Friday, January 28, 2011

Those Fat Chinese!

DISCLAIMER: This is not a slam on anyone who has struggled with weight issues, either currently or in the past. This is merely an observation of a difference between two cultures, and musings on the one that is evolving so rapidly.

OK, ‘fess up: how many of you believe that Asians are all smart and good at kung fu? Answer: probably not as many as Chinese people who believe that all Americans are rich, powerful and successful, and live in beautiful mansions and drive nice cars – like in the movies.

Because so many of my students seem possessed of the idea that America is just like in the movies, I thought I would give them a perhaps brutal reality check. I introduced them to that sometimes ghastly but mostly humorous website, There they could see how common citizens visit their local Wal-Mart to do their shopping in America.

I’ll spare you the kids’ reaction (but tell you it was a jaw-dropping eye opener for them) and focus on my strange reaction to it instead.

I hadn’t logged into that website in a very long time, perhaps six months or more. Now that I was using it as an educational tool, I found I had something to learn from it too. Until I showed my students that website, I had forgotten what it was like to see morbidly obese persons as a matter of course. As I rode the bus into town later that day, I looked out the window and realized that, since I’ve been here, I’ve not seen a single obese person, let alone anyone who is so morbidly obese that they cannot walk.

How can that be? These people eat all the time! They eat more than I do! Seriously: there are snack stands, food vendors and restaurants every few meters as you go along the sidewalk. And let me tell you: they are well patronized! As these hyper-skinny men and women walk down the street, they are invariably munching on something: fried bread, fruit or meat on a stick, corn on the cob, steamed sweet potatoes, even bowls of noodles. And it doesn’t stop there: anywhere you look someone is cracking sunflower or pumpkin seeds, peanuts and now, because they are in season, roasted chestnuts (delicious, by the way). And that is on top of the regular meals they partake of.

OK, so we are all familiar with that fat, laughing Buddha who is rubbing his belly. But in reality, these people would have to buy a belly in order to have a fat stomach. They just don’t have a fat anything! Oh, sure, there is that occasional chubby person or little kid, and the elderly are sometimes kind of plump, but nothing of the caliber of what we see in the States.

In America the current vogue thought is that there is an obesity gene. Recessive but there, somehow it gets triggered in infancy or adolescence and Badabing! Fat Person Emerges! I’m not a scientist but, being reasonably intelligent, I have to wonder: if Americans have an obesity gene, and the human genome is the same from race to race and place to place, how is it that other countries’ populations are not fat? Have they simply not managed to trigger their obesity gene? In spite of all the beer and potatoes (Germany), wine and cake (France) or pasta (Italy)?

I’m not here to debate these questions; they are too far-reaching for this humble blog. But I do want to look at how the Chinese remain so darn skinny when they eat constantly (and presumably have the same genes that all other humans do).

1. They move all of the time. The Chinese are constantly walking, running, riding a bike or standing on a bus. It seems that moving is their national pastime; any city I’ve visited in China has throngs of people ambling about, with or without a purpose. From what I gather from my students and friends, many go out just to wander around the stores and see what there is to see. This is an activity I too have partaken of, either alone or at the behest of my students, who enjoy doing so. Also, parks are plentiful, and there is even exercise equipment free for use in the residential neighborhoods. And let us not forget the women who dance in the street at dusk to stay in shape.
2. They carry things. While they are walking around, they carry things: things they’ve just bought and things they’re bringing to another part of the city. They carry ten-liter jugs of oil, forty kilo bags of vegetables, twenty kilos of rice, reams of paper. They carry their babies and they carry their elderly on their back (no so much that anymore, but I have actually seen it a time or two, here). It is not that wheeled accessories are not available here; it is just the way of life to carry things, so they carry things. The one exception to wheeled accessories are the long carts used to haul coal, wholesale vegetables and the like, and they are pulled by humans, not horses. Although judging by their cargo, a horse or at least a small pony should be pulling those heavy loads.

The Case for (or against) McDonald’s: It is true that there is McDonald’s here, as well as KFC and other fast food restaurants; some Western and some Chinese. And, as in America, they offer less than healthy fare: fried this, white bread that, soda the other. In particular, the Western brands of fast food are very popular here; to be seen at or to eat at McDonald’s does have a certain cachet (if you’re Chinese. If you’re a Westerner, it is expected of you). To be sure, those restaurants are always full and most of them are even open 24 hours a day.

However, whereas in America the standard portion size is enough food for 2 people, here the standard portion is approximately equivalent to a Happy Meal. At least the fries and the drink are; the sandwiches are the same size as in America. And, this being perhaps the most critical difference: there are no drive-throughs, where you can sit in the privacy of your own car and pretend you are ordering for a family of 4 when in fact you are just really, really hungry. (I had a friend tell me once that he would order a bunch of food and pretend he was buying for this entire crew but all of the food was for him. He had gastric bypass surgery recently and his revealing that to me was part of his rehabilitation.) I’m not accusing anyone of actually doing this; I’m just basing my words on my now skinny friend’s account who actually did have that habit.

Times are changing. As the Chinese get more and more comfortable with the capitalist lifestyle, they are learning that life does not have to be so hard. Carrying things is no longer a necessity when you can have a wheeled cart to put it in. Riding a bike is nearly a thing of the past in this city as everyone zips around on their electric scooters. Cars are proliferating faster than the roads can be built to accommodate them. And of course, now that cable TV has made it to China, there are more and more people staying home in the evenings, in front of the TV. Same with driving, the Internet and video games: as more Chinese incorporate these into their life, the more of their ambulant lifestyle they give up.

In short, the same transition we saw in America starting in the late 60’s and still going on now, when Americans stopped being so personally mobile and started to enjoy the idea of wealth – television, home computers, video games and the like, is just now getting started in China.

In my quaint neighborhood people still carry their babies around. In the nicer parts of town, strollers abound. Around campus there are still ‘shoulder poles’ and those that manage to heft impossible loads, but in the trader’s areas there are motorized carts to convey raw goods back and forth. Whereas the more traditional Chinese still have that maddeningly beautiful complexion, the younger generation that routinely consumes the sugary imported drinks like Pepsi, Coca Cola and Sprite have faces ravaged by acne eruptions.

Now the question is: will China, who displays exponential growth in every other area, also catch up to America in the obesity arena? How soon? And, if so, how will they deal with it?

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