The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Fat Foreign Girl in China

"Fat” was the third or fourth word I learned in Chinese, somewhere after “hello,” “thank you” and “I don’t understand.”
Publish date:
August 24, 2012
fat, body image, self esteem, fat acceptance, teachers, China

August 28th will mark the four-year anniversary of the day I stepped off the plane to begin my new job as a primary school English teacher in Wuhan China. My original plan was to stay here for ten months to learn a bit of Chinese and get a bit of work experience. Now I have a hard time imagining how I’ll ever leave.

Primary school teachers in China move up with their classes from one grade to the next, so I’ve had the same students my whole time here and I’m stupidly attached to my job. I have a cat, an apartment and friends. Wuhan feels more like home for me with every passing day.

Wuhan doesn’t have a lot of foreigners. I can go months without running into any foreign person who isn’t a co-worker of mine. “Foreigner” was one of the first words in Chinese that I learned. “Fat” wasn’t the second word that I learned in Chinese. It was probably the third or fourth. It came in somewhere after “hello,” “thank you” and “I don’t understand,” but before “How much does this cost?”.

At five foot three and 250 pounds (give or take), I’m definitely regarded as fat in my home country. In middle school, boys on the school bus used to make up songs about my fatness. The thing is, by high school they’d gotten bored of it, and I’d formed a happy nerdy little clique made up mostly of other fat girls. I hated my body and took it for granted that I was ugly and would surely never date, but the hate was never that intense. There were plenty of other people who looked like me. If I needed clothes I could just go to Fashion Bug. I went on diets once in a while, but mostly just carried on with life in my merry invisible way.

Moving to China made me ultra visible, and made my fat something I couldn’t ignore and separate myself from. The first time I heard somebody exclaim in Chinese “Look at that foreigner! How fat!", I was actually thrilled about it. I was just so proud that I understood something in the language I was studying. From that point on I heard that phrase quite a bit when I went out, but took it in stride. I’d never had any illusions that I was thin, and I didn’t hear it any more often than comments about the other foreign people I was with being tall or having big noses.

Then my Chinese got better and I realized that there were two words for fat. One word, “pang,” is a fairly neutral physical descriptor. The other, “fei”, is used to convey disgust. Once I learned the second word it became the soundtrack to my life. Every time I leave the house, even just to walk two minutes to the corner store, I can be assured of hearing that word. What I hate most is when little old ladies look me in the eye, make this tsk tsk tsk sound of disgust, and then walk away chatting loudly with their friends about just how fei I am.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with locals about my fatness. Some of them have been odd, like this one teenaged girl who wanted to practice English with me at a coffee shop -- she told me that she thought fat was cute, and asked me for suggestions on how to make her pet hamster gain weight. Other times strangers will give me diet advice, mostly that I should eat more vegetables and less McDonald’s. My school offers three free meals a day for all of its teachers, Chinese and foreign alike, and I take advantage of them. They’re rich in vegetables and also notable for being the exact same thing in the exact same portions that everybody else is eating. As for McDonald’s, not only do I not enjoy the taste of it, but the idea of walking into that restaurant is too keenly humiliating for me to even consider it.

When I was asked to renew my first contract at the primary school, I was told that everybody had expected me to be lazy because I was so fat, but now they thought I was hardworking and a good teacher. If anything could have turned me into a workaholic, it was that. I spent the summer taking a course on how to be a better ESL teacher, and spent nearly every waking moment preparing lessons lest anybody start to doubt their decision to let me stay and decide that I was indeed fat and lazy.

Working constantly became second nature. If I wasn’t doing something job related, I was in Chinese lessons. I became friends with the family that runs the local corner shop, and got to hear a lot of gossip on what the neighbors think about the local foreign population, myself included. They told me that the nearby shop keepers had nicknames to use when gossiping about the foreign teachers at my school, and that I’d originally been known as the fat one, but now I was known as the one who knew Chinese. I redoubled my language-learning efforts.

My third year in Wuhan I won an award for being one of the top performing foreign English teachers in Hubei province. I also reached a very bad place emotionally. The casual self-hatred that I’d always harbored had become a monster that could only be controlled by success in things not body related. If one of the lessons I taught didn’t go well or I didn’t have time to memorize all of the new vocabulary before heading off to Chinese class, I felt like I had no self-worth whatsoever, like I was fat and nothing else.

Overtime at the school had me working seven days a week, and I’d taken on so many extra classes that I was skipping meals to mark. I was too stressed to sleep most nights. And no, I didn’t lose a lot of weight, but I do think that my job had become what a diet is for some people; it was my path to redemption and actualization, and I was trying to cover up the excess pounds with success since just losing them had never worked.

Then I started to find fat acceptance blogs on the Internet. The first was the LiveJournal group Fatshionista, which I stalked for a long time before gaining the courage to join. I followed the links and discovered all kinds wonderful places on the Internet that told me I didn’t have to hate myself, and that a fat body didn’t mean that I was a freak and an atrocity (and yes, of course one of them was Two Whole Cakes and it ended up leading me to xoJane).

If I’d read the same blogs before moving to China I don’t think that they would have had such an impact on me. Hating my body a little bit had always been comfortable for me, and I probably would have been comfortable with it for the rest of my life. I needed that hatred to become so oppressive that I couldn’t deal with it before I let it go.

I won’t say that I learned to love myself overnight, because I don’t think anybody does. I will say that I think the process was surprisingly quick for me, just because I needed to find that process quickly or else self-destruct. It was a matter of self-preservation.

Finding a way to be happy about my appearance was the easiest part. Wuhan has this wonderful street that consists of nothing but tailors and fabric stores. Chinese clothes are all too small for me -- my size does not exist here -- but getting stuff custom made at the tailor street is way better than buying my clothing in any store. Being able to get clothes that look exactly the way I want them to and fit me perfectly in every way has made me like clothes for the first time in my life. I probably like them too much. I’m making up for lost time, I guess.

Workaholic tendencies aren’t so easy to give up. Telling myself that I intrinsically deserve to exist even if I’m not a perfect teacher and I forget every sentence in Chinese except for “More fries, please!” is harder. I’ve been trying to cast my way of thinking in a different way -- I’ll tell myself that I’m up late making another PowerPoint not because if I don’t make one I’ll be a disgrace and everyone will hate me, but because my students are wonderful people and deserve my full effort.

As for the comments -- I know that they aren’t going to stop any time soon, but the people that make them don’t know me. If I were walking down the street in my hometown in America and suddenly saw a giraffe, I would certainly comment, because that just isn’t a thing I see every day. If the giraffe had three eyes, I don’t doubt that I would turn to my friend and gasp: “Look over there at that giraffe! It has three eyes!”.

On the streets of Wuhan I’m a three-eyed giraffe.

Well, sort of. I’m sure everyone is well aware that I’m a human, but I’m an oddity, and I’ve made the choice to be here and I need to put up with that. Now instead of getting angry or internalizing every negative thing I hear, I talk to people more. Engaging people in conversation means I’m more than just some blubberous anomaly walking down the street, and they’re friends rather than obstacles on my path to self-acceptance.