Coeliac disease, China and Me

We recently went on a trip to Qingcheng mountain, birthplace of Daoism, with the Office of International Affairs (OIA) at our University. The trip was a chance for us [relatively] new international teachers and the staff of the OIA to get to know each other.

Since moving to China, I’ve struggled with maintaining a gluten free diet whilst travelling. I basically just cook at home and never eat out. I think I probably picked the least coeliac-friendly country in the world to move to and it’s definitely been a challenge. For anyone interested in the specifics, we recently made a YouTube video about eating gluten free in China: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igmIInf9SRU

I hadn’t told any of the OIA staff about my coeliac disease and had instead packed my own food to eat throughout the day. The first stop of the day was an early lunch before climbing the mountain, and I had planned to discretely eat out of my Tupperware box.

Chinese meal times

Despite not being able to eat most of the food, I love Chinese restaurants. In England, meals at restaurants generally involve very little sharing. Each person buys a dish and they eat that dish. In Chengdu, meal times are all about coming together to share good food. You typically sit at a round table with a serving wheel in the middle. Dishes are piled onto the circle and you try as many of the dishes as you like.

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I have to say that in principle I prefer this type of meal. There is a sense of togetherness, you have the ability to try lots of different dishes, the look of all that food piled up on one table… it’s a great experience. However, for a coeliac it’s a nightmare. It just takes one person putting their chopsticks, which they’ve just used to eat something filled with soy sauce, and stick said chopsticks into a gluten-free dish to contaminate it. I can now no longer eat it without the fear of being “glutened”. Food allergies and dietary requirements are fairly unknown in China, so explaining this can be a long and tiresome process.

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My cunning plan

At the last OIA meal we attended, I came up with a plan. I ate my own food before attending so that I was full, added a few things to my plate at the meal so it looked like I was eating and occasionally fiddled with it. I thought I’d fooled everyone.

But on the way to Qingcheng Mountain, one of the OIA staff members told me she’d been concerned that I hadn’t eaten at the last meal, had done some asking around and found out that I had an allergy. She then told me that she was going to speak to the restaurants and make sure I could have my own separate dish, just for me, which I could eat. So much for my cunning plan.

Getting “glutened”

At the restaurant, the lovely OIA staff member got me to pick up a vegetable I liked from the kitchen (I’m also vegetarian) and had the staff members cook it just for me, without the soy sauce, oyster sauce etc. etc. that I can’t eat. Obviously there was the worry of cross contamination – I hadn’t explained about cooking it in a clean wok, but I felt surprisingly okay afterwards.

After the hike, we stopped off at a noodle restaurant before heading home. I thought I’d be alright to eat the food I had bought with me here – there was no way I could eat noodles! But the OIA staff member bought me a bowl of boiled vegetables. Out of politeness I started eating through them – how can you gluten boiled vegetables? However, I quickly stopped when I noticed a lone noodle sitting in the bowl: the vegetables had been boiled in the same pot as the noodles!

Caring

What struck me during the day out was the difference between the attitude of the Chinese OIA members compared with the attitude of a few of the foreign teachers, who, like me, come from countries with higher awareness and diagnosis levels of food allergies and intolerances.

During my time in Chengdu I’ve gotten the impression that being able to provide guests with a good meal is their way of showing they care. During the meals you’re always told what the different foods are and are encouraged to take seconds or thirds of everything. If they notice that the foreign teachers like a particular dish they will order another one, without anyone asking. As soon as the OIA staff realised that I had an allergy and had my own “special” dish they didn’t question or stare. They just want you to be able to eat something.

This was so different to the attitude of an American teacher in our department, who felt the need to question why I had my own dish, point at different dishes and say, “can you eat this? What about this? Why?” and after asking me to explain my allergy felt the need to cut across me and say, “so it’s just a wheat allergy“.

So what have I learnt?

Why did I write this? Probably as a reminder to myself. To make sure I explain my food requirements properly and in advance next time. Not to eat things out of politeness if it means feeling lethargic and having a really painful abdominal pain for the next five days. To reach out to any other coeliacs in China (I’d love to hear your experiences!).

Anyway, I will end my ramblings here.

-Fi

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6 thoughts on “Coeliac disease, China and Me

  1. First, I would like to commend you for not letting celiac stand in your way of traveling!! Especially to a country that isn’t the most gluten free friendly. You have such a positive attitude about it all, which is so hard to do sometimes. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you. I am going to Japan next year, another not-so-celiac-friendly country, but hope I am able to eat safely and still enjoy the trip as you are. Thanks for sharing your story!

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    1. Thank you so much for your sweet comment! It has been tough at times but definitely worth it as I’ve been able to see and do so much. I wish you the best of luck with Japan and can’t wait to read about your travels there. I’m also hoping to visit Japan in the future and found this website, hope it’s of use to you 🙂 http://www.legalnomads.com/gluten-free/japan

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  2. Quite impressive- China is a hard place to live with food allergies and you seem to be handling it so well. I’ve tried to explain food allergies to some of my colleagues in China and it often seems like they don’t understand- they even told me that very few Chinese have food allergies (or at least they are diagnosed with allergies) relative to Westerners. I want to look into the reasons for this more. Anyway- excellent post and looking forward to more!

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    1. Thank you for the kind comment 🙂 I’ve also been wandering why there seem to be so few people with allergies in China, I’m guessing it might be down to low diagnosis, but it is interesting!

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  3. If you go to Vietnam, it’s actually quite easy to eat gluten free. I had a travel card and gave it to the waiters at the restaurants as they handed me the menu. I was still very careful not to eat anything that obviously had any wheat in it, but most of their dishes are rice based anyway and they don’t seem to use much soy or oyster sauces in their cooking (you add these later which of course I didn’t do). Not once in my 11 day trip did I feel glutened and usually I’m very sensitive to it.

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