Big Girl in a Small World: Being Fat in Thailand
8:15am: Talk to my school director (with a co-teacher acting as translator). Smile when the director points at my waist and says “fat, fat!”. Respond by saying, “Yes, fat, but HAAAAPPPPPYYYY!” (in my best Oprah voice). Do a shimmy dance to emphasize how happy I am regardless of my size. She laughs hysterically and hugs me. We are best friends.
8:40am: Walk into my first class of the day. Get greeted by my favorite student who says “Teacher, today you look…fat.” Respond by stating that her face looks fat, stick my tongue out at her, and begin class.
Rewind three months earlier. It is by first day back to work after a summer vacation. Get greeted by a Thai teacher who gives me an ecstatic hug, grabs my midsection, and states that I’ve gotten fatter. Agree in response to her statement while holding my stomach.
Rewind even further, a month earlier to March. I am interning at a non-profit Children’s organization in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My Thai boss, who is a doctor, decides to comment on my weight and offer helpful diet and exercise tips. She spends the next 15 minutes telling me that I need to walk to and from work every day (even though Thai people do not walk anywhere), as well spend two hours walking in the pool, because that’s how she lost weight. I respond with a closed-mouth smile.
Thailand is a country in which appearance matters, and personal appearance is no exception. Thais are constantly applying and reapplying their makeup, fixing their hair while on their motorcycle at a stoplight, or, if you’re like my students, popping pimples and applying face powder in the middle of class.
Thinness is desired. The heavier students in my classroom are jokingly referred to as “Pig” by their classmates. The majority of Thais are rather slim; small waist, hips, chest, and butt. Thus, any deviation from this norm and you will be labeled fat by your peers. As a Western woman, I clearly do not fit the Asian mold; I have a large butt, a big chest, and wide hips. Standing next to my students I practically look like a giant ogre. With heels on I even tower over some of the Thai teachers! Clearly, I stand out, yet I wonder is it necessary to verbally acknowledge this difference on a constant basis? In Thailand, the answer is yes.
As an American, nothing had prepared me for the blunt comments Thai people make about physical appearance. In the United States, it is just not okay to tell your friend, “Wow, you look really fat today”. If a friend complains about weight gain it is your duty to automatically say, “Shut up, you look great!” or, “What?! I haven’t noticed!”, no matter how big of a lie it is. In America, we praise weight loss and never point out weight gain. In Thailand, the same rules don’t necessarily apply; at least not for a foreigner. As a foreigner, every move I made was noticed and subjected to remarks by my Thai peers. If I gained five pounds it was sure to be noticed by my Thai teachers. After my first couple of months in the spotlight, I knew if I continued to take such comments seriously I would be miserable. I decided that I had to have a sense of humor about it.
Having a sense of humor allowed me to become more comfortable in my interactions with Thais. I was no longer on the defensive about my appearance, and as a result, I found myself thoroughly enjoying conversations with my Thai peers. In addition, I was able to understand that such comments were not out of hate. For example, one day, a Thai teacher was talking about me to another foreign English teacher at my school. Of course the Thai teacher had to discuss my appearance, yet this time, I realized, it wasn’t something negative. Instead of discussing how much weight I had gained since I first arrived in Thailand, my teacher stated that I looked healthier now than when I first arrived in the country. She went on to say that I looked happier and more relaxed, with a nice healthy glow on my face that I apparently did not have when she first met me. Yes, she might have said that I had gotten plump, but she made a point to tell my friend that it was a result of my love for Thai food and all the good meals I had been eating. It was then that I realized that my teachers were proud of my appearance; that my weight gain signaled I was taking good care of myself while abroad. Thus, my appearance, my healthy glow, was a reflection of their culture and society; a mark of pride for my Thai teachers.
There are many aspects of living abroad that can be difficult. Both the easiest and most challenging outlook is being as open-minded as humanely possible. It is imperative to step outside of one’s perspective in order to understand where the other person is coming from. The same is true for cultures. As Westerners, it is easy to pass judgment on others, and it is easy to think that the differences are wrong. Yet having this mentality will not get you far. If you are living abroad, you have to keep an open mind in order to keep your sanity. After living in Thailand for a few months, I was finally able to have a sense of humor about my personal appearance. Having an open mind allowed me to view my peers’ comments from a non-western perspective. I eventually realized that I had to keep an open mind, and keep laughing to enjoy and make the most of my time living in Southeast Asia.