I recently had the opportunity to travel to China for my day job. Before the trip, I wasn’t sure what the situation would be like for me, in terms of diet. Now, with the amazing ability of hindsight, I realize the things I could have done ahead of time to help myself (that I didn’t do). So, I am sharing that knowledge with you!
My trip took me to Beijing, Nanyang, Zhoukou, and Zhengzhou, so other than Beijing, I was in Henan Province. Food practices in China, as in every country, vary by locale, so some of my experiences will be different, but the general principles should hold. Similarly, I traveled for work, so my hosts were selecting restaurants and dishes, for the most part, except during breakfast meals, where there was often some sort of buffet option.
Things I did right, and would do again:
1. Take snacks. There were a few meals that I/we skipped due to jet lag or being too full at the normal meal time from the prior meal. A vegan granola bar was a good thing to have around.
2. Take drink mix powders. If you like to drink something besides bottled water, tea, or alcohol (like lemonade or similar), you might want to take some drink mix powders with you. Bottled water was plentiful in hotels, but I hate drinking water first thing in the morning, so I brought some fruit drink powders with me, and it made taking pills etc. in the morning easier.
3. Be as flexible as you can be, within your own moral compass and body capability. While I won’t eat egg at home and try to avoid shared cooking oil etc., my lack of language skills and the fact that I was being hosted made this not really possible. I knew that going in, so I resolved to do the very best I could and let the rest go.
4. Bring appropriate stomach remedies. Whatever you sometimes need at home, bring it with you.
5. Read about food practices of China, so that you aren’t caught off guard by having food put on your plate by your neighbor (with his chopsticks), seeing a chicken head gazing at you from a dish, the lack of coffee, etc.
Things I wish I had done, or did, but not enough of:
1. Learn some characters for food items and pronunciation of food items in Chinese. Sometimes, even with an interpreter, I was confused about what I might be eating, and I didn’t have the capacity to understand or express the most simple food concepts.
2. Take coffee packets if you have a coffee addiction. In Beijing, this was not a problem for me, but when we left Beijing, the caffeine headache was not helping my ability to be a good traveler.
3. Read more about the food practices of the areas you are visiting. I had read general things about food and eating in China. I had not read enough to understand things like how much Biaju consumption would accompany business lunches or dinners. I had not read enough to understand that the province I was visiting would rarely include rice served in a meal. I had read enough to know that there would not be many dishes that were totally vegetables (even the vegetable dishes tended to have a little meat), but not enough to know how challenging it would be even for my excellent interpreter to explain my eating style.
All in all, it was an interesting and productive trip. I think I managed to avoid offending anyone with my food habits. I didn’t starve or make myself sick. I ate some interesting and some delicious items. And, I did my best. Next time, I’ll know more and do better.