Culture shock is one thing but the slow adjustment to the idiosyncrasies of another culture over months and even years is another. One of the oddest parts of slowly adjusting was having stereotypes affirmed or denied; even with knowing a belief is a stereotype it’s still a little odd to see it contraindicated. For instance, in some stereotypes of Chinese people you often see that they are quiet, sometimes even shy, and polite. However, that isn’t completely the truth in a general sense—they can be quite loud.
One of those deeper realizations you begin to learn after living abroad is that what constitutes being polite or rude is not always the same among different cultures. In my experience and limited knowledge into the inner workings of the Chinese culture some actions that are rude in the West are not rude here and vice versa. For a Western person some topics are matter of crossing boundaries between people, but these are often different in other countries. So in this context, I want to share with you my experience into what is culturally accepted with comments about others appearances particularly where it relates to their body.
Thanks, I wasn’t Aware
I am an American woman as so many of you know and as anyone who has seen me, you know I am also overweight. While I am overweight in the Western eyes, to the Chinese the extent of my overweight is even more extreme. So for a culture that believes pointing out one’s faults (to a certain extent) is actually helping that person, it is even more necessary for my weight to be pointed out or at least commented on. It is often viewed as a fact and thought that it shouldn’t sting or hurt because it is a simple fact.
An example of this would be when I took a Chinese class at a university in Guilin the teacher—a very sweet and wonderful woman—was teaching us about how to describe people and items. So of course the easiest is to point things out in the classroom. So some of the classmates were tall, short, short hair, long hair, beautiful, nice and of course skinny and fat. The teacher pointed to me and said that I was fat like her followed by a huge smile of endearment towards me. She did not even think about how it might be hurtful or annoying to me, because it was a descriptor just like if she had said I was wearing a black coat or have blond hair. Although, I was slightly offended she was such a sweet and caring person I couldn’t be mad at her especially since it was obvious that she didn’t mean it to be mean or hurtful.
A public service announcement
Other times Chinese people (at least in my experience of where I’ve been) love to comment on appearances with both good and bad qualities. I have two examples for this. The first happened while I was walking with a Dutch friend of mine who is absolutely the quintessential Dutch woman: tall, slender, beautiful, big blue eyes, fair skin, and blond hair. So here we have 2 western women one short and fat, the other tall and skinny, and both fair skinned, blue eyed, and long blond hair. She was extremely fluent in Chinese and over heard some women following us talking about our different body shapes between the two of us and also in comparison to their own bodies. They also spoke a lot about my friend’s big, beautiful blue eyes. So she turned and responded to their comments, which freaked them out because most foreigners do not speak Chinese.
A more recent example of this was the other day in the elevator at my apartment complex in Shenzhen. Micah and I were heading out to meet a friend for lunch. I was wearing a tank top since it has been unbelievably hot recently. Already in the elevator was a man and woman. The woman proceeds to talk to her male companion about how my skin is so white. Very white. She said this many times and I believe spoke about my freckles pondering about how I got them but this is where my Chinese is really bad. After she apparently exhausted those topics she turned to Micah and I still speaking to the man and said “Though they are both very fat”; just a simple statement of being for her. I almost said something about that being rude, but decided to hide under the assumed guise of ignorance she assumed I had.
You would think this might be mostly because I am overweight and the impact of being overweight is felt more in China since the Chinese body tends to be so much leaner and more slender then a healthy fit western body. However, this is not the case always. A Chinese friend of mine was telling me about how during one of her trips to Korea she fell off a curb and broke her ankle. Her parents proceed to tell her that if she wasn’t so fat this would not have happened. After she returned home, she received many messages from other family (even cousins) telling her that she should lose a lot of weight. Although, it bothered my friend because she has more western thinking then eastern thinking, she understood culturally where it came from (but was still mad about it). To be honest, my friend could lose a few pounds but not more then 5-10 pounds at the very MOST. Obviously this is not enough weight to cause her big enough problems to result in her fall.
Norms and mores are relative
So the lesson is in how different cultures perceive things. The Western culture usually has more qualms about pointing out a person’s flaws (unless they are intentionally being cruel or are just oblivious), whereas Asia tends to point these out as a measure of care or from a desire to give a helping hand or even in a simple descriptor. It does make one think about how very sensitive America has gotten about terms. Is there value in walking around on egg shells when something is obvious? It is true that I am fat, no one can deny that, so should I get upset when it is used as a simple descriptor? I don’t know that this can really be answered, because there are so many factors in both cultures that would have to be considered.
However, it is more in the heart of person where the intent of a statement matters. I do know that terms become wrong when they speak of someone being less valued as a human because of some trait. Being called fat would bother me more if I could understand if a person was merely describing me or wanting to help me by pointing out something I need to work on versus someone that was saying I was less valued than them because I am overweight. Is that what some of these people here mean to say? Do they really mean to judge me as less worthy or less of a human because I have extra body weight or are they merely being honest about describing me as overweight? Honestly, I have no clue sometimes but I do not think that in a general sense it is not meant to be rude or cutting.
I have definitely learned to be more self-possessed and learned to take things in stride because 1)why sweat the small stuff, 2) why should I feel bad about myself because others don’t like it, and 3) it has never been a secret that I was overweight, its not like I can hide that! So my best advice if you travel or even face comments or thoughts in your country, take pride in what you do and do your best in all areas including taking care of yourself; but don’t stop truly living for another’s description or criticism after all they are not responsible for your happiness and should have less impact on your life to affect it negatively