Today, I’m writing about a taboo subject in the USA. It’s a "three letter word" that no one says in polite company: F-A-T
Fatness in China doesn’t have all the emotional undertones that it takes on the USA. In the USA, it is an insult to call someone fat. It’s possible for that to be an insult in China, but more often it’s purely a statement of fact. If someone says "Wow, you are so fat!" It is more likely simply a statement of fact, as if they had said, "Wow, you have such brown eyes!" Yes, there is certain vocabulary which can be used in a more insulting way. But generally speaking, it’s a statement of fact. And sometimes an expression of amazement to stare at something so unusual. Here in China, especially in areas where there aren’t so many foreigners, we are regularly the object of stares, not only because of our light hair and eyes, our strange clothing, our tall height, but also because we are big and fat.
Here in China, I can spot an American in a crowd anywhere, because the Americans are almost all huge in comparison with average Chinese. Europeans are tall, but they’re not fat like Americans. Unfortunately, that most Americans seem fat is also one of the major impressions one upon stepping off the plane in the USA after having been gone for a year! After being gone for a year, almost everyone in the USA looks fat! One of our European friends who visited us in the USA was really impressed by the number of handicap parking spaces in the USA, but then he added, "And no wonder you need so many handicap spaces, because so many people are so fat that they can’t walk!" Which is a true point. Being fat has serious health consequences, no the least of which are those which result in joint ailments and disability. One of the first things Dr. Kate Bruck, from Australia, told us in Guangzhou during a general health discussion was to beware of becoming too fat. She then she rattled off a list of ailments directly linked to being too fat, such as diabetes, debilitating muskuloskeletal disorders, heart disease, and then a much longer additional litany of things than I’ve heard any American doctor mention. Perhaps the American doctors don’t mention it as much because they can only step on so many toes. I’m sure most of the advice falls on deaf ears, as it does mine.
And believe me, I’m not saying anything to my American friends that shouldn’t be said to myself, as well! I’m just as fat as every other American, more so than most. But the difference is that here in China, my fatness sticks out like a sore thumb. Another one of those things that being in a different culture, a different environment, will highlight because of the contrast. My size is not normal, not ordinary, in Guangzhou. No ordinary shops in Guangzhou carry my size clothing. This has even led to what I think is one of my funny "China" stories.
On the night before the airplane ride that brought us to live here, I stayed up all night packing. We had pre-shipped about six boxes consisting of Christmas decorations, Christmas candy and stocking stuffers, some books, a few personal articles like pictures and lamps to make our house feel like home, and some toys for baby J. Other than that, we were each taking just two suitcases. But our house was a wreck, and my home "office" was the worst of it. I stayed up all night throwing things in boxes that were labeled, "ship," "trash," "store," and "give away." It was a nightmare! Some kind friends were going to bail me out of my crisis by coming in after we were gone to put the boxes where they were supposed to go. At about 5 AM, running completely out of time, I ran upstairs to my bedroom where I had laid out all my clothes to go in my suitcase, stuffed them in it, and ran out the door to go to the airport.
I was relieved to find that we arrived in China with all our luggage intact. I opened my suitcase to unpack into the hotel we plan to stay in for about two weeks. No underwear. Check the other suitcase. None there. Check everyone else’s suitcase. Sure enough, I have left all my underwear laying on my bed at home in the USA. The only underwear I have in China are the two pair that were packed in my carry-on bag. So, I go to the Chinese store to buy some. Even though in the USA I "only" wear Large, here in China I’m pretty sure the sizes run small, so I purchase XL. I get home, open the package, and find something that’s the equivalent of about a USA size 6. Hmm. Holding them up, I announce, "Which one of my teenage daughters will this fit?!!" I decide it would fit the smaller of the two. I finally did manage to get some underwear in China. Something like XXXXL size in a special shop. Never mind the difficulty in getting there or having to have the translator explain to our driver what I needed and why. Fortunately, it’s something we can laugh about in hindsight.
But there’s another side to fat. It means we’re rich. Rich almost beyond measure, by some standards. I remember one day a sermon "my own" Eric Skidmore delivered, and he recited a memorable quote. He was talking of an exchange in Haiti between an American and a Hatian, in which the Hatian had mentioned how rich the American was. The American replied that he had never felt particularly rich. The Hatian then asked him, "Do you eat every day?" The American replied, "Yes." And the Hatian then responded, "Well, then, you are rich."
One of my daughters has an Indian friend (I mean by that, a friend who is from India) who wears her chubbiness as a badge of honor. It signals that she is not lacking for food; it means she is wealthy. Chubbiness, in some parts of the world, is a sign of status and wealth. As it is, too, in China. For instance, one day a long time ago I mentioned to a Chinese person that I was overweight, and she replied, "No, you are STRONG." Stoutness implies strength and an ability to weather adversity. If I had to go without eating for a week, it might not be fun but I probably wouldn’t die from it. Interesting that in the USA, rich people actually tend to be thinner, demographically. I’ve read some hypothesis that this is because wealthy people aren’t raised to be so concerned about stuffing every available calorie into their mouths, as poor people are conditioned to do.
One reason I decided to write about this, is that it it really is, indeed, a subject of every day conversation in my life in China. My fatness highlights that I’m one of the rich people, one of the lucky people who can eat as much as I want. One day, Song Ying and I were having a conversation about what clothing it was impossible for me to purchase in Guangzhou. I said that, though she could purchase a particular item of clothing here, I could not because I was too fat. Then I said in my limited Chinese vocabulary, "Americans are fat; Chinese aren’t so fat." She agreed. Then she said, "Americans are fat because they have money. They can buy as much food as they want. Chinese don’t have money, so they can’t buy so much food." She expressly implied that if Chinese had ability to eat as much as they wanted, they would be fat, too. See, many people want to be like Americans: Fat, guzzling gas, using air conditioners. Something to think about.
In the Catholic religion, gluttony is one of the "seven deadly sins." In a spiritual and aesthetic sense, in addition to the a physical one, what does this mean? Gluttony is about discipline, and it carries over into all aspects of life. As I write this, I can also count three electric lights on in the room I’m in, in addition to my computer sapping power from a coal-fired power plant. In the USA, where almost everyone is rich, the contrast is not so strong. But in the world, there is an extreme contrast between the rich and the poor. They say that 5% of the world’s population uses up 95% of the world’s resources. I suspect that balance is shifting a bit, as more countries develop and begin using a larger portion of the available resources. This is already reflected in the worldwide distribution of steel and oil, among other things. I feel so lucky to have been born rich, and I still do use my air conditioner. Yet, I have increasing awareness of the need to conserve resources, to be mindful of sharing, and not to rely on any sense of entitlement for my good luck. The contrast between my lifestyle, which I am loathe to give up, and the lifes of so many others highlights the truth of what Jesus said, that "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." How much would I be willing to give up, materially, to enter the Kingdom of God? And I once participated in a Bible study, thanks to Randy McSpadden, asking the question, what exactly is meant by the term, "Kingdom of God"? There seems to be some fairly strong indication that it’s a reference to justice in the here and now, not simply some pie in the sky after we die.
And one thing that strikes me as distinguishing Christianity from other religions is that in every human — in every face on earth — we see the face of someone who is loved by God and valued simply for that reason. We do have the parable of the Good Samaritan to guide our behavior, and we do have the exhortation to give our cloak to a person in need. I read Bill Gates quoted in a fairly recent speech, concerning the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, in which he said that the death of each child is a tragedy. Every child who dies, has a mother, father, brothers and sisters, a family who mourns that loss just as keenly as any child in the western world would be mourned. In my value system, this is true. I agree with Mr. Gates. Unfortunately, I disagree with him that all lives are viewed the same, though I wish they were. I think this value assessment stems directly from our common background as Christians. The contrast becomes clear when one does, in fact, live in a culture where there is no cultural absorption of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here in China, an unconscious victim of a massive stroke will not be treated at a hospital until the deposit has been paid, often in cash. A friend of mine witnessed a child bleeding to death after being run over by a bus, because no bystanders were willing to intervene. I am grateful that this mentality is alien to my culture and my religion. When we Christians are challenged to defend the value of our religion, our concern for life — even the life of a stranger — is one thing we can point to as a valuable and distinguishing characteristic of our faith.
I once read about a group from my church denomination who went to the Sudan. They were provisioned with food and water, but one member of the group simply couldn’t eat his portion, confronted with the dire need of children who were truly starving there. For the four days he was there, he gave away almost every bit of his food allotment. I can understand this impulse. So far, the greatest contrast for me, in terms of poverty, has been my visit to Cambodia, where tiny little children with legs like toothpicks and big tummies were smaller than J and then turned out to be several years older than her. (And I shuddered to think that if I saw this kind of poverty in the relatively rich, touristy area of Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), what worse hunger there must be away from the tourist crowds.) We don’t give money to beggars as a rule, for many reasons, but Cambodia was one of those places where it’s nice to have food in one’s knapsack for sharing. When we first began traveling, I always carried some breakfast bars in my knapsack "just in case" I couldn’t find any suitable local food. I have since abandoned the practice, because I’ve found that there is almost always suitable local food, but I’m not going to starve either, even if I miss a meal. Our visit to Cambodia made me rethink that: I wished I had breakfast bars in my knapsack so that I could give them to the little children begging for food from us. That need is probably why our doctor from Guangzhou (who by the way is Jewish), left China and now practices in Phnom Phen. (I don’t claim that charity is limited to Christianity, only that it is a key and distinguishing feature of our religion and which stems from the value we place on each individual life.)
I’m grateful that my life in Asia has exposed me to the true degree of contrast between the lives of rich Americans and the lives of others, who live lives much closer to the edge. And also, it is actually wrong of me to use the term "rich" in anything other than a materialistic sense. It is possible to have a very "rich" life, a richly woven tapestry of love and relationships and life experience, without being rich in a material sense. (The overtly materialstic aspects of American culture are repulsive to many in the world, and for good reason.) I’m still quite attached to my luxuries; but, as a result of having lived in Asia, I will never consider my air conditioning, my car, my food, my clothing, quite so casually. I will always be a more frugal person. For the sake of conservation itself I’ll walk more, take the bus, and turn my AC a few notches warmer. Yes, I may still be fat. I still get hungry, I love to eat, and I still love cheesecake. But I do have a goal of being less fat. One goal, in every aspect of my life, is to reduce the gluttony that an honest assessment of my own lifestyle implies.
P.S.: Interesting that this appeared in NY Times a few days after I wrote this Blog entry:
Home & Garden
The Year Without Toilet Paper
By PENELOPE GREEN
Published: March 22, 2007
To reduce their impact on the environment, two New Yorkers give up what most take for granted.