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.