Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Fat!" Ego crushing bluntness

Some well informed friends warned me that bluntness is characteristic of the Chinese culture. Now, after six months, I couldn’t agree more! I get picked apart in this country, particularly when clothing shopping. In one shopping trip (which is discouraging enough because everything is too small), I took a tally of the comments. Just in case I didn’t know, the store owners took it upon themselves to tell me all of the following: I am fat, I am rather gifted on the lower half of my body and not so much on the top, I have wide hips, I have hairy fore-arms, my complexion is not clear, and I have big feet. Thanks! In fact, apparently the only thing that I have going for me in this country is that I have long eyelashes and white skin!

I have always jeered a bit at the superficiality of Americans when it comes to things like commenting on appearance. Have you ever noticed that there are about ten ways to say that someone is fat other than using the word fat? Let me further demonstrate the cultural gap here. One Chinese woman, who had stellar English, genuinely asked me, “What is the polite way to tell an American that they are fat?” I thought for a second and then began to laugh, “There is no polite way to say that!” You just don’t say it. I mean is there really a need?

It’s not just because I’m foreign that I get these kinds of comments. The same phenomenon happens between Chinese friends too. The first thing that was said after hello was, “Oh you got fatter and darker!” "Fat" just doesn't seem to have the same ego shattering effect as in our cautious Midwest culture. I have concluded that these vocalized observations are in no way comments about the person’s character, which makes them less offensive. It is more like saying, “So how about this weather we’re having, plus you know I really care about you and we are close friends!”

While I used to think that all our pleasantries that we go through about appearances were a bit silly, once people started calling fat, I found that I was not as thick skinned (no pun intended) as I thought! I know they mean no harm, but it still cuts to the quick.

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