I always think that fathers and their sons share a mysterious, almost psychic link. So when I noticed that Joseph was sitting at the restaurant table with his head buried in his hands, sobbing noisily, I immediately guessed something was wrong.
When I was able to get sense out of him, I learned that the cause of his distress was the fish and other sea creatures in tanks all around the restaurant, waiting to be eaten. Why this had suddenly become an issue for him after three years in China was less clear; one too many episodes of Blue Planet, perhaps.
He refused to touch the shrimp, picking instead at the peanuts, and eventually went and stood outside, staring thoughtfully into the distance. When he came back he announced:
“I’m going to be a vegetarian.”
In some ways this came as no surprise. Joseph has always loved animals, and is a young man of deep thoughts and strong emotions. So we talked a bit about why he’d come to this decision and what it would involve, and agreed to support him in his choice.
For me, as the family shopper and cook, it’s meant a major rethink of our diet. Like most people who cook for a family, I have a repertoire of mid-week meals, and nearly all of them contained meat. Having had to change up the menu when we first came to China, and again after moving cities, I have had to learn some new recipes, and use some new ingredients.
Bringing up a vegetarian in China is in some ways harder than in the west, and in some ways easier. There isn’t the range of meat substitutes you can pick off the shelves of supermarkets, but there is at least a long history of vegetarianism, thanks to Buddhism. (Traditional British views on vegetarianism are best summed up by the old granny in a comedy show who, when she was told that her granddaughter didn’t want ham because she was veggie, said “Couldn’t you just slice it really thin?”)
The plan nearly came off the rails the next time we visited a western restaurant, and he was disappointed at the range of meat-free options. I made it very clear that if he was expecting us all to change our lifestyles to accommodate him, then he needed to be consistent. It was fine if he’d changed his mind, but not to chop and change according to whim. He took it well, and ordered a cheese pizza.
Whether this will last remains to be seen. 9 years old is young to make such a big decision. But it’s changed our eating habits for good. Through experimentation, I’ve learned to make a range of beanburgers and nut roasts, and nobody is really missing meat, except as an occasional treat. We feel better for it, and the money that used to go on rubbery chicken is now spent on delicious cheeses. It turns out that meat in every meal was more of a habit than a need, or even a pleasure. So whatever happens, we’ve learned from the experience.