The silk blouse being held up before me was beautiful, but I shook my head no. “Too small for me,” I said. The salesman smiled widely and said, “No problem- for you I have extra, extra, extra large!” Then he held up a blouse that was the equivalent of a size four.
This is a common experience in Asia and especially in China where women tend to be shaped like stick figures; no hips, boobs or butts (and I swear, the tops of their inner thighs are concave). Then there’s me. I’m from the US, and as you may have heard we are a nation of overweight, increasingly obese, people. I represent my country well.
So settled in for a few months of teaching English in northeastern China, I set out to make exercise part of my daily routine. First I joined a local volleyball game. A gregarious young man with a round face and glasses welcomed me, though I soon surmised that his English comprehension was not quite up to his speaking level. Apologizing for my lack of volleyball skill, I told him, “I make many mistakes.” He smiled, nodded wagging his head enthusiastically, and said, “Yes, you will get the opportunity!”
A few weeks later the volleyball game ended because of the cold. So I accompanied a friend to a yoga class. It turns out that Chinese women are invertebrates. The pain lasted several days.
Tai Chi was pleasant. I went to a class at a retirement center and tried to learn by following along with the group of 60+ year old women. At one point, I thought the class had ended, as they all headed over to the bench where they had laid their gym bags. To my surprise they reached into their bags, pulled out swords, and started doing another routine.
Most of the people exercising in China seemed to be older. (Kids aren’t allowed to do anything but study.) They use the ubiquitous, resistance free, exercise equipment that is found in city parks. They walk backwards- which I was told has health benefits. In the town square one group does folk dances, marching in lines and gesturing with bright red fans while another group does aerobics to pop music blaring from a ghetto box.
I checked out the public swimming pool, but based on some of things I was learning about Chinese hygiene, decided not to use it. There was not a whiff of chlorine in the air and the kiddie pool had sort of a yellowish tinge.
So, walking it is! No problem. Except that walking is something you tend to have to do in public and being out in public in China can be trying. When I tell people that China was the most challenging place I’ve traveled, they assume that I’m referring to language. And while the language certainly is befuddling (once in a food court I tried to order a dessert called “sugar cake.” I got the tone wrong, so as I pointed to the donut-like treat, I instead asked for “sugar disease” – diabetes. Ironic, isn’t it?), it’s not the most challenging thing about traveling in China. Nor is the vastness of the country, nor the disturbing attitude towards releasing bodily fluids (anytime, anywhere). No, the really tough thing about traveling in China is all the attention you receive from Chinese people. Many Chinese have never seen a foreigner and they do not consider staring rude. So they point at you, take photos of you, pose in photos with you, talk about your body shape. If I stood looking at something in a store window a crowd would gather to watch me. Shopping, clerks would follow me around the store. I knew of three other Caucasians in the city where I lived. All of us had inadvertently caused traffic accidents merely by our presence. So, it’s not really surprising that one’s body-image can suffer.
Constantly being stared can be really hard to take. And what with there being one of me and one point six billion of them, there wasn’t much to be done about it. I needed a weapon to fight back with, or at least a way to shield myself from the pressure of all that staring. The weapon that worked turned out to be humor.
Once in a parking lot I saw a man talking to a woman, pointing at me and making an exaggerated hour-glass gesture. I fixed him in my gaze, pointed, then raised both hands and brought them down parallel. My meaning was clear, “Oh yeah? Well you’re a stick.” Surprised to have been caught in the act, and called on it, he laughed and gave me the thumbs-up sign.
So it was actually exercising my funny-bone that buoyed my self-image. Calling on my sense of humor did not put an end to the unwanted attention, but it released tension and allowed me to accept what was happening. On another occasion, under the pressure of every pair of eyes in the bus station, my travel partner reached into her pack, pulled out a pair of underwear (yes- they were clean!) and put them on her head. Having been in China for three years, she had developed a remarkable ability to laugh at things. And really, regardless of where you are in the world, what could be a better skill than that?