I enjoy telling the story of how my husband, Randy, became a vegetarian. It is funnier, and less vague, than my own. For him, his path to meat-free living started with a 50 dollar bet when we were merely acquaintances. I believed it impossible for him to live without meat for even a week.
“Make it 100 dollars,” he said, “and I’ll go two.”
That was twenty years ago, and he is still a vegetarian.
I wish I could say my conversion from omnivore was about health concerns or the environmental impact of a meat-centered diet. I always struggle with coming up with a satisfactory answer to Chinese friends’ inquiries, particularly when they learn that I have been vegetarian for more than two decades. My devout Buddhist friends are curious about religious reasons for this abstinence. Others, based on their own experiences in China, wonder if perhaps I had a bad experience with expired or fake meat.
My honest answer, though, would only make sense to fellow members of America’s so-called Generation X. The explanation of my becoming vegetarian is the same as my explanation for having a tattoo and my preference for Doc Martens: I went to college in the 1990s. Certainly at the time, I was somewhat persuaded by something serious. However, vegetarianism remains with me like the tattoo and my boots, signifiers of my era.
After Randy and I were married and had children, we decided that the kids would be raised with meat in their regular diet. In the US, it wasn’t difficult. I could buy small amounts of prepared meat in the better grocery stores.
In China, though, our approach has been different. Meat departments in Chinese groceries are truly foreign territory for me. I never learned the vocabulary of meat in my Chinese classes, short of important phrases like 我不吃肉wǒ bù chī ròu (I don’t eat meat) and 不放肉 bù fàng ròu (Don’t add meat).
These simple words provide polite excuses when even the kids have refused dog meat in Shenzhen, or sketchy 串 chuànr on the streets of Changping. Randy himself happily volunteered “我不吃肉” when, at a lunch meeting in Shandong baked cicadas were served. The lone foreigner there, he wasn’t perceived as rude when he declined as a vegetarian. His Beijinger co-workers, however, did not have this convenient apology for not sampling the local specialty.
Myles and Brigid have mostly followed my lead in China with a primarily plant-based diet. For them it has been a series of low-risk food explorations in a country that has as many words for cabbage as Arctic cultures are rumored to have for snow. In Changping we also have a Buddhist restaurant, where I don’t have to say, “不放肉.”
When my kids want meat, though, they usually have an appetite for non-Chinese foods, which are not in abundant supply in Changping. Luckily, we often have one day a week when we are around Dongzhimen. Even with unlimited access to cuisine of all kinds, Myles definitely still has his regular requests. Burgers from Frost and anything tagine from Caravan are his rewards for the two hours on the subway.
Brigid has one particular favorite that she treats herself to when we are at a hotel holiday brunch. If the roots of my vegetarianism were at all noble, I would probably prevent her from eating it. Somehow, though, she has developed a taste for foie gras. When her parents’ commitment to meat-free living stems from grunge music and a bar bet, this is, I guess, what happens.
This article originally appeared on page 41 of the August 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com.