Just when I start to think that I’ve gotten used to something over here, a whole slew of things will coincide to test that assumption and prove to me that I’m not nearly as used to (whatever) as I had thought. Sometimes this “whole slew of things” doesn’t all happen to me, but is shared experience spread out among myself and friends. I’ve mentioned before here how people, especially salesladies, like to make comments about body shape and size…sometimes grabbing and touching as well, to illustrate the point. I think I have discovered now that it’s not just salesladies, its women over a certain age (about 40 years old)…and it just so happens that most salesladies fall into that range.
All that to say, recently there was a weekend in which the experiences of myself and several of my friends proved to me that I’m not nearly as used to these comments as I had thought. While at the gym, a good friend had the following experience (quoted from an email to her family) which sort of seemed to kick off a whole weekend of people paying entirely TOO much attention to foreigner’s body shapes…especially the hind end. :D
On that day, my friend said:
One of the many people who decided to converse with me (that day) was one of the cleaning ladies. She is really nice and I usually say some little nothing to her most days, even though her accent makes her hard to understand. Here’s my favorite paraphrased and truncated excerpt of her conversation with me: “WA! Your face is getting really thin. But your butt, back here (pointing in case I wasn’t sure which butt she was referring to), is still very big. Why don’t you try to lose some weight back there? It’s not very attractive. Everyone says. (I LOVE that part) Do you understand me when I speak Chinese? (She asks this 2-3 times every time she speaks with me) You’re upper body is thin too but, aiya, that butt….” I said something like blah blah genetics blah blah taking time but on the inside I was laughing really hard.
It should be noted that my friend is of a pretty average size for a North American…curvy, but not to an unusual extent. I’m proud of her for being able to laugh it off at that point…that’s how you know you’ve started to get used to this kind of comments. When I first came, comments like this made me want to go home and cry. Now, I’ve also gotten to the point of laughter most of the time…however, when the comments keep rolling in, all in a short period of time it gets a little harder to just shake off.
Later that afternoon, I went to the mall below the gym looking for some summer clothes. I located a rack of capri pants that were on serious sale, and started looking through them. As I was looking through them, the saleslady came over to me…and trying to be helpful, picked up a pair of shorts from the rack of MEN’S shorts. Assuming that I didn’t speak Chinese, she pointed at me, pointed at the shorts, and then pointed back at me again. Meaning, in the universal language of “gesture”: “I recommend you try these.” Not only were these men’s shorts, but they were the BIGGEST pair of shorts I have ever seen in my life. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that I could have fit my whole body (with room to spare) in one leg of these shorts. Um, thanks for the recommendation, saleslady. So, I finally managed to say something along the lines of “Hey, those are men’s…and they’re way TOO big!” To which she replied, “Well, you definitely can’t wear those pants that you’re looking through, there aren’t any big enough for you!”
The next day, the same friend quoted above and I decided to go clothes shopping. We went to a favorite local market that sells mostly clothes that were intended for export (meaning: they often have clothes in foreign sizes!!!). My friend found a pair of linen trousers she wanted to try on and asked the lady if there was a place where she could try them (most of these shops hang up a sheet behind which you can try on clothes, but this one didn’t have one). The saleslady took one look at her, looked at the trousers and said “Nope. You can’t wear those. You’re too thick back here” and proceeded to pat my friend’s butt. Then the saleslady pulled a pair of trousers (five or six sizes bigger) off the rack and said, “Here, try these.” These trousers were obviously far too big, and my friend said so. However, the saleslady just shrugged her shoulders and turned to the next customer. We gave up on the linen trousers and went to the next stall. As if that part of her body hadn’t garnered enough attention in the preceding 24 hours, within five minutes of this conversation, a random passer-by also happened to run her hand over my friend’s rear-end.
There were more incidents that factored into this particular weekend, concerning both myself and several other friends, but in the interest of brevity (ha! no hope for that!) I’ll spare you all the gory details. Suffice it to say, it helped me realize that I’m not quite as used to all this commenting as I had thought. The occasional comment is easy to laugh off (which is progress), but by the end of a weekend which seems like it has been chock full of comments toward yourself and your friends…it gets much harder and more frustrating.
Now that time has passed (and the comments have gone back to normal levels), the humor in all of this has returned. I don’t want what I’ve posted above to be taken only as a vent though, because it actually has triggered some interesting thoughts and important realizations on several levels. I hope I can blog more about some of this stuff later on, but for now, I’ll just list a few of the thoughts below.
1. The notion of customer service in China is entirely different from in North America. In China, the customer ISN’T always right. Salespeople consider themselves to be experts in their fields and the “service” they are providing is that of telling you straight out what you can and can’t wear (and why). There is no need to flatter and cater to the customer’s whim…because with a population this big, the loss of a customer or two is no big deal. This can be a jolt for the foreign customer…who expects not only to be fawned over a bit, but is also not expecting (what she considers to be) personal comments regarding body size/shape.
2. It seems like a possibility that body shape/size/looks may be, particularly for older generations, a less important factor in self-worth than in North America. I was telling a friend of ours who is Chinese (born and raised in Taiwan) but completely bi-lingual (educated in international schools and graduated from college in the US) about these incidents and she said that she feels like these women are that direct about body shape/size because to them, in the end, it really doesn’t matter as much. Somehow less of who one is is invested in their shape, size, or looks…and that makes it okay to make comments about things that are obvious to everyone. This is an interesting idea, especially juxtaposed against the things that I hear from my young Chinese friends which indicate to me that, even if the above has some truth to it, body image and looks have shifted to become more important somewhere in the last several decades.
p.s. To top it all off, when I told my teacher (who has heard about this same phenomenon from many students) about all the comments/touching incidents within that one weekend she first sympathized (she gets comments from salesladies too), but then responded with the following “说实在的，我有的时候也想摸一摸你们的屁股!” or roughly, “Hey, to tell the truth, sometimes I want to feel your butts too!” Hilarious…though I still haven’t quite figured out whether this is just plain curiousity speaking, or because patting someone’s butt is some kind of affectionate gesture…or quite possibly, it’s a mixture of both.
Some of our best experiences with this are below:
- 关心 talk: so offensive it’s funny
- Comfort Zone Violation #379 – Naked English Practice? (by Jessica!)
- “No offensive” (by Jessica!)
- Too fat! Too thin!! Everyone’s got an opinion. (by Jessica!)
- Chinese “compliments” — English student edition