In Sympathy for Vegetarians

Funny how hard it is to sympathize with others till life deals you the losing hand.  
For years, I’ve watched my sister-in-law Narges, and my niece Isabelle struggle to honor their vegetarian commitments without appearing to be ungracious guests.  But I didn’t pay much notice.  And at the Chinese New Year’s feast two nights ago, a vegetarian Calvin College student traveling with me ended up with peanut butter and bread: the lavish feast set before us had meat in almost every dish.  Again, I didn’t think too much about it.
But as you may know, Mondays are meatless in our household.  It’s a small accommodation we’ve made in recognition of the value of lifestyle decisions regarding creation care.  Food has a carbon footprint, and meat production and consumption is actually a heavier burden on the ecosystem than many people appreciate.   On many days, our family doesn’t actually eat meat.  But on Mondays, we pretty much never do.
And so this Monday, I found myself wandering alone on Peng Chau, a tiny island in the South China Sea, near Hong Kong.  It’s the Lunar New Year, and most stores and restaurants in the island village were closed.  But it was also rainy and cold; and I was hungry, wet and chilled.  After two failed attempts to squeeze into crowded storefront restaurants, I found a nice place with a table all to myself.
Peng Chau’s main street barely accommodates a bicycle

But then came the challenge:  Finding something to eat without meat.

“No meat?” asked the incredulous proprietor.  “No meat?”
There were plenty of vegetables, but they all were cooked with meat.  Broccoli?  It’s cooked with scallops.  Fried rice?  It’s got shrimp.  Spring rolls? Sorry: pork.
Finally I noticed fried noodles with pork and mixed vegetables.  “I’ll have this one,” I told my host. “Only, would it be possible to exchange the pork for a few more vegetables? No pork? Okay?”
Brilliant!  And lunch was delicious, with three kinds of mushrooms and baby bok choi.  Better yet, the restaurant was full of families enjoying their inter-generational New Year’s feast, so there was a lovely old grandma at almost every table.  It was a pleasure to see so many young men tending to an elderly and respected relative.
And this being the New Year, I’ve been taught that the holiday greeting is “Gung hei fat choi!” You say it with hands balled together as in prayer, slightly shaking them as though they are nodding.  Well, I hardly know anything in Cantonese, but I wasn’t going to miss my one opportunity to use what I did.  Of course, the Chinese are pretty reserved around strangers, and don’t freely offer or expect a greeting, regardless of the holiday.
But no one told me that, so if you were on Peng Chau today, you got “fat-choyed” by an American tourist, whether you liked it or not.  I think the villagers were suitably amused, because I got a lot of smiles and “Gung hei fat choi!” in return. 
More importantly, I learned how tricky it can be for our vegetarian friends to get a square meal away from home.
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you. And today, Gung hei fat choi!
J. Elwood

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