Rotate your evils

21 Dec

Living in China provides unique challenges and questions of morality we haven’t had to deal with before in Australia. Drinking water from a large bottled water fountain where you replace the 19 litre bottle when you run dry, trying to decipher the Chinese characters for MSG on packets of food (it’s in almost everything), working out the safe milk or yoghurt brands which haven’t had melamine found in them, not using genetically-modified foods (how would we know what is and isn’t GM though?) and what sprays have been sprayed on our vegetables to make them so shiny and perfect. Should I buy the oats from Australia that I know their origin and source, or go the better ecological footprint and buy local? Should I pop the exorbitantly priced fair trade organic chocolate into my trolley or spend my small volunteer allowance on a local brand of chocolate? Can I justify the Devondale UHT milk imported from Australia over the local fresh milk, and shouldn’t I support local farmers doing the right thing by food and organics and sustainable practices, despite paying extra for it? These questions I’ve had to deal with in two months of being here, and this is just home cooking. There’s a whole other maze of ethical and health dilemmas when eating out.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit, since reading an article this week in the Global Times claiming many hot pots may contain lead or arsenic, and boiling the chemicals for a long time can increase harmful effects on health. 

Add this to the melamine dairy scandals of previous years (and still going) and the damning claims that many restaurants and streetsellers are re-using and “recycling” oil that’s been thrown out, on top of the regular use of MSG, loads of salt and lots of oil in Beijing, and sometimes I wonder if I feel completely safe eating out. My boss at work encourages me to cook at home more, so I know exactly what’s going into my food. But do I really know then?

A friend said to me recently that you have to “rotate your evils”. I admire her and her husband for their ability to find sustainable produce, support organic farming practices and discover fabulous products to create delicious food. But this takes effort and time, and money that a volunteer sometimes doesn’t have. It’s something I aspire to do, and really grapple with my desire to buy boxes of organic fruit and vegetables, and the opposing, more practical side of me that realises it’s a little unpractical to spend money on taxis picking up the boxes of produce that I’ll have a hard time getting through in one week. One of my solutions to the dairy issue was to buy a yoghurt maker. I started it by adding some starter culture from a sugar-free yoghurt from the He Run dairy, which has had no traces of melamine found in its batches, mixed with Wondermilk, which is expensive, but also melamine free and organic. The result is sugar-free yoghurt that I know is healthy and good for me.

But it takes me back to the title of this post, and the words from my wise friend about choosing your evils. In essence she meant that living in China we’re not always going to be able to live in the exact ways we want to or we’re used to back home. So compromises will be necessary, and it’s what you’re willing to give up and compromise on, or what you value too much to give up. I’ll be dealing with these issues for the next year, I’d love to hear your comments on whether you’ve grappled with these types of dilemmas ever, and what you did to overcome them.


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