Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Most Delicious Lunch Without Meat

[Note: This is the second in a series of posts about a young lady from Sichuan province I met during my first trip to Shanghai, China. An introduction to why I am sharing these stories is here. The first post told the story of Xiaoxin's very special first payday in Shanghai and the third post can be found here.]

As seen in the previous story, our mutual enjoyment of spicy food provided a door through which Xiaoxin and I could connect. However, food also proved to highlight how some of our experiences and expectations were very different.

After our first two meals together, I told Xiaoxin there was a restaurant in Shanghai I had enjoyed on my own and wanted to introduce to her. She expressed interest, and I casually mentioned that it was vegetarian.

"Vegetarian?", she asked. So I explained that there was no meat in any of the food.

She cocked her head to the side and with great puzzlement asked, "No meat? Why would you go to a place without meat?"

For many in China eating meat is a sign of prosperity. The idea of being vegetarian for either health or moral reasons is not very common. But I really didn't grasp how much this was true until I saw Xiaoxin's reaction to my suggestion. In her eyes, it made absolutely no sense that someone who had sufficient money would chose to eat at a restaurant without meat.

I realized that explaining my perspective to her would be difficult at best, so I said, "Trust me. It's really good food. If you don't like it we can go to another place afterwards." With an expression of skepticism laid over confusion she agreed to give it a try -- if for no other reason than to be polite.

At the restaurant I ordered 5 dishes for us to share. I made sure a few of the dishes included the mock meat many vegetarian Chinese restaurants excel at making. And of course, a few of the dishes were spicy.

The results were clear. Xiaoxin was very surprised to discover that she really enjoyed the food, including the mock meat. She said she hadn't had a meal without meat in a long time. She told me, "When I was little we very rarely had meat to eat. It wasn't easy to get and it was very special for us to have any." Xiaoxin then paused for a few moments before thoughtfully adding, "I remember sometimes seeing the little girl down the lane and sometimes she would be eating chicken. I would feel so jealous of her. I really wished I could have some chicken, too. And sometimes, sometimes she would be eating fish! My mouth would water when I saw that." The deep expressions on Xiaoxin's face and in her voice as she told the story only sharpened my imagined picture of her long ago staring in envy at the girl with the fish.

Fortunately, Xiaoxin's life had significantly improved over the years since then. She later commented on these changes when she pointed out with some pride and amazement, "But now my life is so different. I eat meat all the time and can have it whenever I want. In fact, I'm really picky about my meat now. It's really so different for me. It's hard for me to believe what my life was like before."

I had known that while very significant challenges remained in China, the lives of many people had vastly improved during recent decades. But Xiaoxin's story made me feel it in a way I never had before. Maybe nothing better indicates the difficulties of those days and Xiaoxin's limited hopes for the future than when she said, "And you know? When I was a kid I had a dream. My dream was that when I grow up I'm going to eat meat three times a week!"

The perspective this put on her current life struck me very hard. I had nothing in my own experience that could compare to it. To eat meat three times a week -- that seemed like a dream to young Xiaoxin.

The next story will shed some light on Xiaoxin's dreams not when she was younger but instead at the time when I met her. Like this story and the previous one, part of it will also be about a meal we shared. In fact, it was our last meal together in Shanghai.

And I made sure to order a very large fish.


  1. Thanks John & Stephen. Much appreciated.

  2. Yes, very good, I have really enjoyed this and the last post especially.

  3. Join the above. Fab post. And I have a 90% vegetarian affinity myself, plus a weakness for really good chili tofu...that is something Koreans have down pat.

    This site is an oasis of tranquility.

  4. Thanks Myra & KingTubby. Again, much appreciated.