In order to prepare for coming to anywhere in China as a vegan, you’ll have been doing your research on practicalities such as; what to bring with you, where to go, what to buy, and how to buy it. Maybe by now, together with your suitcase full of couscous and nutritional yeast, you’re feeling as though you’ve got the practical stuff down and you’re ready to head out here. However, practical preparation is only one side of the story. How do you mentally prepare yourself for life as a vegan in China?
Attitudes to veganism in China are very diverse, depending on where you go and who you meet. Veganism as a Western term isn’t too popular and hasn’t quite seen the boom in China like in the West, however, it is a part of ancient tradition in China stemming from Buddhist beliefs. So, if you manage to find anywhere around with a Buddhist temple, you’ll probably be in luck! The array of mock meats, tofu, and freshly prepared vegetables you’ll usually find there is unparallel to anything found in the Western world and will surely satisfy a hungry vegan tummy. Usually, they’re incredibly cheap dishes or work on a “pay as you feel” basis. Often, veganism is just referred to as vegetarian.
If you’re coming to Yangshuo or any other place in the countryside, the Buddhist temples may be few and far between. Indeed, I’m yet to find even one in Yangshuo. So you’re probably going to struggle to find any like-minded Buddhist people who share your views and can offer advice and support. Bearing that in mind, you’d probably need to be pretty good at Chinese anyway, even if you were to find a Buddhist restaurant.
Yangshuo has a very tight-knit community of expats from around the globe. You can expect mixed ideas from everyone here, but generally, everyone is very supportive and accepting of everyone’s lifestyle choices. Everyone will be respectful of your decision to live a vegan life (unlike a lot of Westerners usually) but may not completely understand why, or they may not be able to offer the support you may need some times. But, they will certainly try! Many of them also work in local bars and restaurants and will be more than happy to point you in the right direction for places to eat, or even cook you something themselves.
The Sights & Sounds
You’re going to have to desensitize yourself pretty quickly if you want to last more than a few days in Yangshuo.
Food: One of the first sights you’ll come across is market or street food. And, of course, dog.
At the market, sights of animal carcases or big slabs of meat sweating in the sun on the side of the road will become an everyday occurrence. Never try to ask yourself what the meat is… It’s probably best not knowing. It’s also not uncommon to see live animals being sold, for example; chickens, fish, and insects. It goes without saying that these animals are suffering, and for the first few times it is very hard to see. But, unfortunately, you get used to it.
Street food will be swimming with all types of meat and fish, so if you’re one of those people who gets squeamish eating with omnivores, you may struggle.
I recently went on a walk in town down a few back alleyways behind shops, before I came to a large, dingy looking warehouse that had its bottom floor windows half underground and half just over the pavement. It was dirty looking and the stench coming out was overpowering, emphasized by the extreme heat and humidity. I then started to hear the bleating of sheep, and my stomach churned.
Turns out I was in the area where lots of animals are kept.
Apart from animals, dead or alive, that you’ll come across, there are also things like leather and ivory being passed around the market stalls a lot. In bars, you can also expect to find snake Baijiu (Chinese alcohol) which will contain a snake or two. The method of making it is pretty horrific, but I’ll let you delve deeper if you like.
Depending on where you’re coming from, your immediate reaction upon seeing a dog on the street is probably look around for its owner. Is there anyone around? Does it have a collar on? Is it healthy? These are all the questions going on in your mind, and if there is no one around you’re probably most likely to take it to the nearest police station or call the number on the collar.
There won’t be a day, or indeed a few hours, that goes by without seeing a dog on the street. Some of them are pets, some are strays. Apart from maybe their health condition, there is no way to tell these apart, and you don’t need to. Most people here leave the animals to it – this means that on the one hand, it’s much more natural, but on the other hand the animals surely suffer more without medical treatment or the odd good meal. If you concentrate more on the fact that they have the freedom to roam about and act in a more natural environment, it is easier to come to terms with the consequences of this too.
The treatment of animals here is not all bad. Cats and dogs are kept as pets – which is a start, showing that people can identify with these beautiful creatures, instead of just having them on a plate. There’s little spaying of neutering of animals, no flea spray, and very few good vetenary practices around. There are also many big dogs around here with fluffy coats, perfect for a Russian winter – however, with an average of 38 degrees in the summer, Yangshuo is no great climate for them, and they’re never shaved.
But, animals often go missing, and you can see people frantic and dedicated to find them. Their way of treating their pets may be very different to ours, but that is the way that they know and the way they assume it should be done.
That saying, however, you do still see some sights such as birds out in small cages on the road, and there is also a local Chinese person known as ‘Monkey man’ who carries a monkey around with him on a chain. I haven’t met him yet, and I’m not sure how I’ll react when I do.
If you want to be respected, you have to respect others too. I know many people who are against going to China or will boycott it completely because many practices here go against their beliefs. It is true that it’s hard coming across so many things that are so clearly wrong, however, it’s important to remember that you’re in a different culture, and things are done differently. They do things because that’s how they’ve always done them, so why should they change their practices?
Educate, not incarcerate!