This story is relatively infamous within my immediate family.
A few years ago, while studying in India I received an email from P. It basically said, “Can you please contact your sister K. I’m afraid my father said something that really upset her and I don’t really know how to handle it.” Meanwhile I started to get ranting emails from my youngest sister, M, talking about something P’s father had done to K. So I wrote back to P and asked, “What the heck happened?”
My sister K and P’s cousin-sister*, coincidentally, both went to the same undergraduate university. When P graduated from our school his father came to the States for the first time and stayed for about 6 months. For a good chunk of his visit he lived with P in New York. On weekends they would travel around seeing the sights and visiting people. One such weekend they visited our “sisters’” college. P took both the “sisters” out for dinner with his father, and while driving back from the restaurant he watched his dad say something to K in the rear-view mirror and then K’s face crumple up like she was upset. He was pretty sure he knew what his dad said, but didn’t know how to react because he didn’t want to hurt his father’s feelings by correcting him in front of everyone, and he also didn’t want K to be upset but it wasn’t the right time or place to explain the cultural intricacies.
So by the title of this post, I’m sure you can imagine what he said to her. He basically asked her why she was “so fat.” I think the exact phrasing was something like, “why are you so puffy fat? Do you exercise?” (although the actual use of the word “puffy” is debatable. It is what my sister swears she heard, but its hard to imagine that “puffy” is part of P’s dad’s English vocabulary.) In any case, he meant it completely innocently, and was probably not really aware that he hurt my sister’s feelings.
Anyway, in a place like America, where obesity is rampant, my family’s waist size doesn’t deviate that much from average. Some people are bigger, and some are smaller, but no one is dangerously heavy. However, like most Americans, people in my family are sensitive about weight. If I lost 5 pounds, I’d love for someone to compliment me, but the big taboo is not to mention if I gained 5 pounds, at least not from someone I just met! It can be quite insulting.
Neither of my sisters have ever forgotten that incident. In fact, K even used it for a “cross-cultural misunderstandings” report she had to do for one of her education classes. I was actually probably lucky, because K is a lot more quiet and calm. Had P’s dad made this mistake with my youngest sister M, she probably would have screamed at him. Which would have complicated this sensitive cross-cultural situation even more.
Over the years I have learned that P’s dad, in particular, is pretty bad about this “taboo.” Mostly because it isn’t taboo at all to talk about weight in Nepal. In fact, in most cases, it is a compliment to say that someone is looking bigger. It means you are eating well, and if you are eating well, then you are probably also doing well financially. A Nepali euphemism for “fat” is “healthy.” I mean, healthy sounds like a positive word, right? “You are looking so healthy these days!” is one way of saying, “wow, you’ve grown larger, looking good!”
Yet even if you know this cultural tidbit about Nepal, it is still (in my American mind) not fun to be called fat, compliment or not. For example, I just knew that when P’s family came for the “epic family visit of 2008” that one of the first things his dad would say after getting off the plane was something about my weight. I think I’m totally average sized, for a Caucasian, but sometimes hanging out with some Nepali female friends who tend to be a bit shorter and skinnier, it can distort the way you look at yourself and in turn make comments about weight sting even a little bit more.
As expected, as P’s family walked through the departure gate, pushing their luggage carts in our direction, his dad came over to say hello and give us a hug/pat on the back. Then he squeezed my forearm and chuckled, “C you’ve grown so large!” Cringe.
I just knew we had to say something to them. During the family visit, P’s mother, father and Phupu (aunt- literally “father’s sister”) were going to travel to Virginia to stay for two days with my mother and sisters. This was already an awkward visit on so many levels (and I’ll discuss this some other time), but one of the big things that we had to instill in them was that talking about weight—especially heaviness—was absolutely against the rules of engagement.
My mother had already had that conversation with me: “They are in America now, so they need to learn about our culture as well… I will not tolerate people calling us fat. If they do, I don’t mind telling them to their face that it is wrong.” While she was right about the cultural sensitivity thing, I also wanted to make a good first impression, so impromptu rudeness lessons from my mother were not part of my plan. I made sure that P had time to talk to his family about this and I’m really lucky that they are willing to see things from another perspective.
On the way down to visit my mother we inevitably stopped at R and S’s place. S’s parents were also visiting at the time. As the two families were chatting J Phupu basically said, “You are all looking so healthy!” Then she leaned in and said, “I learned that you can’t say fat in America!”
Well… at least it is a step in the right direction.
I think that P’s family has become more sensitive about the “fatness” thing. In fact, I can’t remember them saying anything while we were in Nepal this summer. Well… they did say I had a nice body for a sari, but I think they meant I had nice wide hips, hmmm, I won’t think about that. Anyway, the gist of this post is: don’t be alarmed if you meet (particularly someone older and newly arrived) from Nepal and they comment on your weight. It is not meant as an insult, it’s a way of striking up conversation and connecting with you! Just smile, and change the subject.
* Meaning a female cousin. She is actually P’s father’s sister’s (J Phupu’s) daughter.