I get asked this question a lot by my Chinese students. Part of teaching English at a Chinese University includes English Corner, the hour I would dread the most every week. Students converge into a room to talk to the small number of foreign teachers at the University. The issues I have with English corner in regards to effective learning would require a whole other blog post so let’s, for now, forget about my reasons for dreading English corner. Every week, you can pretty much guarantee that when you first speak to a student they will ask you two questions – Do you like China? Do you like Chinese food?
The short answer to that second question is no. As a coeliac in China I am severely limited by what I can eat. Most expats will choose to eat out more than they cook at home. Food is cheap and in our area you can expect to pay no more than 30 yuan a day (£3) for breakfast, lunch and dinner at the local street vendors. However, all these dishes will contain the very things I can’t eat – wheat, soy sauce, oyster sauce etc. Even if I ask for a dish without those ingredients the risk of cross contamination is too high. So I cook all my meals at home.
A sense of national pride in their food
Admitting that you don’t like Chinese food is not likely to go down well with students. Coming from the UK, a country whose dishes are internationally (and nationally) ridiculed, I often find myself bemused at the reverence given by the Chinese students to their food. They consider their food delicious.
In the UK, I can eat world cuisine – restaurants serving Chinese, Indian, Japanese, American, French, Spanish, Thai, Italian food etc. etc. In Chengdu, the few non-Chinese restaurants available include a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant and various American food restaurants. Eating world cuisine in China is a lot more difficult – and more expensive then eating the local food!
So, when answering the question, I lie. “Oh yes, I love hotpot” (a dish that uses broad bean paste, which is made with wheat), “dumplings, yum!” (dumplings are made from wheat flour). I find it’s easier then explaining a disease they’ve never heard before and the word gluten perplexes them.
But I have actually really liked Chinese food
As mentioned, I have to cook my own food in China in order to avoid cross contamination. The majority of the meals we eat involve rice, vegetables, eggs or tofu. It sounds monotonous and it can be.
But eating rice has been a real life changer for me. In the UK, I was getting severe IBS almost daily, despite eating gluten free. Numerous nights involved abdominal pain, numerous cups of peppermint tea, and hot water bottles. But since moving to China and eating rice two times a day, I’ve barely had to use the hot water bottle I packed. Peppermint tea is only kept for “glutened emergences”. My IBS pretty much cleared up.
We’ve been back in the UK for two days now and I’ve indulged myself in gluten free bread and cheese. And guess what’s crept back? Last night was spent in tears, with a hot water bottle clutched to my stomach.
If I hadn’t come to China, and hadn’t needed to live on rice, I would never have realised what was causing the IBS. So China, whilst I don’t like your inability to cater for food allergies and intolerances, I do love your food, or at least, the Chinese food I make.