On She Goes

Family Style as an Vegetarian in China

The struggle of a bilingual palate.

Julie Zhou
Julie Zhou
November 7, 2017
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Annual summer trips to China were an integral part of my childhood. I got my first passport before I turned one. My parents still have the ID picture: cheeks too chubby for the frame and the grainy Walgreens photo paper just clear enough to make out a little drool. Then it became every other year, as school and summer jobs came into play for my sister and me. I associated those summers in China with smog and heat and icy watermelon, cold baths and condensation on the windows, and laundry on the line. Mostly, I associated those summers with home. The long walkway at the international exit, air hazy and thick with humidity in Shanghai. The cobblestone sidewalks near my grandparents’ house, the smell of oil and garlic that drifted from the market in the mornings, the crisp, lacy edges of the pan-fried dumplings sold at our favorite stall. The green-gray quiet of my mom’s landlocked hometown, the Huangshan mountain range rising tall through low-hanging clouds. The staccato syllables of the Anhui dialect my mom speaks with her family, so unlike the blurred cadence of Shanghainese or the round lilt of Mandarin. The sounds of chickens in the morning and crickets at night.

Meals became minefields.

But something changed when I became a vegetarian in high school. Meals became minefields, rife with questions about my eating habits, critiques of vegetarianism, well-intentioned advice about my diet. With tighter schedules, we spent more and more meals eating out—banquet-style lunches and dinners lined up with every side of the family. For as long as I can remember, family reunions have happened in the ornately decorated private rooms of traditional Shanghai restaurants, hours spent over slow-rotating lazy susans and twelve courses. In China, special occasions all center around food: whether it’s noodles for a birthday or mooncakes for the lunar festival, meals are inextricably tied to the act of celebration. My grandma always made sure my parents’ favorite dishes from childhood were on the table: lotus root soaked in date syrup, dry-fried green beans, tiny rice dumplings in a sweet broth. It was, she always said, the best way she knew to show that she loved them, that she loved us: nourish the stomach, nourish the heart. Fill the table, fill the soul. Everything else fell by the wayside at those meals—diets, dislikes, even mild allergies—and the act of eating was a shared ritual. So the summer that I came to the table as a vegetarian, my body was suddenly a public forum for debate, a site of conflict.

Ni bu pang,” my aunt said, pinching my waist. “You’re not fat. Why are you eating this way?”

“How can your parents let you do this? They must not be taking care of you.” My grandfather said, slamming a glass down on the table.

“Can’t you eat chicken?” My grandmother said, sliding a plate toward me across the table. “It’s barely meat!”

“You really are American now, baobao, sweetheart,” my mom said, smoothing a hand down my back. There was anxiety, at first. Then frustration. Then self-pity. Who were these people, to tell me how to live my life? To treat me like I needed to be fixed? It took me a long time to realize that that wasn’t it. They weren’t the problem. They weren’t even a problem. It was something else entirely.

I’m not the first to have experienced the struggle of a bilingual palate. The elementary- school longing for Lunchables instead of fried rice, the lunchbox hope for peanut butter and jelly instead of sesame and ginger. A salad instead of hongshao rou (braised pork). As I’ve grown older, that struggle hasn’t gone away: my vegetarianism may even be testament to that. But I know now that it is a struggle rooted in cultural diaspora, in identity. It is a struggle to bridge suburban Wisconsin and coastal Shanghai.

Fried chicken and hot pepper dish.
photo by Julie Zhou

It is a struggle I’m working on because it has taken me years to recognize the privilege to ignore the history and weight behind my relatives’ questions. The privilege I had to be vegetarian, to choose what I ate. It is the privilege and pain of rootlessness: no traditions to uphold, no rituals to keep, no history to maintain. It has taken me years to understand—and I am still working to understand better—that in villainizing the concerns of my family, I was complicit in the othering of their experiences, of their culture. Of my own culture.

This summer, my family went back to China for the first time in three years: for the first time since my mom went into remission. As our taxi pulled onto my grandparents’ street, my mom gasped, pointing out the window. The open-air market had a new roof over it, industrial steel and green paneling, banner ads patchworking one side. My grandma said that our favorite stall had moved into a small building unit, that they sold frozen bags of dumplings that she liked to buy and make at home instead. And home. Home was different too. My grandparents had renovated their apartment, new windows in their living room dappling sunlight over the floor tiles. They’d replaced their refrigerator with a gleaming, stainless Samsung unit just like the one we had in our house in Michigan. My grandmother showed us the air conditioner in her bedroom, holding a scarf up to the breeze so we could see how well it worked, how quiet it was.

“There’s still a little bit of humidity in the air,” she apologized, turning the air conditioner up. “We might get one of those machines, the ones that take it out.”

I felt it too, the damp in the air that settled against my skin and never quite left, just like I remembered. I had missed it.

“And you look healthy, baobao.”

At the kitchen table, I sat next to my grandfather, stealing half of his newspaper to read. There were already bowls of food set out: a bowl of smashed cucumber tossed with soy sauce and white pepper, edamame with flakes of salt, soft-scrambled tomatoes and eggs, a dish of chili oil and green onion.

“For you,” my grandmother gestured. “Very good for vegetarians.”

“I saw in the newspaper too,” my grandfather said, shaking the front page emphatically, “There is a vegetarian restaurant on the Bund. Wu xing de. It has five stars.” They told us that my cousin was vegetarian now too, that it was trendy in Beijing and even trendier in Shanghai. In fact, my cousin’s favorite restaurant was Pret A Manger, the first mainland outpost of the British chain.

“And you look healthy, baobao. You’re growing up so fast. We’re so proud.” My grandmother kissed the top of my head as she bustled past me to the stove. On the windowsill, gilded in the afternoon sunlight, was a large glass bowl covered with a flour-dusted dishcloth. We were making baozi—filled buns—to celebrate my family’s homecoming, and the dough had been rising for two hours.

View from aunt and uncle’s window.
photo by Julie Zhou

Their kitchen had been the place where I’d had my first breakfast in China: rice porridge and a steamed sweet potato to chew on. Where I’d had my first taste of salt: just a dab of soy sauce on the end of my mom’s chopstick. It had been at this counter where I’d had my first spoonful of Jif peanut butter: thick and cold from the jar, just before my grandmother had stirred it into hand-pulled noodles for my third birthday.

I slotted myself beside my grandmother when she retrieved the bowl from the windowsill, peeling the cloth back carefully. Little clouds of flour wafted up toward the window, dissipating in the sunlight. Underneath, the dough was pristine: smooth, bright white, pillowy against my fingertips. She pulled two bowls out of the fridge: in one, a mixture of pork and chives, minced to a paste. In the other was something dark green, glistening with sesame oil. I leaned closer to smell it, my eyes prickling against the sharp scent of raw garlic.

Shu de,” she said, giving it a brisk tap with her chopsticks. “Vegetarian.”

I rolled up my sleeves to wash my hands, achingly grateful for these people who had unlearned a little bit of their world to learn a little bit of mine, who had taught me how to cook, how to eat, how to love. Fill the table, fill the soul.