April 6, 2008
Jian Fei is the Chinese word for lose fat. Until I came to China, I never realized how fat I was. Jian Fei is something I need to do a lot of!
In the USA, where everyone is supersized, I fit right in for the most part. Here, where people are rather smaller, I’m often the subject of curious stares. Until recently, I thought the stares were due to things I’m more tuned in to, like hair and eye color and strange accents. But some of it is also surely because I am so large. Have you ever seen the Budweiser Clydesdale Horses? I imagine that sometimes when people see me approaching, it’s something like the Budweiser Clydesdales: the foreigner (known by various idiomatic names like "white ghost," "big nose," "horse face") is coming by, let’s go see! I’m exotic, colorful, and big! I guess I’m just a standout!
Size is partly a matter of genetics, and partly a matter of diet. In the USA we really are a melting pot. A large percentage of Americans would be hard pressed to name one, single country where all their ancestors originated. No matter what our skin color, many of us are like Barak Obama, with ancestors hailing from many different countries in our background. One of my daughters once asked me if I thought she would grow much more. She was obviously hoping I’d say “Yes, of course.” I had to remind her that her own gene pool had tall people, short people, and people in between. Based on her genetics, she could land anywhere in that spectrum.
Not so for Europeans or Chinese, where genetics have been much more stable as populations mostly stayed in the same location for centuries. One of the first things I noticed here is that the Europeans are obviously not melting pot peoples. For example, the Dutch are tall. Yep, like “wowie” tall. One of my Dutch friends says she’s tall because milk is the national drink of Holland. But it also doesn’t hurt that her father is close to seven feet tall (2 M plus several CM).
Making a sweeping generalization, Southern Chinese are genetically programmed to be a bit smaller than Northern Chinese. And we are in the South here. Yesterday in a food store I saw a man who wasn’t much more than four feet tall, with tiny perfectly proportioned features. And then nutritionally, I’m sure there are differences between the American and Chinese diet, as well. The plentiful American diet is loaded up in fats, proteins, and carbohydrates (and, these days, antibiotics and hormones that come in meat). Like a plant that receives lots of fertilizer, the American child might grow larger overall than a child who didn’t receive good nutrition (and perhaps a does of those hormones).
And then there’s the continuing issue: I eat too much and exercise too little.
I read that the average city dweller walks five miles per day. From what I’ve seen of habits in the city, that’s certainly true here. Americans, on the other hand, living in the suburbs or rural areas, are so lazy they’ll hop in their car to drive even one kilometer. This is evident in the amazing lack of exercise that one sees on ordinary streets in the USA. I can’t speak in terms of big cities (which do have more people walking), but the contrast between roads in China and roads in the USA is extremely dramatic: In China, the roads have all manner of people bicycling, tricycling, walking, as they go about their daily business. In the USA you don’t see people bicycling to work or delivering a refrigerator on the back of a tricycle. The only time you see anyone on a bicycle is when he’s engaged in a specific activity called “exercise”.
One of the photos circulated here in China as a joke about life in the USA is a photo of an escalator leading up into a fitness club. People here find that hilarious. First of all, it’s hilarious that exercise must be set aside from the chores of everyday living. But more importantly, the idea that someone seeking to exercise would fail to walk up the stairs is a hilariously incongruous thought.
Okay, well back to earth: I finally figured it out: I’m a lot bigger than most Chinese. In the USA, I’m just slightly pudgy. Here, I’m downright fat and huge. And it’s not a taboo topic of conversation to talk about that, as it would be in the USA. It’s just a fact, as if I had brown hair or blue eyes. My Chinese friends sometimes tell me that my fatness means I’m strong, in the sense that my body has some resilience to it. Next time there’s a famine, I won’t be the first to go, I guess.
And in a similar type of culture bias, while some in this culture would view me as fat, I would view many models in this culture as looking anorexic. This year’s models on the runway look particularly sallow and unhealthy to me, emaciated with dark makeup on their faces. I don’t think that is a good role model for women anywhere in the world. Even in China. Somewhere between fat and emaciated, we all must find a healthy balance. I just haven’t found mine yet!
Well, all this is academic except for one thing: I don’t have anything to wear for the GWIC annual ball next Saturday! I don’t know why, for the life of me, I left my carefully collected, expensive evening clothes all in storage in the USA. Last year, when I also had nothing to wear, I ended up with a huge disaster. I paid a tailor to make what was supposed to be a beautiful dress. Having paid a fortune for 5 meters of a beautiful silk, I ended up with something that was just a waste of fine fabric. This year, I’d prefer to buy off the shelf, if possible.
One of my friends told me about a market where I can find western, name brand designer evening wear, and where some shops would even have my size! Thrilled, I found the market and spent all day on Thursday walking around in it. It has beautiful clothing; perfect for my daughters and for my friends who can wear a size 6. But for the most part, six is the largest size carried by the shops: Small is size 0-2, Medium is size 4, and Large is size 6. One or two shops had a few size 8’s, mostly in styles that were shaped something like an umbrella. Lo and behold, one man was kind enough to dig an XXL out of the bottom of a bag. Besides being made as a prom dress for a 20 something year old, it was a size 12. He insisted it would fit fine, but hmm. I don’t think it was meant to cling to one’s body like a piece of saran wrap.
Well, as they say, there’s nothing like shopping to supply motivation to lose weight! But even when I was 22 years old, extremely fit, 5’5” and 125 lbs. (a pretty healthy weight) I was never a size six. If I were to be a size six, it would be unhealthy. In our family, in our gene pool, we’re just not built that way. We have to remember that, but not use it as an excuse. No matter what our ideal weight, there’s no substitute for healthy eating and regular exercise.