A personal account on what it meant to be vegan in a Chinese household
My name is Natalie, and I’m one of the co-founders and also the Head Chef at Planted Meals. I’ve been on a vegan diet for four years, and my transition was mainly inspired by wanting to make our planet a greener and more sustainable place to live.
I come from a fairly traditional Chinese family. In addition to the standard dishes that all Chinese families feast upon, we also celebrate the major Chinese holidays, like Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival. Many of these celebrations surround food, and many of the dishes that are featured in these celebrations—which are often chosen for their auspiciousness, each dish representing something different—contain animal products. Needless to say, eating with my parents became a central point of contention when I first switched to a vegetarian diet.
This isn’t to say that all Chinese families are big meat-eaters, but meat is quite central to my mom’s cooking. My journey started off awkward, as saying “no” to meat was almost unfathomable for my parents. My family views meat as a high-value item, and it was hard to convince them otherwise. When you grew up in a household where respecting one’s elders is one of the main tenets, how do you navigate saying “no” while also educating your parents in a thoughtful and respectful manner? How do you uphold your own personal beliefs when they not only offend your parents, but the traditions of your culture as well?
I know it’s something with which many people across all cultures struggle. After all, we’re taught that parents “know better” than us, and ultimately, they want what’s best for us. But there comes a time when we—and in this case, I—need to put our foot down and follow what we believe in.
I began my vegan journey as a vegetarian first, and stopped eating meat for about a year before I started to avoid all animal products. So, as a start, I compromised. I’d still drink traditional Chinese soup (which is usually boiled with meat) and eat some of the dishes that contained meat, but I tried to eat around the meat. I felt as if this was a good way to still respect and thank my parents for providing food for me, while also not crossing the boundary of my beliefs by eating meat.
Over time, as my parents slowly got used to the idea that I wasn’t about to go back to eating animal products anytime soon, I started to draw clearer boundaries around what I was and wasn’t okay with when it came to what I ate. This meant no more soup, no more meat sauces, and no more dishes that featured meat. It made becoming a vegan much easier now that my parents understood what it meant to me.
Of course, there were a few futile attempts at educating my parents on why it’s important for us to reduce our consumption of animal products. It wasn’t all smooth-sailing; refusing meat from my parents was really stressful for the first year or so. I eventually felt that fighting with my parents wasn’t a worthwhile endeavour if they aren’t willing to hear me out. Because of this, I’ve adopted a “lead by example” mentality, which I apply to all facets of my vegan lifestyle. I believe that education is better off taught to those who are open-minded to learn, and my parents just weren’t ready for that yet. I’m still hopeful to be able to have an open and honest conversation about the benefits of veganism in the future, though!
For the record, I know I’m lucky because my parents are pretty open-minded considering the fact that they can be quite traditional in other regards. They’ve mostly come to terms with my (vegan) choices, and dining with them has become a much more enjoyable experience. In fact, my parents made a fully vegan Christmas dinner last year! All the food that my mom made was vegan friendly. Eating at my parents’ place usually means that I have to bring a vegan-friendly dish while my mother made both meat and vegan dishes. Not this time. It was a subtle change, but it meant a lot to me.
As a contrast, I have friends whose (Chinese) parents still won’t accept their vegan lifestyles, and still offer them meat every meal. With that, I’m grateful to have parents who’ve accepted my lifestyle change and have become more open-minded to others who are vegan.
For those who are transitioning to a vegan diet now and are currently going through a similar situation: know that you aren’t alone! It can be hard, and it can be stressful, especially when you’re still learning what it means to be vegan.
One thing that helped me throughout my journey is deciding on what being vegan means to me, which guided me through some of the tougher moments with my parents. Be sure to give yourself some leeway, too. You don’t have to get it right the first time, and you don’t have to be perfect right off the bat; you’re still learning, and be sure to give yourself some grace. Navigating new social situations while trying to maintain cultural norms is always hard, especially when it comes to adapting to a whole new lifestyle. Keep it up!