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