Please stop paying attention to my…

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:

16 thoughts on “Please stop paying attention to my…

  1. Wow, I think I cringed through this whole blog! You are a lot more accepting, or should I say easy going, about this than I would be!

  2. Ha. See, isn’t cross-cultural living fun?? =D

    Way to go Jessica and her anonymous workout buddy for sharing such a revealing experience!

    Trying to hear people for what they actually mean (speaking from within their culture) instead of what it feels like they mean (to us, hearing from within our culture) isn’t easy – and I suspect the ladies have it worse in China. Just because a foreigner can ‘understand’ in their head that there’s no offense meant or that they’re actually trying to be friendly doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel bad, wrong, offensive, and/or hurtful.

  3. I just have a try whether I can leave sth here,I am sure that from your blog I can gain lots of knowledge or helpful experience.
    I am a chinese,so my writing is ……. but I am sure that your chinese is also excellent,you can understand me easily,haha

  4. Based on my experience, I find Jessica and her friend’s encounter to be somewhat tame and easily within the acceptable rules of this society (are there any rules?). I live in Guangdong Province, in southwest Guangdong. I’m afraid some of the conversations amongst themselves and others would burn your ears! I’ve been here two years and still I have instances where I’m incredulous as a conversation unfolds. Let me qualify this by saying, that to some extent, the people here are less sophisticated than their Northeastern kin.

    When walking together, my wife is continually accosted and engaged by others wanting to know the specifics of our love life, including comparison of a gweilo’s member to that of his Chinese counterpart. Taxi drivers continually ask these intimate questions. Surprisingly, not one bothered to find out whether or not I speak Chinese!

    If I had to define the Chinese in two words, I would say: Inquisitive and Unsophisticated.

  5. W.D. – Our experience is the same, in that the situation Jessica’s writing about isn’t uncommon at all. Explicitly sex-related comments are more rare, though I have had people, in the midst of regular conversation, comment on particular body parts of mine in the gym shower, or make jokes when they see I’ve not had much sleep. But the vast majority of “public conversations with strangers that we’d never have in North America” for us are about weight and health.

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, trying to nail down the major underlying factors creating this particular difference, where Chinese people discuss things that just mortify Westerners. No answers yet, but I think I’m getting there. I suspect different general attitudes toward the body have a lot to do with it, and how obvious things regarding one’s body are and aren’t connect to “face.”

  6. I agree with your blogs that some of the very personal/private comments/questions are just embarrassing or unbearable. I, a catonese, used to very good customer service, find the middle-age sales lady or waitress in Shanghai where I live are just unbearable!

    My husband is from Ningxia. The first time I went to his hometown everyone asked me how much I make and my sister-in-law asked whether I earned more than my husband (her brother), that’s just so embarrassing! No one in Canton or Shanghai would ever ever ask that question! At first I thought that they may be curious about my salary only, but then as it goes with my trip, I know everyone’s salary because they just speak it out so naturally and others asked so naturally! I think about it, and my conclusion is, because in the old days when we have a planned economy, people’s salary is very similar (and relatively fixed) and publicized, so some people/provinces who are still used to the planned economy do not feel salary a privacy. But I promise you no Chinese will ask you about salary in places like Shenzhen, SH or BJ.

  7. I had a similar experience while in Japan about the pronounced difference between my body time and Japanese women’s body types. Such comments, if not put in the proper perspective, can cause a woman to feel gauche, to say the least. How interesting, though, that if we with our body types were in Africa we’d be considered beautiful!

  8. I must share this little story: my brother visited me while I was working in China and we went to Sanya (Hainan) for a fnatastic holiday. He had picked up some weight and was feeling very self-conscious and generally just not very good about his newly-acquired posture. Because of this I forwarned him when we were setting off to get aromatherapy treatmetns at the very posh hotel health spa – I basically told him that his massage therapist will make a comment regarding his weight and that he should mainline it down his cultural vein… (It was his second time visiting me).
    Anyhow, afterwards he relayed what happened. As he was taking off his T-shirt, he tried to outdo his masseur by saying “I’m very fat”, thinking that would prevent a comment from his therapist. But without hesitation, the therapist responded, “Yes, I can see”. It still has us in stitches whenever we reminisce about this otherwise-perfect vacation we had.

  9. “mainline it down his cultural vein” — I’ll remember that one. but i suppose awkward cross-cultural moments and bad trips must be somewhat similar, especially when you go asking for it like your friend. ha, what a trooper.

  10. after traumatic experiences trying to buy shoes and clothes and getting offered men’s clothes and looks of horror when i would say my shoe size, etc. trying to shop within my first few months of living here, i simply refused to even attempt shopping for YEARS. visa trips to hong kong were a godsend for this reason. now armed with a better knowledge of where to look for larger items, much better chinese so that salespeople don’t have to resort to that trauma-inducing gesturing, and having lost some weight, i buy the occasional item of clothing when i’m really feeling like it’s time but it’s certainly not the fun activity buying clothing can be in the states.

    about your points (with the caveat that i realize this is an old post and so your perspectives might have evolved):

    1. i think that’s not the only difference in terms of sales service. another issue is that the average store in north america the salespeople are employees trained by a corporation that has plenty of money to spend on floor models of the clothes, damage to the clothes, etc. in china often the salesperson is also the shop owner and by extension, owner of all the clothes. if they allow somebody to try on an item of clothing that’s too small for them (and i think north americans have a tendency toward distorted body image and thus frequently try clothes that are too small, especially if the size isn’t marked), they run the risk of the item being damaged, seams and zippers ripped, etc. probably safer to offend the customer than to have the clothing damaged and still not make a sale. it’s also pragmatic: why should either party bother taking the time to try on something that (at least from the salesperson’s perspective) clearly won’t fit? usually, actually, they’ll have a tape measure on hand to save everyone the trouble.

    2. i think westerners in general tend to be highly sensitive about our appearances, especially body image, in relation to our self-worth. this is something ingrained into us from a young age, by the media and consumerist machines. that’s what much of the fuss among feminists and anti-consumerist groups is about–what the consuming does to our self-perceptions. when it comes down to it, IS there a reason to get so worked up if we’re a bit fatter than the next girl? we’re led to believe that the extra pounds makes us less attractive. whether or not it actually does is questionable. and, conversely, i think that because it’s become such a sensitive issue for us, a lot of us ARE in denial about our own bodies, believing we’re fatter or thinner than we actually are. i think the whole implementation of consumerism, marketing media, etc. in china is why body image is starting to become an issue among younger generations, but, like you said, when an older generation makes a remark it’s not meant to offend or whatever. on the other hand, i’m not the only to have noted that chinese people tend to blurt out whatever’s on their mind on some matters–my mom (chinese) never has any problem telling me immediately just how bad my hair/clothing/whatever looks.

    finally, the most recent time i’ve had one of these comments was about a month ago, at a friend’s birthday party. the guests–all of whom were locals except for the birthday girl (ethnically chinese and very slender), me (admittedly, having put on some weight recently and dressed rather immodestly since it was so darn hot), and one other guy who didn’t understand chinese or therefore any of the exchange–were sitting around, snacking and conversing when my friend mentioned that a new vegetarian restaurant had just opened up to me. her language teacher, probably in her 30s, who i’d met briefly, once, turns to me and asks if i’m vegetarian, which i affirmed. then she literally looked me up and down and said, “看不出来!” there was an uncomfortable pause as the two non-locals (me and the birthday girl) digested her meaning, and then she started giggling and her husband started admonishing her for her big mouth. the other guests looked slightly uncomfortable, and one, also a little on the chubby side, said “吃素还是能长胖” i guess to ease the tension. anyway i was shocked at how, after five years of living here, i was still so offended and sensitive about the remark; on the other hand, i was thinking that judging by the big-mouth’s, her husband’s, and the other people in the room’s reactions, it’s not like she was being unknowingly rude … it was like she knew she was being rude and didn’t hold her tongue in time anyway. i was close to tears, feeling humiliated in a rather intimate setting with a group of strangers–mostly because i knew what she said was true–and having the compounded annoyances of realizing i was in denial about having gained weight, and that after so long i’m still not used to such comments, etc. etc. but after that my mood changed to anger and annoyance (also at her ignorance that the only reason she could see for eating vegetarian would be to lose weight, apparently) and, finally, a -it mood, after which i ate all the effing free cheese i could fit into my mouth and comiserated with a late-arriving friend who had also recently put on some weight and shared her being-called-fat stories. and FINALLY, it did kick my to start running again and shed those pounds i’ve gained since quitting.

  11. jane,

    I especially agree about your #2, and any female who has to grow up in the Western media’s toxic environment has my sincere sympathy whether they want it or not.

    That point, that Western women in China tend to be overly sensitive has come up a few times on here… I forget where exactly. Maybe here: 关心 talk: so offensive it’s funny

    Our teachers have commented more than once: “Foreigners are too sensitive!” I agree, but that doesn’t mean Chinese aren’t too insensitive as well. Still makes for funny stories though!

  12. Laughed all the way through this! it is what I have experienced since my arrival in China. I am a British girl around a 10/12 size (though the noodles and dumplings are beginning to increase my waistline lol) Whilst recently shopping in Shantou for my 14 year-old, skinny sister I was holding a dress against myself just to see if I thought if would fit her, the sales lady walked up to me, gave me quite a dirty look, said ‘no’ and then proceeded to take the dress off me! I then had to pretty much convince her to give it me back and beg her to sell it to me lol glad to know its not just me :-)

  13. This was the hardest thing for me to get used to. I lived in Shen Zhen with my husband and his extended family while working as an English tutor for rich Chinese Urbanites.

    One day while I was tutoring an adorable 6 year old girl in her home, her 80 year old grandmother surprised my by wrapping a rope around my butt, taking a measurement and then lecturing me loudly in her village dialect that I couldn’t understand. Being from the Canton area, it was a version of Cantonese, not Mandarin, so I didn’t catch a single word. I looked hopelessly over at my young student and she happily translated:

    “She says your butt is way too big”, the girl told me, “it means you’re going to get really sick if you don’t get rid of it. A big belly is good, but a big butt means that you sit for too long and don’t move.”

    I laughed and asked her to translate back for me, “I’m a white person,” I said, “If I were a lazy white person my butt would be three times the size!”

    This in combination with my class of first graders who would constantly say: “老师有很大屁股! 打她屁股!” I was getting a little worried that my butt was going to come between me and meaningful relationships with my students :P Luckily none of them ever tried.

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