Reader Submission: Fat and Asian

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I was 12 or 13 at the time. We were having some family friends over for dinner. As the first guests arrived, I ambled out of my room to say hello in the way that only pubescent girls can do. Awkwardly.

“Wow!” said Auntie X. She had an almost gleeful smile on her face. “Suwen looks so… solid!”

She looked me up and down. I looked away, managing a wry smile. My cheeks were burning like I was in the fiery pits of hell. Wait, I really was.

I looked down at my lardy thighs, the fat calves that filled out my jeans, ones that had been described as “bursting out of their seams.” I looked at the skinny upper arms of women 35 years older than me and wondered if I would ever achieve that same level of thinness.

I challenge you to find any female Asian of a BMI greater than 24 who has not had similar comments made about her. They come from “well meaning” relatives and family friends. They are perhaps accompanied by suggestions that the girl take up jogging or refrain from carbohydrates and all those “heavy” fried foods, usually as the girl is reaching with her chopsticks for that spring roll she has been eyeing for the last minute or so, wondering if one more is one too many. They are said in an unrestrained manner, sometimes just as a conversation piece. The “helpful” suggestions they propose are said with a tone of deep caring and sincerity but you cannot help but wonder if they are just glad their own child is not of the same girth as you.

The Asian culture is a complicated thing. We don’t stick chopsticks in rice. We fight to pay the bill at restaurants. We force our children to play sports in school as extracurricular activities then get mad when they want to pursue a career in professional basketball. We eat tiny dried fish and congealed pigs’ blood. Many Asian attitudes are known in Western culture as too extreme, especially regarding young people. Think Tiger Mum. The Asian woman who might as well have a Hitler ‘stache. She stands around all day, ordering her four year old to practice piano and complete tomorrow’s maths homework early. He’s destined for a career in accounting or engineering after all.

These extreme notions of the level of perfection Asian parents hold their children up to don’t just apply to academic achievements. They naturally extend to physical appearance as well. Asian parents see a fat child and associate them with laziness and general ambivalence to personal upkeep. Asian parents see a fat child and also see shame and embarrassment.

For female Asians, the standard is worse. Because Asian girls are meant to be skinny. They are meant to have small wrists and delicate ankles. They are meant to fit into size small or extra small. They are meant to be the slender foil to the robustly-shaped Chien Po of Disney’s Mulan. They are meant to nibble on grains of rice one by one with their chopsticks, expertly wielded by willowy fingers. They are certainly not meant to need a size medium or size large. Or sing out their love for beef, pork, chicken in the same way that Chien Po does.

To be fair, these stereotypes are based largely on facts. Female Asians are generally slim and small sized. Proclamations of meat-based love are far and few between. But I went through many of my teenage years as a bigger female Asian. With a BMI that fluctuated around 24-26 at various points in time, I was always vastly larger than my Asian friends and peers (boys usually included). I constantly wondered what I was doing wrong. Why was I incapable of living up to the skinny female Asian benchmark? Was it because I was lazy or because I loved food too much? I wondered if I looked like an ogre next to my Asian friends. I can still remember an Asian friend’s mum telling her daughter that I looked “enormous” after she saw me in the carpark after school.

10 years later and I sit at a BMI of 22. I feel healthy and happier about my weight and appearance. But on a recent trip to my parent’s home country of Malaysia, I was exposed to the same comments by my aunties. Almost in a tone of wonderment, they said, “She’s big sized!” Suddenly, I was 13 again and feeling like shit.

Weight and physical appearance is an issue in any culture but the willingness to comment is what sets Asian culture apart. It is this willingness to comment that makes the tight-knit closeness of Asian immigrant communities both a good and bad thing. There is support, togetherness and a sense of belonging but there is also judgment and ample amounts of it. Immigrant parents expect their children to live up to the same standards their parents put on them. But to their chagrin, many of us first generation Australians (or Americans or Canadians or Brits) are rejecting these old fashioned ideals. Our ideas of happiness are not the same as our parents. The brighter futures our parents planned for us are no longer in line with what we want. We want to travel and take gap years. We want happiness, not money.  

That is not to say that the beliefs and attitudes our Asian immigrant parents brought with them are bad. They exist, for the most part, because our parents want the best for us. They exist because it was that kind of attitude that allowed them to migrate to whichever Western country they now live in.

It’s easier to be fat and Asian in a Western country than in an Asian country. Here, fat is more commonplace. It’s expected and accepted. Here, I can still be considered slim or average. In Asia, I’m big.  Is the dynamic changing? Probably. As generations of Asian immigrants come to pass and the Asians back home get fatter (because everyone is getting fatter, supposedly) maybe we’ll reach a stalemate. Maybe Asian aunties will be less inclined to look their nieces up and down with a critical eye. Maybe they’ll hesitate before they ask if we’ve put on weight. Maybe. One day. 


Suwen | Perth, Australia

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