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.
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.
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.
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!
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.