Most people who know me will know how difficult I am to feed. I was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease at the age of eight; this means I cannot eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and (indirectly through cross contamination in mills) oats. When I told people I was moving to China for five months one of the most common responses I received was “China?! But you can’t eat noodles or soy sauce. What are you going to eat?!” I’m not going to lie this was a concern for me as well, I never eat Chinese food at home because the risk of contamination is usually too high. Add to that the obvious language barrier and well, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Having said all of that, I have never let my Coeliac Disease stop me from travelling before and I wasn’t about to let it stop me this time either. After a conversation with the ImmerQi team here in China, via skype, I was reassured that food would not be an issue. On arrival in Beijing we were each handed a name card along with our room key, on the back of mine was a hand-written note explaining in both English and Chinese that I am allergic to gluten (still not entirely sure everyone in China knows what gluten is but it seems to have served me well so far). I used this every day in the canteen in Beijing and they knew exactly what I meant.
I was placed in a Southern Province of China, I assume this because in the South it is more common for people to eat rice than noodles. As part of my placement meals are provided by the school cafeteria, I found after the first week that this was a bit of a hit or a miss for me in terms of what I could actually eat so I decided to apply for a meal allowance from the school instead. This was initially turned down. I applied a second and the this was accepted, thanks to the efforts of my awesome ImmerQi contact Ben and my wonderful school contact Rani. I will now receive a food allowance along with my living allowance that is already provided as part of my internship on the fifteenth of every month.
Eating at restaurants has been an interesting experience, I find myself spending more time asking “can I eat that?” than actually eating anything. It’s a long process but eventually you get a meal out of it, even if everyone else is finished by the time yours arrives. It helps to have someone with you who speaks Mandarin if you don’t speak it yourself, this way you don’t spend the whole meal trying to communicate through google translate (not to put down google translate because I have to say it can be an absolute life saver in some situations).
I think the key to being a Coeliac in China is to have patience; be prepared to explain yourself, sometimes multiple times, it’s just one of those things. Coeliac disease and gluten intolerances aren’t really a well-known thing in China like they are becoming in the Western World. Also, it helps if you like rice…
Some tips for a travelling Coeliac (whether you are travelling to China or France, Tanzania or Morocco):
- Before you leave the country visit this website http://www.celiactravel.com/cards/they have an explanation of Coeliac disease translated in just about every language. Print a few out so you can hand them to your servers in restaurants. I have been using them since I went to Portugal in 2010!
- If you don’t have the card with you have “I am allergic to gluten” saved as one of your top phrases on google translate and LEARN IT! Before you go, while you’re there, up to you but if you can say it and show it then people are much more likely to take you seriously when you say you can’t eat something.
- If it doesn’t look gluten free, it probably isn’t. Don’t risk it! There is absolutely nothing worse than being glutened abroad, especially if, like me, you tend to travel alone. Try explaining to 3 people you just met why you need full use of the bathroom for the next hour…
- Be prepared. I always have snacks on me; not just because I like to snack but because if we go out to eat and it turns out there is nothing there for me, at least I have a back-up to keep me going until I can find a proper meal