“Hey Fatty” and other Chinese Greetings

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.”

“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.     



  1. I don’t know … I think Chinese women, particularly the young, urban ones, are absolutely preoccupied with weight and there is definitely a sigma against it. The weight loss products in the stores, the magazines etc … it’s all there … I didn’t see it being much different than in N.America.

    Now the men, well, they seemed to revel in their (beer/baijiu) bellies … rubbing them and walking with them front & centre … add in to that picture (summer time) shirts rolled up under their arm pits, pant legs rolled up to their calves, well, it’s a lovely site … but I digress.

    Glad to read another post … always so much fun to read.


  2. When we were in China this last time, I saw the fattest Chinese teenager. I am sure she isn’t the only fat girl in China, but she was the fattest I have seen. She was on the airplane with us, and what appeared to be her parents. They doted all over her, spoiling her, you could tell she was really loved. Now she may have had a medical condition, I don’t know, but when I say BIG, I mean BIG, I would say 2 or 3X in clothing…..honestly, it was a little odd because I am not used to seeing people that big when I am in China. She seemed like a very happy confident girl though, as much as I could tell.
    I did always tell my husband that I hoped our luggage didn’t get lost, because I would NEVER find any clothes to fit me in China. Half joke/half truth.

  3. I’ll second what Bernice said. Also check out the plump little kids heading to school; China is rapidly changing.

  4. Definitely changing . . . especially in kids. China’s catching up but they’ve got a long way to go.

  5. Jerry, I don’t know you but I went to school with your wife and I just have to say I love, love, love your blog. I enjoy your sense of humor as you tell your stories and observations. Thanks so much for giving me lots of things to think and laugh about.

  6. Hi again,

    Yes, you’re right … China has a long ways to go to catchup with N.America … despite my protestations that weight is an issue in China, the majority of Chinese are still a healthier weight than here … it is rather obvious when ones goes back & forth between the two countries.

    Hi to LW.

  7. Interesting stuff. What will China look like in 20 years? Obviously there will be many more overweight people but what will that do to the culture? Will Lotus be afraid to tell me I’m fat? If they’re trending towards obesity then now is the time to invest in Chinese exercise equipment.

  8. Well, yes, I’ve been called fat! I wrote a blog or two about it but here’s the skinny of it: Upon returning from America with our newborn child many of our neighbors greeted me with their frank observation: “Welcome back. Your fat!” Gulp, gasp, why…yes, I suppose I am! I want to argue, excuse this new found fat away with “pregnancy rights”. I JUST had a baby! Isn’t that reason enough to be over weight?! But in truth, my extra weight had more to do with my over indulgence while in America than with pregnancy number three.
    Wile in China, I was shocked to watch a person walk up and down the grocery store aisles looking for fat people to give a flyer to advertising an establishment to lose weight…can you even imagine this happening in America???
    Lastly, I even over heard a cute conversation from two elderly ladies on a bench watching me, while I was about 7 months pregnant. Mind you, there was nothing confusing about my state of pregnancy, at 7 months, I looked, well…PREGNANT. Nonetheless, they sat there and…”Look at that foreigner. She is fat.” “Fat or pregnant?” “No, she’s fat, foreigners are fat”
    Some observations of mine: Many of my Chinese girlfriends have chatted with me about the best ways I can lose weight. Most have told me that the women in China are “crazy about losing weight” “Obsessed”. In a nearby indoor shopping market there is now a section of stores that are clearly for the overweight Chinese woman. And lastly, my runner friend with seemingly no shred of fat on her body was told by a shop owner that they didn’t have any jeans to fit her because her thighs were too fat! What exactly IS fat in China???? Because her thighs in no shape or form of the word are fat!!

  9. Jerry, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I went to church with your Aunt Freda growing up and was really active @ Union Grove Youth Camp. Anyway, I spent 2005-2006 teaching at a university in Guangzhou. So I’m LOVING your blog! 🙂
    My story is that 4 freshmen girls came up to me during a class break one day. “They said “Oh Meredit” (I feel I should add it was a pronunciation class, but only the 2nd week…they were still having trouble with ‘th’ sound) “Oh Meredeet, your eyes, they are such a beautiful brown. Your hair such pretty curls. The jewel in your nose is so lovely (my nose ring). And your smile so gorgeous. Now, if the rest of you was more physically fit, you would be pretty all over”. Build me up to knock me down! lol It’s been a few years, and a different province, but our students didn’t usually say “fat”. They would say “strong” until we told them we knew they were calling us fat. ha

  10. Hey Meredith. Thanks for commenting. Love it. If you see Aunt Freda tell her she should come to China to visit. How fun would that be? Don’t know if you know my Aunt Becky or not but she came a few years ago. She had never been out of the country, in an airplane or in a taxi . . . so much fun.

  11. I lived in China over 7 years and I always said, as long as I was told I was pretty more times than I was told I was fat it was a good day. I had a teacher tell me that my face was beautiful but it was a shame that I was so fat. She even brought a weight loss drink to class that she wanted me to try. I had shop owners refuse to let me try on cloths because I was to big for them. Chinese friends could eat me under the table and gain no weight at all. Friends would often comment on the fact that I didn’t eat as much as they did but I was fatter than them. My only saving grace was that I have the palest skin ever! I seriously felt like the fairest of them all! People would comment on my white skin and that covered a multiple of fat comments.

  12. I am very close to my Chinese host family from a program a few years back. They have come to America to visit for the past two Christmases and every member of my family (older brother, mom, and dad) have also stayed with them when we visit China. I grew up in China, so we go back often. Anyway, you could say they are my Chinese extended family.

    My host sister is chubby in an adorable way and I pride myself on being thin, so naturally my Shushu and Ayi compare our weights every visit… well really at every meal. They have always scolded her for being chubby and said she should be more like me. Which sucks for her, but I enjoy the praise. So I am interning in Beijing this summer and go to visit every other weekend. I just finished my freshman year at a southern university in the States where beer and frat parties are all too prevalent, so naturally the freshman fifteen got me a little (I would prefer to call it the freshman five). As soon as my Ayi saw me, she told me, “You have gotten fat!” Lovingly, but blatant. Ouch.

    I think weight is highly talked about in China. Between family comments about gaining weight are common and jokingly made, but from strangers these comments are increasingly un-PC. Even the Chinese realize the ideals for beauty don’t include extra pounds.


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