I work at home alone without colleagues; because of this, I often forget to eat until my blood sugar drops past the point of comfort. Also, my job now requires quite a bit of running around. Because of this, I’ve lost weight. Since I don’t own a scale, however, I didn’t notice until everyone started telling me that I looked thinner.
By everyone, I mean our landlord, our landlord’s mother, my language partner, the owner of a restaurant we went to, a vendor in the night market, all my relatives… and the list goes on. My favorite conversation was the one with the restaurant owner.
When she brought us our menus, she said to Ron: “Your wife has gotten a lot skinnier!” (I’ve noticed that people in Taiwan sometimes make no distinction between wife and fiance when talking, which is just as well, because it disguises the fact that I’m living in sin with my intended.)
When she came back to take our orders, she said to Ron: “Really, your wife is so much skinnier then when I last saw her! So much skinnier!”
When she came back with our food, she said to Ron: “Your wife is skinnier than before! I’m not kidding you! Really so much smaller!”
When she came back to fill our water glasses, she said to me (finally): “Honestly, you’re thinner now! When you first got to Taipei, you… you… [pause] had more meat on you! [grasping hand gesture in the air to represent the amount of meat]”
I was hoping that this meant she would give me free dessert, but no.
As amused as I was by that interaction, I was also a bit taken aback. I never comment on someone’s appearance except in generalities, like “you look nice today” or “that’s a pretty skirt,” and I never talk about their body.
The only exception is if I know a friend has been on a diet or exercise plan. Then I might say “yes, you do look more svelte than before” or “I think your diet is paying off” or “oh my, look at those big, strong biceps! I bet they could feed a starving village for days!” to encourage them. Otherwise, I keep my mouth shut because a) I don’t want them to think I spend all day staring at their body (even if I do, ha ha) and b) any weight gain or loss might be because of some health disorder, and I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I do this because in the culture that I grew up in, it is the polite thing to do, and discussing someone’s body and weight can very well be seen as a violation of their boundaries.
In Taiwan and China, however, people in general seem much more comfortable discussing their bodies and weight. I have heard “死胖子” (sĭ pàng zi) tossed around several times as an affectionate nickname for a chubby friend, even though it literally translates as “dead fatty.” And recently my parents told me that during their bus tour through several Chinese cities last month, a white American couple had been incensed when the tour guide said in front of them, “these two might be too wide for their seats!” and refused to give tips for the rest of the trip.
Even though these comments sound very hurtful, I personally think that they reflect the fact that body weight in Taiwanese and Chinese culture is not as tied to issues of self-worth and perception by others as it in America. You are chubby, you are skinny, you lose weight, you gain weight, etc. — people might as well be talking about your haircut. There is not the same kind of value judgment placed on different body types as there is in America. A slender figure is still held up as the aesthetic standard, but chubbiness does not automatically connote laziness, sloppiness, lack of control, or any of the other prejudices plumper Americans have to deal with. There is a good chance that all the tour guide meant was literally just, “they might not fit into these seats, maybe there is a more comfortable place we can find for them.”
I think this attitude might change in the next few years, as weight loss clinics and diet aids began to proliferate in Taiwan. [Feb. 2011 ETA: I take back what I said… Taiwanese culture definitely links body size with personality traits.] Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that young women here don’t fret as much about their bodies as their counterparts in America, and in fact I’ve noticed that the people who discuss weight the most casually are either men or people who are in their late 30s and above.
Another cultural difference in terms of beauty standards is the emphasis on paleness. You can buy skin whitening fluid in 7-Elevens here! And I’ve never seen a single tanning salon or self-tanner for sale. Because I am rather pale, I have heard the sentence “oh, you’re skin is so white!” since I was a little girl. When I was little, those comments were directed to my parents: “your daughter’s skin is so white.”
Since there isn’t the emphasis on paleness in the U.S. as there is here in Taiwan (and, indeed, much of Asia), I was often a bit confused. Sometimes I wondered if people commented on my paleness to my parents because they couldn’t find anything else good to say about me. I mean, I never thought my paleness was a good thing, except for during my semi-Goth phase in high school when my brother compared me to a corpse and I was flattered.
But after moving here, I realized that they meant it as a genuine compliment. There is actually a Chinese saying that goes “white obscures three uglies.” Fantastic! There is also another saying that goes “tall obscures three uglies” that applies to guys. Ron is more than six feet tall. So I guess that must mean Ron and I are an outrageously gorgeous couple, eh? Ha! Well, isn’t that just the cherry on top of the low-fat sundae? Please send all modeling inquiries to the comments box below.
I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as skinny (I’m a human retort to the stereotype that Asian women are uniformly dainty and petite), but being smaller opens up a whole new world of intriguing one-size-fits-all (or one-size-fits-small, rather) night market fashions for me to scope out. On the other hand, I’d rather not lose too much weight. Aside from the potential negative consequences to my health, it also means that I’ll have to get a buttload (ha!) of alterations made on my wedding gown in the limited time I have back in California before we actually get hitched. And I won’t be able to use my favorite retort (courtesy of Homer Simpson) any more: “Kiss my curvy yellow butt!”