal food choices ….because I rarely travel outside of North America due to cost. (And I don’t have a job where it’s international conferences.) I do view food as an expression of cultural history and am willing to try as a tourist, guest.

    Now look at this challenge ahead this year: We’re going to Japan, then to Seoul, South Korea. My challenge is to ironically avoid eating much white rice. For past 10 years, I only have rice 3-4 times per month. The very carb that I grew up on daily, the carb that is part of my family’s food ancestry.
    Unlike you Tracy, I won’t be served/bombarded with banquet meals.

    It is possible to eat East Asian cuisine with very little rice..I will require some self-discipline. After an East Asian breakfast is…rice or noodles / light consommé soup and maybe light cooked veg.

    Tracy I can only imagine how you must have felt as a guest, shepherded to meals during your time in China.

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