When I arrived in China for my senior year abroad, I had many expectations of what my home for the next year would be like. What I did not expect, however, was to become a public art installation, a metaphorical monument to China’s ‘outsiders.’
As a bigger, biracial woman, I was used to being a walking lesson against stereotypes. My existence itself subverts the concept of what a Chinese woman, what a black woman, and what an American and Singaporean “should” be like. Growing up in Singapore—an equatorial borderland of diversity—I was an outsider among my own friends and family. Curly-haired, tall, and more curvaceous than my relatives and classmates, I was often teased and bullied for my differences, and was assigned to a ‘FAT Club’ at school where I danced my little ass off to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (not literally, I’m afraid). At family dinners, surrounded by relatives differing in brownness but not in thinness, I was often dissected and torn apart.
From a young age, I knew that my weight was a pseudo-public topic. Critiques on my appearance had a right to sit on my family members’ tongues, no matter how cruel or insensitive it felt to me. I was expected to be grateful for their worry, and for their care. As a child at our large family functions, my immediate and extended family would discuss my every flaw. Alongside my low math grades or my dismal marks in Chinese, my baby fat, double chin, full cheeks, and belly rolls were consistently brought to attention. (Being told this in a mix of English, Mandarin, and Cantonese did wonders for my self-esteem, as you can imagine). We're family, I was told over and over; they were allowed, permitted, and even expected to express an opinion. The notion of family was a different one then. Family was supposed to jab at your flaws, like a knife into the gut of half-baked pastry.
I thought that my experiences in childhood would prepare me for my time in China. I did not expect, however, for my 20-year-old self to feel just as vulnerable as that chubby girl who would hold her breath in fear of a word about her weight. In China, it often felt like I was an Instagram post made real. I was public and accessible, open for strangers to comment and criticize as they saw fit. As I left my apartment, I could feel an uptick in views as heads swiveled my way and eyes tracked my trek across the city to work. I would be approached by strangers on the street, who would call me pang zi (fatty).
A close friend of mine told me of another experience that I didn’t even witness. It made me wonder how many anonymous comments I had racked up on my being that I would never be privy to. She was pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair outside the senior residence where we volunteered and the old woman was muttering to herself, grumbling, and saying over and over, about me, “So fat. That girl is so fat.”
While I’ve certainly heard these comments before from childhood bullies and even family members in Singapore, I hadn’t experienced anything like this in a public space. When exactly, did I become so vulnerable, so touchable to complete strangers? Better yet, when did my appearance become such a disturbance? I was, however, an anomaly in China. According to China’s National Health Planning Commission, the average height of adult men and women in 2015 was 5’6” and 5’1”, respectively. Their average body weights were 145 pounds 126 pounds, respectively. I, on the other hand, clock in around 5’7 and am heavier than even the standard weight for men in China.
So everyone had something to say about this in China, where body is essentially a part of public space. “While the younger generation in China emphasizes their privacy, originally, we didn’t even know how to translate the English word for privacy into Chinese,” says Zhang Xiaodang, professor of sociology at York College in New York City, who has researched gender and feminism in China. Chinese culture and society are based entirely on relationships and hierarchy, she tells me. The assigned roles keeps society organized and greatly stratified, but also continuously overlapping between private and public spheres. Community and relationships are thus paramount; the way we view privacy in the West is almost entirely absent in China.
In China, society is composed of hierarchical networks, based upon the five functional Confucian relationship models. According to the Center for Global Education at Asia Society and my many lessons in Confucianism during my study abroad, these five models present relationships composed of the respected and the respectful, such as the ruler and the subject, the father and his son, the husband and his wife, the older brother and his younger brother, and the friend to friend.
Elders are in a position of respect, almost blameless for their words and actions against those beneath them, just as teachers and parents are above their students and children. These organized relationships are still present in the heart of Chinese culture. Many Chinese believe that the more stratified and harmonious a family’s relationships are, the same will be reflected and projected not only into the community, but also the entire nation.
“If someone’s coming from an East Asian cultural background, they tend to have an underlying philosophical foundations of Confucianism. In the case of a woman, one of your major roles is to support the familial lineage by giving birth. Technically, your job is to be physically fit enough to be a healthy vessel to produce as many heirs as you can,” says Michi Fu, psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University in Los Angeles, CA. She focuses primarily on women and diversity issues, and has given advice to those struggling with body image and eating disorders through Thick Dumpling Skin, a Tumblr blog that seeks to form community around Asian Americans who are dealing with body image issues.
Confucian ideals are applied throughout the strata of society. Everyone was expected to fulfill and stay loyal to their roles, their jobs. Thus, an older stranger might find nothing wrong with speaking about or commenting on another’s appearance, or asking questions that we may view as intrusive—such as someone’s relationship status, whether they wish to have children, or their salaries.
“I don't want to relegate everything to independence and interdependence, but I do think that the collectivism or relatedness that is a common cultural value in China might give some people the ‘permission’ to comment on other people. I just think it might be more socially and cultural accepted—and maybe even expected—to comment,” says Lisa Kiang, a psychology professor at Wake Forest College in North Carolina, whose research focuses on identity in minority youth. She adds that the private and public spheres are inherently different in China than in the US, and it may seem to foreigners like the boundaries are virtually non-existent.
This concept of a body as public space is the mode that women, in general, operate in. “This body policing, it’s a gender issue. Women pay so much attention to their bodies, their experience, and everyone does the same,” Zhang says. This emphasis on the female body is certainly not new in China either, with the most obvious example being the ancient practice of foot-binding.
Everyone has encountered trolls in their social media comments here in the US, who feel entitled to comment about your hair, skin, makeup, or size, but this “troll-culture” is weirdly echoed IRL in Nanjing and in Beijing, China, where I lived. Strangers there had no qualms in speaking about my appearance, in pushing me back into place with the strength of their gaze, labelling me as outsider, as the “other.”
“The compulsion to speak out could come from a very mean-spirited place," Fu says. The person could be “trying to put people in their place, or to make them feel bad about themselves. Or we could choose to believe that this was a well-intended action, where people might believe they’re trying to help, that they may think they’re giving someone advice.” Fu hopes for more mutual understanding and less finger-pointing and blaming, especially when this body policing occurs within the family.
Fu had a few suggestions in dealing with a situation like this. One that resonated was: Be it an overly bold and critical stranger, or a well-meaning yet intrusive family member, she suggests saying something along the lines of “I’ve noticed your concern for me, but I and my doctors/team is helping me work through this.” Easier said than done perhaps, but as we spoke, I found myself making mental notes, always eager and happy to fill my arsenal of imaginary comebacks to prodding relatives. I’ve assembled quite the collection over the years.
In my year abroad, I expected to come across an impossible number of Chinese dialects, creamed corn juice, and a country torn between failed communist ideals and rapid consumerism, all alongside a parade of jiao zi—steamed dumplings often filled with vegetables and meat—but somehow not this. I expected a few comments, sure, but I did not expect my entire identity to be summed up with two words—fei and pang—which both mean fat.
This is where it gets deep, though: Zhang, Fu, and a handful of other experts told me that pang is not necessarily a negative word at all. What does it say about us as a society, then, that “fat” and “fatty” are inherently negative?
Traversing around China as an ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’—African American and Chinese both—I was stared at by countless people and sized up. Alongside Nanjing’s still standing Confucian temple next to the Qinhuai river, the crumbling sections of the Great Wall in Beijing, or the seat of the People’s Party in Chaoyang, Beijing, there lives something even more ancient than China’s architecture. It’s the control and emphasis on women’s bodies and the pushing of people back into their societal roles—perhaps a byproduct of Confucianism and China’s politics. This mode of body policing is both old and new. If we attribute it only to the past, we would be removing responsibility we have now to change the unrealistic body ideals we’ve had a hand in perpetuating.
Update: A previous version of this story states that Michi Fu is a psychologist who chairs the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead, California. Her correct title is psychologist and professor of clinical psychology at Alliant International University.
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