Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Better and Less Expensive Than a Weight Scale

The first week I was back, Thuy and Thanh were over cooking with Katherine, Tarn and me. They mashed up a bunch of white fish, molded it around huge Vietnamese shrimp, dipped them in egg and flour, and fried them in oil. They also made a mayonnaise/chili dipping sauce.

While we were all standing in the kitchen waiting to devour this greasy treat, Thanh said, quite casually, "Maggie go to Seattle and get fat!" And then she laughed.

Read that comment again. Let it sink into your American, westernized psyches.

This is not a new thing to me nor Katherine. Not only are we Amazons in this country and especially in this non-foreigner neighborhood, but every time we gain a little weight, someone lets us know it. The day I returned, when Sweet Seamstress laid eyes on me-and-my-extra-five pounds, she said "Hi Maggie!", looked at my waist and then made a wide gesture with both hands. Then she came over and touched my stomach. She has done this before. Last year, our housekeeper made the same gesture at Katherine.

After that, Katherine suggested that we should just burst into tears the next time it happens, to get our cultural message across.

When Sweet Seamstress made the gesture and touched my stomach, I just laughed and said, "Yes, America!" as in, "Yes, I come from a culture of fat and I went home and my culture made me fat. Your culture does not make you or me fat."

But when Thanh said these words to me, Katherine told her, "That's a mean thing to say in our country. That makes us feel sad." But all this scolding produced was uncontrollable laughter out of both Thuy and Thanh. I was never one of those kids to be pointed at and called "fat" in junior high, but this little episode brought me to that feeling place, for sure. It felt awful.

Katherine and I have analyzed this pretty completely between last year's incidents and this one; Katherine - being a PE teacher - is very well-read and studied on the issue of body image. She begins all of her health and PE classes talking about all-around health... including relationships with friends and family, eating well, exercising, etc. It is her passion as a PE teacher. So the fact that our culture tells us to eat more and then turns on us and tells us to hate the result of eating more makes her feel that the teaching of a healthy life balance is her most important message for kids: healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes.

So what we have come up with, the two of us, is this: their way is probably better. Just like the honking of the motorbikes stating "I am here" is anything but mean, Thanh's comment, "Maggie went to Seattle and got fat" was a statement of truth (although, I must say, the five pounds didn't really feel "fat" - see, I can't even say it about myself...I was "swollen from the heat..." "a bit heavier...") and was not at all loaded as it would be in our culture. Thanh is anything but mean. She is lovely and giving and sweet. And truthful. And the Vietnamese culture does not encourage you to eat more, more, more. Their portion sizes are reasonable. There is no such thing as Super Sizing anything. Even Cokes are regular sized...nothing giant exists. Ice cream bars are little and there are no ice cream shops where you can order three scoops in a waffle cone. Yep, their way is better, again.

But you know what? Even though I can see all of this culturally and objectively, I do hold it against them, someplace where I can't get rid of it. That statement has been tagged as one of the meanest statements in our culture of fat. We Americans can say it like it is in so many situations, but in that one, we remain quiet liars.

So, how did I respond? That night I got really quiet and melancholy. T and T asked me if I was "sad."

"Just tired," I answered. And I ate way less of the greasy shrimp (which were extremely delicious) than I would have, otherwise.

But then I went on to respond in the way any respectable American woman would, by losing that *&^% five pounds within about ten days (at the most expensive gym in Saigon). If you think getting on a weight scale is motivation for keeping your weight down, try having a Sweet Seamstress three doors down who will make a wide gesture with her hands if you gain a pound. That, I'm telling you, is much better incentive to keep yourself in line.

And it's also free.


Brian Bowker said...

I really want to comment on this post, but my cultural inhibitions forbid me from doing so.

Anonymous said...

Once are hilarious! I also feel the need to comment on this post. I have a new theory that is grandfather and one of my dear friend's grandfathers must have been Vietnamese in a previous life. You wouldn't see them for months and when you did, the first thing they would comment on was your weight. Sometimes you may have been in the best shape you had ever been theory is it was a way of showing you they were paying attention to you and making an observation in their mind that was not hurtful. In our culture-it is also known as "f-in clueless." In the asian cultures, my impression is fat can also mean "glowing, happy, full-faced with joy" as in how they view their babies. In other words, fat can be a positive instead of always negative like it is here in N. America/"Land of the Plenty." This is my longest post. As usual Marjorie-you still made me smile with your words, esp. your closing paragraph. Your candidness is real and much appreciated. I love you-xoxo Jaci

Tim Baker said...

Hi Margie
What a minefield a women's weight can be. But I do think the Vietnamese handle it better than North Americans.
Congrats on your new motorbike. They are the most exciting vehicle anyone can drive. Just make sure you have a good helmet.

Mungo said...

I'm fat.

Michelle said...

This post reminds me of a time where I'd lost a great deal of weight due to a traumatic time in my life. Most people who knew me were concerned and hoped that I would bounce back to my normal weight except for this very odd fellow at my health club. He came up to me and commented: "I see you've gained all your weight back." I think he meant it as a compliment but it sure seemed insulting at the time!!

Cecilie said...

Just for the record - YOU LOOK GREAT! :0)

Thomas said...

Hi Marjie,
nice to see you full of energy at decreasing weight while starting your Vietnam adventure / Part II.
Concerning the fat issue (I might really put my food in it):
A woman should always look like a female being. All that hype about Cate-Moss-style skinny & girlish Androgens is bizarre, keeping in mind us engulfed by abundance of cheep and unhealthy stuff. But our so-called elite and cultural avant-garde is always in need of role models in order to express their own superiority towards us normal mortals. In poorer societies where food is scarce like India it's still hip to be fat. You just can afford it to be fat. A status symbol so to say. Just look at 17th century Rubens paintings. Or the Venus of Willendorf (for other reasons) Well nourished Ladies. Seems as though we are in need of a time machine. All those unhapppy food victims could be travelling back and get their fair share of positiv attention... What a crazy and ill (western) world. Just be happy to get a 2 year escape. Thanks to Anonymous for her comment.
Cheers Tom

The Norris Clan said...

Wow... does this EVER bring a flood of childhood/adulthood memories of distant and not-so-distant. I agree with Cecilie... you look fabulous! But I also agree with you... sometimes motivation DOES come from someone's hurtful words or actions. What I have to say is that after a year in Siagon, eating amazing food, you look more svelt and beautiful than before you left. So THERE!

Jodi Hayes said...

I remember those fat comments from living in Asia. It was hard to take when we would come back from the US and someone would say it to my children. They definitely broke down in tears. I do remember someone telling me that it is actually a compliment. Maybe because it's better than starving.

Julie said...

Hi Marjie:
My Swedish grandmother used to hug me after an absence and in the same loving tone of voice one would say, "you're so perfect and so beautiful," she would say "Ush ush. You're so faaaaaat."
This was before I had body image issues and I knew what she really meant. They love you completely.

Julie said...

Hi Marjie:
My Swedish grandmother used to hug me after an absence and in the same loving tone of voice one would say, "you're so perfect and so beautiful," she would say "Ush ush. You're so faaaaaat."
This was before I had body image issues and I knew what she really meant. They love you completely.