This morning I was tutoring one of my lovely private students, a 40 something year old woman called May who has an irrepressible sense of fun, and appalling English grammar that she refuses to work on. For some reason, we spent the entire hour discussing religion, including me making a rather hesitant and unsuccessful attempt to explain the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, and the differences in the hierarchies in both churches. I’m not very religious; I stopped going to church when I was 7 so that I could go and drink hot chocolate in the coffee shop across the street with my dad. I guess you could say I converted to worshipping at the alter of coffee shops at an early age.
Inevitably, Taiwan being a partially Buddhist country, the subject of Buddhism came up. “Do you know they have their own TV channel, their own restaurants, and their own hospital?” she asked me. I nodded. “And,” she learned forwards and dropped her voice to a whisper, as though preparing to impart a terrible secret, “Buddhists in Taiwan… don’t eat meat!” She leaned back in her chair so she could see the full impact of this revelation on me. “Well neither do I,” I said, smiling. She slapped her thighs loudly and laughed as if I’d just said the most hilarious thing. “They believe killing is bad!” She said. I nodded, “so do I.” “And some of them,” she lowered her voice again to rev up, “won’t even eat milk and eggs because they believe it hurts the animal!” I nodded. “But fish?” I shook my head. “Onions and garlic?” This is a common question in Taiwan when I say I don’t eat meat. Buddhists believe that Alliums, the family of plants to which onions and garlic belong, stimulate the blood too much which raises the emotions: so they don’t eat them. “I eat onions and garlic, just nothing from animals.” May leaned back fully and squinted at me, thinking hard. “You know,” she said at last, “my Aunt doesn’t eat anything from animal, so I know lots of places. There’s a good one on the second floor of Sonjiang Nanjing MRT station.” And just like that, we returned to the surreal lesson topic. This is typical of the reactions I’ve had here. Confusion about fish and meat, then question about onions and garlic, then concern about how I’m managing, then recommendations for places to eat. My favourite reaction was from one of the women who works at my school, who just said “Oh,” nodded grimly, then said “peace!” and gave me the peace symbol.
According to Wikipedia, 13% of Taiwan identifies as being vegetarian. This is the largest population of vegetarians anywhere in the world, and it was one of the reasons I chose Taiwan to move to. A lot of the vegetarians here are inconspicuous and over 50. The Buddhist buffets, of which there are many, are packed full every lunch and dinner and even those who eat meat will choose to eat in vegetarian places from time to time. At the large Buddhist buffets that are all you can eat and cost an arm and a leg, you can find everything you can imagine. Because it’s for religion, not health, in general the Taiwanese have chosen to recreate meats and fish with soy. I avoid soy and replacement meats as much as possible, but it’s been quite surreal to see what looks like chicken and fish, complete with scaly skin, on the buffet platters.
Although it’s easy enough to be a vegan here, being a healthy vegan has presented far more of a challenge. In past year, and even in the 6 months since I’ve moved here, veganism as a health craze is visibly starting to take off. Restaurants such as Herban, Miss Green, Mianto and Ooh Cha Cha are championing healthy, fresh and often raw vegan food that is worlds away from the greasy fake fish and tired vegetables on the buffets. The catch, naturally, is that this Western style vegan food comes with a Western price tag. I now cook mainly for myself, because eating out all the time was making a choice between running down my health with the amount of oil and soy, or running out of money.
Since I changed to being vegan over two years ago, I’ve lived in Berlin and Glasgow, and hitchhiked all round Central Europe. Apart from an uncomfortable experience at a Bier Garten in Munich surrounded by an entire abattoir worth of roast pig, the experience has been fairly plain sailing. Vegan life in Taiwan is getting easier and easier, and I’m excited to see what the next year presents. If nothing else, it’s just a nicer quality of reaction I get from people than the usual ones in Europe.