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Am I Strong, Fat or Obese? An American's View of Being a Fat Foreigner in China and How People See You.

Updated on January 25, 2013

Why Are You Fat?

I've always been a little over weight. For as long as I can remember I've had a little belly pudge, a roll, a bit extra. It isn't something that developed years after leaving high school. To the contrary I recall being just a bit over weight before starting high school and there is a family picture taken when I was still in my teens that shows me looking a bit pudgy.

I've stated before that I could lose a a few pounds of that I was bit over weight, merely to have most of my friends insist that I was wrong. But I never really thought of myself as fat. Not really. Not until I came to China and many different people started telling me that I was strong. An American living in China stands out for many reasons. Any foreigner stands out. The white face, the hair on your arms, if you have blue eyes or blonde hair; these are all things that get noticed very quickly. These are things that set you apart from the crowd. People notice and they notice even more if your a little bit heavier than they are.

The Arbitrary Meaning of Words.

It can be strange sometimes living in China as an American. If a Chinese person tells you that you look strong what does he mean? Well, that depends on his level of proficiency in the English language and also whether he is trying to be polite or honest. He could very well mean that you look like an athlete. But he probably doesn't mean that.

While working in one class with the subject of synonyms and antonyms I asked one of my students what the opposite of the word “strong” was. His response was not “weak” but “thin.” Between this and myriad other little incidences as well as conversations with other foreigners it has become clear to me that there is a common misunderstanding among Chinese people who are studying English about the meaning of the word strong. Many of them seem to believe that the word “strong” means “thick” or even fat. When one of my students tells me that I look very strong I no longer misunderstand him, I know that he really means to say that I'm fat.

But Really, Why Are You Fat?

Occasionally someone will ask me the question that they really mean to ask. It seems that one of the cultural differences between Chinese and American is that here it isn't considered impolite to ask someone why they are fat or to mention to someone that you think they are fat. I was a little shocked at first but it no longer phases me. I've heard the same question dozens of times now. I don't think that a whole month goes by without someone asking me why I'm fat. If a student of mine asks me this question I usually simply turn the question around and ask them to tell me their opinion. After all, I get paid to make them talk in English and I figure if they are telling me in English why I'm fat and I'm helping them with the grammar along the way then I'm doing my job. I'm not too sensitive about the subject. As one of my students puts it, I have no face. (I'm shameless).

It Isn't Just Me.

Most of my students are quick to point out that it isn't just me. They believe that most Americans are large. Americans are big people and in many cases big means fat. As an American living in China I'm supposed to be the resident expert on all things American. The question naturally evolves from “why am I so fat?” into “Why are Americans so fat?” Most of my students have a singular opinion. There is a small number with different ideas but the majority believe that Americans are fat because we eat lots of meat. There are many Chinese people whom I've spoken to who refuse to eat meat because they want to control their weight and remain “bean pole” skinny. This sounds plausible at first until I talk to other skinny, little Chinese people who tell me that they regularly eat meat. So if it isn't eating meat then what is it that makes Americans, myself included, fat? I've recently started asking myself this question.

The Fallacy of a Single Cause Explanation.

The average American does eat more meat than the average Chinese person. I'm almost certain of this. It may well be a contributing factor to the thickness of Americans but I don't believe it is a whole and complete answer. I doubt it for many reasons. There are still too many Chinese people who do eat meat and who also are not fat. More importantly it is too easy. There are too many other variables.

One thing that I learn toward the end of my college education is that “single cause” explanations are usually wrong. As one of my professors explained, there are very few things in this world that are the result one a single cause. Almost everything is the result of multiple causes combining together. Obviously there are situations in which there is a medical cause for weight gain. There are medical problems like hyperthyroidism, diabetes and other issues that can contribute to weight gain. But most Americans don't have these conditions.

Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Start.

I don't have a thyroid problem. So what makes me fat? What is it that makes so many Americans big, heavy people? Much like a combination of buttons in a video game inputs a code that changes something in the game, I believe that it is a combination of variables that brought together cause a person to become fat.

In fact, that is the first thing I thought of when I posed the question to myself. When I asked myself “Why am I fat?” I didn't think about eating meat, I thought about playing Nintendo. I spent much of my childhood fighting hordes of monsters in order to save the princess and free the world of evil. The only problem is that while I was fighting my way to save the princess I was sitting in my air conditioned home and barely moving at all. When I wasn't waging this war against evil my nose was buried in a book.

Another contributing factor would be my car. Most of my adult life I have owned and driven a car. Having lived in Wuhan for two years now this is the longest I have been without a car. Currently I walk almost everywhere I go. Even when I use public transportation such as the bus system I usually still have to walk a fair bit. I've walked more this past year than any other single year of my life. Sometimes I miss driving but I've decided that I never want to rely so heavily on a car again.

If you think about it American life is largely sedentary. We sit while driving to and from work. Many of us have desk jobs that basically require us to sit while we are at work. When we go home we generally choose activities that involve sitting, such as watching TV or movies, surfing the internet or reading hubpages.

This is not to say that eating excessive amounts of meat could be a contributing factor. A person's diet is certainly a factor. But again I wouldn't point solely to meat or any other single macronutrient. It occurred to me while I was in Starbucks last week sipping on my caramel macchiato that many of us probably overindulge in the quantity of food we consume, possibly even indulging too greatly in the small luxuries of life like overpriced milkshakes and super-sized combo meals and the colas with free refills.

Many people are quick to point to genetics as the sole culprit of all their physical ailments and poor behaviors. If I learned nothing else in my psychology courses I did learn that genetics is a factor that we can not ignore or discount in our understanding of human behavior but genetics is only at most 50% of what makes us who and what we are.

There is also the people in our lives. Back home people argued with me if I even suggested that I might be a little heavy. In China people have been much more honest and direct. When I think about my friends and family back home who would insist that I was not overweight I realize that most of them are about the same size that I am, if not a little bigger.

Why is an American Bigger than Most Chinese People?

I think the most adequate answer to this is a recipe that begins with genetics but includes an environment that encourages a sedentary lifestyle beginning in childhood and continuing through adulthood. Add to this an abundance of food choices and the propensity for choosing quantity instead of nutritional quality. Push all of these things through the social filter of our friends and family who likely share similar weight issues that we do. The results in my opinion are not produced by a single cause but the intermixing of all of these variables and possibly many others.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.

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    • Wesley Meacham profile image
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      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      @ Barbegirl28 Thanks for commenting. Sumo wrestlers are actually Japanese, which is a bit of a sensitive subject here at the moment. I think it stems more from a desire to not be very direct. There seems to be a tendency among many people try to be diplomatic and indirect with their critisims. For example, my first job here I was teaching at a primary school. I had three Chinese co-teachers. If there was something that they thought was wrong with one of my classes they would never come out and say what it was directly. Instead they would find other ways to make suggestions. Many people just don't want to say anything that they think is bad.

      Now, if the last few months I've also made a few changes to my diet. I've lost about 10 kg almost without trying. A lot of people have noticed the difference and said as much.

      @ John Sarkis, Thanks for commenting and voting. I agree we do have the best food. More to the point, we have much more variety. I'd kill for a taco right now. And I haven't yet found a pizza place here that really knows how to make a good pizza. It's a shamefull experience.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Very interesting and thought provoking hub. I do agree with you for the most part. All said, I've noticed that many Asian Americans are typically more pudgy than many people born and living in that perspective continent. ---We have the best food!... LOL

      Voted up

      John

    • barbergirl28 profile image

      Stacy Harris 5 years ago from Hemet, Ca

      This was a great piece and had me from the very beginning. It is interesting seeing the difference between cultures. Now it got me thinking - but I wonder if Sumo Wrestling - which I don't think actually is chinese - but if that is why they interpret strong with fat. Because these guys are huge. Just a thought.

      But you are very right - people have a sedentary lifestyle and they often times eat more than they really need. Each culture is unique. Thanks for sharing your in depth observations. This was very interesting!

    • Wesley Meacham profile image
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      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      jinjen, I love, love your comment.

      Though I approach it with humor, I wouldn't call my experience fun-and-games but I get what you mean. I can definitively see how the situation can be worse for a woman. I've another friend who who is a woman who has lived here for four years. While she probably isn't fluent, her Chinese is very good and she has told before about the things that people say in public when they think she doesn't understand. Actually I've heard similar stories from many other people, not just concerning weight.

      I've actually been thinking about a similar issue. I've been thinking a lot about things that people say as well as behaviors that are different here and the lack of understanding of personal space that most Chinese people seem to have. I have about decided that Chinese people in general have no boundaries, and if they do they are probably very different from my own.

    • jinjen profile image

      jinjen 5 years ago from Kunming, China

      I'm soo, soo glad I'm not the only one! However, for me, being called "fat" and asked twice a week if I'm pregnant hasn't been able to just roll off my thick rhino skin. I am female, which makes it even more of a stigma to be overweight in China. Plus, I speak Chinese fluently, including four regional dialects, and so I also hear the things strangers are whispering behind my back in public. Overweight females in China never get called "strong", they get called "lazy". I'm never asked why I'm overweight, I'm told that I eat too much. Plus the fact that a man is overweight doesn't bring on questions like "Are you pregnant?" "Where is your husband?" and then when I assure them I'm not with child- "Don't you ever do any work?" I'm sure the cute Chinese ladies are still quite interested in you despite your tummy, whereas I have had to end five different relationships over the past six years because of two recurring reasons: The first being that two of my "boyfriends" refused to introduce me to their families, citing the fact that it would be too embarrassing for them because I'm so fat. And the other being endless verbal abuse and "jokes" aimed to change me into something they could live with. For me, being overweight in China has not been all cute fun-and-games like it has for you. I have serious self esteem issues that I never had before in the States. Go to my profile, look at my picture. I may have an extra twenty, and not look like Angelina Jolie, but Jeez! These Chinese people are brutal.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wesley - Being intentionally amusing is almost always a good thing. I tend to be a fairly popular (but demanding and rigorous teacher). I am convinced the reason my college classes fill up is because the students talk to each other.

      "Well, you will have to work in her course, but she is pretty funny and brings up inappropriate topics during class, you know, she keeps it interesting."

      At least that is what some of them write on my annual evaluations. Having sat under so many different professors myself, funny and not funny at all, I lean toward funny. :)

      One day I said something and no one laughed or even smiled, but I smiled and looked quite pleased with myself. One of the young men asked me why I seemed happy because after all, my comment had bombed terribly. I told him that my funny and interesting and over-the-top comments are for me, to keep me from being bored and frustrated; if they happen to amuse or entertain or wake up the class all the better, but that is secondary! :)

      Interestingly, he seemed a bit disappointed in my answer. He didn't say this, but I think it was the first time it had dawned on him that he wasn't the sole center or raison d'etre of my teaching style and effort. It probably doesn't speak well of my character, but I found that rather amusing too. :) Theresa

    • LaThing profile image

      LaThing 5 years ago from From a World Within, USA

      Very nicely put! I do believe that genetic does play a big role, 50% is a lot! We are tall, and large people, and other environmental factors play a role in getting heavy, like you mentioned.

      I wonder if they associate the word fat with strength...... Considering all sumo wrestlers are huge! :)

      Very interesting, and voting up!

    • Wesley Meacham profile image
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      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      This may be a bit late but...

      @ Paul. Thank you for your comments.

      @ Robert. Thanks again.

      @ Alcosin. I'm glad that you commented. I've actually become a fan of some of your articles after stumbling on them a couple of weeks ago.

      @ Theresa. Thank you for your comments. One thing that you should know about me is that "being amusing" is almost always intentional. It used to get me in trouble a bit as a child. As an adult it sometimes still does but occasionally it's good for something. I agree with your statements that the single cause explanation. Once you understand this it changes a lot about how you view things.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Wesley-

      Interesting and amusing (although I know that amusing wasn't your primary intention)and important essay.. Great look at cultural and social differences in what we talk about and focus on. Wonderful that you are "shameless" with your students -- that makes you a wonderful teacher in my opinion.

      A simply great essay, but as a historian and "thinking: person, perhaps the most important senstence to me from your essay is this:

      "One thing that I learn toward the end of my college education is that “single cause” explanations are usually wrong. As one of my professors explained, there are very few things in this world that are the result one a single cause. Almost everything is the result of multiple causes combining together."

      Truer words were never written and if I could teach my college students one thing only during a semester, it would be this. We suffer as individuals, families, and a society because of our great propensity for simplistic thinking, categorization, and decision making.

      I absolutely love this Hub and think it is so appropiate as we are moving swiftly toward another presidential election. Thank you for writing this. Theresa

      SHARING SHARING SHARING

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      The easy answer to your question is that Americans eat too much food and much of it is processed. I've been around the world and especially in Asia, Americans are noticeably fat. Fascinating on what Chinese and we consider "strong." Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 5 years ago from California

      Wesley, this is a fascinating article and you make some great points. There are many things that effect our tendency towards obesity - our overabundance of everything seems to make it easy to eat a lot without having to work it off.

      Interesting article. Voted up and shared!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Wesley, this is a very good, useful and interesting hub. You know, Thai people are like Chinese when they call you "strong" meaning fat and like to say insulting things about people who are overweight. I, myself, have also been overweight for most of my life. The only time I was at a proper weight was in high school when I was on the football team and exercising every day. I have found that if I control my intake of carbohydrates and exercise a lot, I will lose weight. I am sharing this with my followers.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image
      Author

      Wesley Meacham 5 years ago from Wuhan, China

      I do agree that we eat too much meat. One of my coworkers actually has a degree in human nutrition and I've had a few conversations with her about it. Her position is that animal protein is an important and necessarily part of the human diet but not anywhere near the enormous proportions that we actually consume.

    • BigSerious profile image

      Christen Roberts Comer 5 years ago from Harrisburg, PA

      Fun hub. The meat thing has its place in the discussion. We tend to treat meat as the main part of the meal - it really should be treated as a side. So in that respect, yes: we are eating the wrong things and meat is contributing to our tendency as a country to be overweight. A good, honest hub. What a way to relearn social niceties, huh? :)