After five weeks in America it was good to see our friends in China. Until they called me fat.
Last week I was walking home and ran into Lotus. She’s our friend who runs the vegetable shop in our apartment complex. She’s also the one who said my son (who is half African-American) looks better when he’s white (click here) and organized a community event to help me find a cure for my diarrhea (click here). Lotus is genuinely one of the hardest working and sweetest people I have ever met. From early morning to mid evening, seven days a week, she spends her time organizing her little shop and delivering fresh oranges and broccoli to families in the more than 20 buildings in our complex (who are too busy or too cold to walk to her well organized little shop). Always with a smile, usually with a laugh and generally with a bit of free fruit if there are children involved.
Ironically, when I saw her she was coming from our apartment. She had dropped off our oranges and broccoli and my wife had given her the small gift that she had thought to buy for her little boy in the States. Her smile was bigger than usual and she stopped her bike to chat.
“Ohhh Jerry, it’s so good to see you. Welcome to come home!”
Me, “Hey Lotus! Good to see you too. We’ve missed you.”
“Yes, I just go to see your wife. I’m so thankful for your gift.”
I wasn’t actually aware that we had given her a gift but obviously we had since she had it in her hand even though I couldn’t make out what it was. “mmm. Oh yeah . . . we’re happy to give you that ummm . . . so how are you? Did you have a good Spring Festival?
“Oh yes, it was very good. How about America?”
“Very good. We had a wonderful time.”
“Good! I’m so happy to see you. And I’m so happy for the gift. My son will love it!”
Again with the gift that I was still clueless about. “Ohhh gooood . . . all little boys need one . . . of those . . . things . . . that we got for him . . . Ok see you later.”
“Ok see you! You look a little fat!”
Caught off guard for the second time in a 20 second conversation I stumbled around in my brain for something to say. I gave an awkward laugh and said the only thing I could think of . . . “Yeah well I’ve been in America. Zai Jian.”
As I walked away I realized that I had just fed the Chinese stereotype that all Americans are fat which is obviously not true. That’s like saying all Chinese people have black hair. Oh. Wait.
I’m afraid that I may have contributed to the gross misconception that there is something in American oxygen that immediately causes people to reproduce fat cells or even worse that Americans shovel food into their faces, like barnyard animals, straight from a feed trough. I could imagine that she had a mental picture of restaurants with multiple tables the length of the room overflowing with every conceivable fattening food sopped in butter and gravy with massive Americans piling plate after plate full showing little or no restraint. I felt it was too late to run after her and scream, “Noooo, you’re only thinking of a midwestern Chinese buffet!” I also thought it might be a weak argument to tell her we have other restaurants . . . with steak . . . the size of my torso.”
China has much less of a weight problem than most Western countries and consequently less of a stigma. No one wants to be fat but it doesn’t seem to be socially obsessed over from Kindergarten on here. In the West we build a massive, albeit contradictory, piece of our culture around fatness. Greasy fast food and high intensity workouts are both equally marketable products and feed off of each other (no pun intended). “Here . . . eat this. Now do a supercrunch. That’ll be fifty dollars.”
We publicly label being overweight as the absolute worst possible state of being. We make jokes about it (your Momma’s so fat). We make movies about it (Shallow Hal and most Eddie Murphy movies) where the moral of the story is always, “it matters what’s on the inside” but the first 98% of the story is fat jokes, (or fat momma jokes). We laugh about it. We complain about it. We even acknowledge that its a problem (Supersize Me) BUT time itself comes to a screeching halt when it gets personal. Children, in an effort to be cruel write poems (fatty, fatty boombaladdy) but once you reach the 6th grade you should know that it is physically dangerous to draw attention to anyone’s heavy-setedness, big-bonedness or even their pleasingly plumpedness. And by the time your married you should know that the only acceptable response to, “do these jeans make me look fat?” is to fake a heart attack.
In China they just call you fat. It’s not an insult. It’s not a compliment. It’s a statement. However, we don’t generally hear what people say until we filter it through who we are. China can be a challenge for the Westerner whose greatest, unspoken pain is being bigger than they want to be and I’ve heard some shocking stories from people who have come face to face with a perceived blunt response to their weight (which I dare not post on the internet without permission). If you live in China and you’re big, you’re different than the norm and they’ll tell you. If you live in America and you’re big, you’re not quite so different and no one will ever say a word . . . until you leave the room . . . and then they’ll make a fat joke.
So which way is better? To say “you’re fat” and think nothing of it OR to not say, “you’re fat” and think, “fatty, fatty boombaladdy”? I personally prefer the second one (especially when I’m the boombaladdy) but that could be because I’m an American . . . and pleasingly plump.
Anyone got a fat in China story that your not afraid to post on the internet? Go for it.