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If you’re an American-born Chinese like me, you dreaded greeting your relatives at holiday parties. It’s not because you dislike them, but because without hesitation or batting an eyelash, they would all comment about how fat you’ve gotten (fat shame, anyone?). To a Westerner like me, this would be a massive uncalled-for insult. Baffled and shocked, I would feel humiliated and resign to an awkward silence. However, to a Chinese native, this is as common as commenting that you got a haircut or a new sweater.
The fact of the matter is that commenting on your appearance isn’t a social taboo in China as it is in America. Being called fat isn’t exactly a compliment or an insult, but more of a statement or observation.
Whitney Schindelar, an English teacher who taught in China recalls one particular class session where her smartest student in the class read his sentence aloud, “‘Whitney is the fattest person in our class.’” As opposed to an American classroom where the students may erupt in laughter, shock, and an Instagram livestream, there was absolutely “zero reaction” in her classroom. She goes on to explain that Chinese characters all start with a radical related to the word, such as “女” which means woman. This radical is also in “ 好” and “妈” meaning “good” and “mom”. However the radical “疒” is found in words such as, “瘦 (thin), 病 (ill), 症 (disease)” which suggests that being thin holds the same negative connotation as being sick or sore.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 38% of adults in the US are obese. This heavily differs from China, where the rate of adult obesity is much lower and therefore seen as less of a problem. Being fat or overweight is heavily stigmatized in America, but Professor Gary G. Bennett of Duke University explained to The Root, “In a lot of other cultures, weight is a sign of affluence. Where food has historically not been plentiful, there are just fewer social pressures to be thin.” This is the case in China, where being slightly plumper was a sign of beauty during the Tang Dynasty.
Being plump or overweight signified wealth and prosperity because it meant you came from a household where you were well fed. Other beauty standards such as pale skin came from the same notion– dark skin meant that you were being tanned from working hard outside as opposed to rich women who stayed inside. This was not an idea exclusive to China, as many paintings and artifacts from the Renaissance and as old as 230,000 to 500,000 BC depict curvy bodacious women.
However in modern American society, being overweight is stigmatized and is associated with images of laziness, greed, and lack of self care. We grew up watching tropes of fat villains like Ursula from the Little Mermaid and Big Fat Bastard in Austin Powers while hearing insults like “yo mama’s so fat!” jokes. Society taught us that big is bad, shaming and demonizing extra weight while praising unrealistically thin hourglass frames.
In conclusion, your Chinese relatives don’t mean to throw shade when they say that you’ve gained weight. I’d try to take it with a grain of salt, as they were raised in a different culture with a much different connotation. Eating and feeding your family holds great significance in Chinese culture as it shows care and love. For example, a common Chinese greeting is, “吃了吗? (Have you eaten yet?)”. From my personal experience, it can be hurtful to have someone comment on your appearance in a manner that we find negative. However, after I went to college and lost a lot of weight, my relative’s common greetings of “you’ve gained weight” shifted to a concerned, “You’re too skinny! Hurry, someone feed her!” No matter what size you are, your Chinese relatives will always have something to say about your appearance, that’s simply their culture.
Leanna Chan is a Chinese American artist. She hails from the busy streets of San Francisco and holds a Bachelor Arts degree in Creative Writing. She enjoys social justice, dark humor, boba, and hyperboles. You can follow her on her blog: thecrunchypeach.com.