Adapting My Diet

Street food from Temple Street, Hong Kong
“Study abroad is just as much for learning about yourself as it is for learning about the culture you are in.”

On the first day of my study abroad program in Hong Kong, a professor gave us a mini-lecture. He talked about what we might get out of the next 2 months, in a culture that is so different from ours. He challenged us to think about our notions of what a “normal way” to live is.

It’s been only about two weeks, but I’ve had the chance to see and experience a lot of Hong Kong. While I haven’t had any dramatic transformations, I’ve learned some things about my own values, notably, my values on food.

I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life, mainly because of my parents. Following the Hindu tradition, they believe that vegetarianism is a key part of ahimsa, or non-violence. Like many Hindus, my family does not consume any meat, fish or seafood. While I admire the way that Hinduism has gotten so many people to adapt to this sustainable way of life, I feel like the approach of some Hindus can be very self-righteous, and at times, misses the whole point of vegetarianism. For some people, vegetarianism can turn into a “purity-complex”, thinking that meat and those who eat it are “dirty” or “impure”. A problem with this, for example, is when people would rather let food go to waste than eat something that has touched meat. The truth is, by the time food is on a plate, the animal has long been dead, and wasting food is benefitting no one. Of course, there may be health related reasons for avoiding such food, and that is another case completely.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to think about the reasons why I, personally, am vegetarian. Health is one of my reasons; having grown up vegetarian, it would actually be quite difficult for my body to start processing meat now. Trying to avoid animal cruelty is another. Finally, living environmentally-friendly is the most important reason for me. Facts and statistics show the impact that individual vegetarians and consumers as a whole are having on the environment. As a consumer in the US, there is a lot I can do to help the cause I believe in.

But here in Hong Kong, meat is served in virtually every dish.

In Chinese culture, meat is a status symbol; to eat without meat means you are poor. In fact, meat is so ingrained in the culture that even mentioning my dietary restrictions can evoke puzzlement.

What about here?

I am here as a student, a foreigner, a guest. It is my primary goal to learn as much as I can about the culture, to try out new things including the food. I do not have quite the same consumerist role that I do in America. Instead, in the 2 months that I am here, it is my job to learn how to adapt, how to fit my own values into the culture I am in.

After some observations and experiences, here are some ways to adapt as a vegetarian:

Get used to limited choices.

In the some canteens at the university I stay at, there are only 1 or 2 vegetarian items total. Of course, supermarkets sell some familiar Western foods, but these are more expensive, and why come all the way here to eat the same things available at home?

Chicken Fried Rice − Chicken = Vegetable Fried Rice

My meal sans chicken

I know that this may not be a good option for some people, and you definitely need to be careful. I once ordered a vegetable noodle soup, without realizing that the soup broth was made from fish, and I could not eat it without feeling sick. However, there may be some dishes you can remove the meat from, and have quite a satisfying dish. Just be careful.

I thought about how some people might react to seeing me do this; many “purists” would find this disgusting. But I think that being flexible like this allows you to try more foods out, and in this way, adapt more to the culture.

Seek out authentic places and foods that you can eat.

Inside the city of Hong Kong, there are so many places to go, so many things I can actually eat. I’ve had some delicious mushroom and vegetable bao (filled bun), spicy noodles, tofu and vegetable dishes.

I’ve been told that there are many restaurants in Hong Kong that specialize in vegetarian food and also others that have vegetarian food on Mondays (Green Monday). I have yet to check this out, but I am very excited!

Also: check out the Po Lin Monastery (Tian Tan Buddha), where they only serve vegetarian food. It was pretty amazing.

There was no meat on this table.

Above all, just keep an open mind.

It makes adapting in general a lot easier when you don’t expect things to be a certain way.

I am excited to see what adventures and lessons Hong Kong has in store for me. Until next time!