Given the talk I overhear on a daily basis in the ladies locker room at the gym and in the halls at our school, it’s evident that in China – as in the rest of the world, I’d imagine – body size/shape is an important element of female beauty standards. It’s also talked about much more directly than in the US, where it’s usually fine to comment on someone’s thinness…but not at all okay to comment on someone’s fatness.
But here in China, just like friends often greet each other with “You got whiter!” or “You got darker!” it’s also not uncommon to hear “你变瘦了!” (You got thinner!) or “你变胖了!” (You got fatter!). Sometimes this will be shortened to a simpler “瘦了!” (Thinner!) or “胖了!” (Fatter!).
It’s also not uncommon for random people (especially salespeople in markets for some reason) to grab hold of one’s upper arm and exclaim about how fat one is. Especially when one is a foreigner. At that point, it’s quite common that the foreigner has to work hard to restrain the urge to punch the lights out of this person who not only invaded valuable personal space, but also pushed the sensitive “weight/size” button. Then most of these salespeople go on to try and sell us their fabric or vegetables or whatever, and wonder why exactly we’re NOT inclined to buy. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here, though at least no one has dared to pat my tummy yet and ask how far along I am (another foreign friend has had this happen more than once). Yet this doesn’t just happen to those of us that are bigger, it also happens to foreign ladies that most of us would consider to be of “average” build.
I should point out, however, that the above interactions were all between females. I think guys around the world have enough common sense to know that it’s best not to be quite THAT direct when talking about a lady’s body size/shape. As an illustration of this, last week I got a compliment from Mr. Lu and the other old guys that sit around on the corner and repair bikes all day. However, their way of paying me a compliment was pretty indirect and really interesting.
Last Friday night, Joel and I went for a walk in the park. On the way to the park, we stopped at the corner to chat for a few minutes with Mr. Lu and company. As soon as we walked up, Mr. Lu started to chastise Joel. “大江！ You’re not being a very good husband these days!!! You’re not taking very good care of your wife!” We both looked slightly surprised at this unusual start to the conversation. Mr. Lu continued by asking Joel, “Why aren’t you giving your wife enough good food to eat?” At the puzzled looks on our faces, he grinned a little bit and said “She’s gotten too thin!!!”**
At this, we laughed and I began to explain that Joel is taking care of me just fine, but that I’ve been exercising lately. Apparently not quite satisfied with this explanation, or (more likely) just out of the desire to mess around with Joel a little bit more, he turned to Joel again and said, “Don’t bully (欺负） her to go exercise!” Then he turned to me, still grinning, and said, “He’s bullying you to go exercise, isn’t he?! He must be for you to have gotten this thin…what did you weigh before?” (At this point, one of the other old guys hit him and said something to the effect of “Hey, what are you thinking..You can’t ask her that!!!”) Mr. Lu backtracked a little and said “Well anyway, he must be bullying you to go.”
I told them that we’ve actually both been exercising, and that we decided since we’re still young and don’t have a family we should use this time to pay more attention to our health. We all laughed together for a little bit, they all warned Joel that he shouldn’t lose any weight (and spent a minute or two miming what would happen to Joel if he got any thinner), and then we headed for the park. I’m guessing that it wouldn’t be very culturally appropriate for these older guys to tell me “You look nice”…so they disparage Joel’s skills as a husband in a roundabout way of paying me a compliment. I have to confess that even though the compliment was at Joel’s expense, it was still really nice to hear, and I was pretty tickled by their creativity.
**For the record, there’s no need to worry that I’ve suddenly turned into a beanpole or something. Having peeled off the requisite 15 layers of winter clothing and started to get into better shape, the appearance of change is probably far more dramatic than any changes that have actually occurred. :D