A couple of years back, when I first moved here and first started with this blog, I wrote a post titled Those Fat Chinese. I’m going to pick up on that subject again, mainly as a part of what I would normally write about what is the same, what has changed and what is downright new upon my return to Wuhan.
Egads! Has it been years that I’ve been here? I’m afraid it has… How time flies!!
Last year, well… last school year, before I left for the States I had noted in passing, and remarked to Gary and some other friends how much bigger the Chinese people are getting. Not just in height, which mainly seems to afflict the boys, but also in girth.
Since coming back from the States, I am noticing it more and more. Young ladies with muffin tops over-swelling their waistlines, poochy bellies, entrenched bra lines, larger posteriors, chunkier thighs. Men with moon faces and size XL shirts that still do not quite conceal or cover expanding waistlines. Little kids aren’t exempt from the weight gain, either. I’ve seen some downright pudgy kids since I’ve been back.
Don’t get me wrong: overwhelmingly, Chinese are still svelte and trim, and the population as a whole has a long way to go before obesity is declared a national epidemic here. I’ve only seen a handful of people who could be considered obese, and none that would be called morbidly obese.
- Remember, for the smaller Asian frame, a weight gain of 30Lbs would make them obese.
How did this happen?
I don’t think fast food is wholly to blame. Not that there isn’t a proliferation of McDonalds’ or KFC – I dare you, at any time of the day or night (because some restaurants have now gone to 24 hour service) to find an empty McDonald’s in China and, for that matter dare you to try to find an empty table at a McDonalds’. While we’re at it, let’s throw in Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, Papa John’s, and all of the other imported fast food joints that do brisk business over here.
No, I don’t think fast food is wholly to blame and I’m not pointing the finger at Coca Cola, Pepsi and all of the other sugary drinks here, although the Chinese consume them by the liter. To be perfectly fair, the Chinese have their own sugary drinks: ready to drink teas, juices and their version of Gatorade, just to name a few.
First, I believe to blame is that the Chinese government is now pushing people to eat more wheat-based products, claiming that rice is not that healthy. How strange! This civilization alternately thrived and survived on a rice-based diet for centuries, and now the government says rice is not healthy? Nevertheless, people are following the advice to eat more wheat. It shows.
Prepared foods are another distinctive area to blame. Whereas traditionally, cooking fresh veggies with just a little meat and served with rice was the norm, nowadays there is so much more variety to the Chinese diet. No matter what size supermarket, even those on The Street and in the Over the Wall community offer a variety of frozen, prepared foods that only need a few minutes in the microwave. Instant noodles and vacuum packed meats, loaded with preservatives crowd store aisles. People buy them up. Convenience is everything. It is all a part of the new age lifestyle…
New age lifestyle? The capitalist lifestyle as a whole. What do I mean by that?
Traditionally, Chinese life was very physical: lift that bale, tote that barge type stuff. It was common for children to walk for miles to school and for people to trudge for hours to get to their work assignment. Scurrying here and there on the orders of the commune leader, the police and even chairman Mao and his direct subordinates was also physically demanding. Add to that a lack of food and you have a pat solution to keeping a population underweight (and nearly dead).
Not until very recently has life become comfortable for the Chinese. Only in the last twenty years or so have they not only had an excess of money but an excess of leisure time.
Nowadays the affluent city Chinese spends a lot of time in front of a computer, either at work or at home. While out and about the status flaunters flock to Starbucks with SmartPhone, I-phone or some other device that will do everything but cook a bowl of noodles in hand, and spend a leisurely afternoon just sitting and networking or otherwise entertaining themselves. And let’s not forget video games for the youngsters.
Used to be, people could get their exercise running for a bus, or fighting to get on the bus, or fighting for a seat on the bus, or standing on a bus, but now, as the city and the need for more transportation grows, so the infrastructure grows. One hardly has to wait but a minute before another bus comes along. Several bus routes parallel each other so, if a bus 577 is too crowded for your taste you can always catch a bus 805 (which is a nicer bus line, anyway). Or you could just jump in a cab.
The proliferation of taxis and POVs also contribute to the expanding waistline effect. As recently as 10 years ago in Wuhan, parking a car somewhere was not a problem because hardly anyone had a car. Now you’re lucky if you can get anywhere, for all the cars and resulting traffic. If you’re in a car, good luck finding a parking spot. Of course most places, from restaurants to shopping malls offer valet parking for free, so you don’t have to worry about parking your car in the ‘lower 40’ and having to walk to your destination.
And it’s not just cars and taxis, either. Hardly anyone rides a bike that you have to pedal anymore. A battery powered scooter costs only a few thousand Yuan and the jump in the electrical bill is minimal… especially if you can plug into someone else’s meter or socket. Also, you don’t have to pass a road test or get a license to pilot an electric scooter on the roadways. If you want a gas powered one you will have to register it, but that is only a couple hundred Yuan and, with the Chinese attitude getting more and more aggressive and individualistic, people are opting for those more powerful conveyances.
All of these transportation options mean that the Chinese are walking less, moving less and, by association, carrying less.
Why carry a 50Lbs bale of cloth if you can strap it onto the back of a scooter? Why pull a handcart bearing a 100-kilo load of vegetables to the farmer’s market if you can get a motorized trike to do the heavy work? Why carry your groceries when there are wheeled carts that you only need to pull behind you? Why carry your child everywhere when there are now strollers to accommodate kids up to 4 years old?
Yes, strollers have started to make it big over here. That is unfortunate because they, and those wheeled grocery carts take up so much room on already crowded buses. You can imagine, I’m sure…
In the evenings, after a quick cleanup from a prepared food dinner, people park themselves in front of the TV that now offers over 100 channels of everything from game shows to ‘reality’ TV, with a liberal sprinkling of movies and soap operas. They snack, they sit, they…
They get bigger, just like any other human being all over the world whose life is mostly sedentary, and who spends their time taking in high calorie food and drink.
Unfortunately, being fat is considered good in Chinese culture. It is a sign of health and affluence. But how long before ‘fat’ becomes ‘unhealthy’? How long before the government declares an obesity epidemic? How long before the combined effects of fast/prepared foods and sedentary life actually endangers longevity here? How long before we start seeing more and more people suffer from weight related health issues? How long before Chinese fingers are too fat to punch phone keys to order McDonalds’ or KFC delivered to their front door? (Over here, several fast food restaurants, as well as traditional eateries deliver).
I’m really worried. I saw a drive thru McDonalds’ in Hanyang the other day. Can other restaurants be far behind?
Yes, the Chinese are getting bigger. That is not just my estimation, either. The most damning evidence of this trend came the other day, while I was strolling through a shopping mall. Usually I don’t try to buy anything because everything is too small for me. But…
Look! What a nice blouse! Why… it looks like it could fit me!
And it did.