I was 12 at the time. We were having some family friends over for dinner. As the first guests arrived, I shuffled out of my room in my awkward premenarchal way. Forced human interactions were the bane of my existence at age 12 and now at age 25.
“Wow!” said one of the aunties. She had an almost gleeful smile on her face. “You look so solid!”
You never want to be described as solid by an Asian auntie. It doesn’t mean you’re trustworthy or muscular or that you resemble the foundation of a very sturdy house. It means you’re thick, you’re pudgy, you’re fat.
She looked me up and down. I felt like a cow on display. I felt shame, deep burning shame. I looked down at my thighs, my calves, my abdomen. I was 12 years old. I looked over 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 Asian female 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 she take up regular exercise, refrain from “heaty” foods, copy whatever the other skinny Asian girls are doing, but also, why aren’t you eating this food I made you?
They are said in an unrestrained manner, often accompanied by a wry smile as if to say, “I’m really only saying this to help you.” The 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.
As a feminist, do you ‘need’ to love your body? Jessie Stephens argues why not, on Mamamia Out Loud. (Post continues below.)
In my experience, 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 extracurricular sports then get mad when they want to pursue a career in professional basketball. We eat tiny dried fish and congealed pigs’ blood.
We’re known for harbouring Tiger Mums; tiny Asian women with military-style attitudes towards academics and achievement. She stands around, ordering her four-year-old to practice violin and complete tomorrow’s maths homework early. He’s destined for a career in accounting or engineering after all.
These extreme levels of perfection that Asian parents hold their children up to don’t only apply to trigonometric proofs and string instruments. They extend to physical appearance. Asian parents see a fat child and associate him/her with laziness and ambivalence towards personal upkeep. Asian parents see a fat child and see embarrassment.
For Asian females, the standard is arguably worse. We’re meant to be skinny. We’re meant to have bony wrists and fit XS. We’re the reason that if you order clothing from China on Ebay you should order XXL. We’re meant to be the slender foil to the robustly-shaped Chien Po of Mulan-fame. We’re meant to nibble on grains of rice one by one with chopsticks, expertly wielded by willowy fingers. Well f**k that, I don’t even like rice.
With a BMI that fluctuated between 24-26 during most of my tender teenage years, I was always larger than my Asian friends and peers (boys usually included). Why was I incapable of living up to the skinny female Asian benchmark?
My mum was tiny; I wasn't genetically doomed. It had to be something wrong that I was doing. Was it because I was lazy or because I loved food too much? I can still remember an Asian friend’s mum telling her daughter that I looked “enormous” when she saw me in the car park after school.
Even now, 25 years old and supposedly an adult, seeing family friends still gives me an anxious jolt that made me want to wrap my arms around my stomach.
It's not like weight is an Asian-specific source of controversy. Every culture has its own hang-ups about weight. But in my experience, it's the willingness to comment that sets Asian culture apart. We're not afraid to say potentially hurtful things because, hey, it's for their own good! We comment about weight, appearance, financial decisions, life partner, tertiary education, career, floral arrangements.
It is this willingness to comment that infiltrates the tight-knit social structure of Asian immigrant communities. There is support, togetherness and a sense of belonging, but there is also judgment and ample amounts of it.
Immigrant parents often expect their children to live up to the same standards their parents put on them. But to their chagrin, many of us first-generation-ers are squashing or trying to squash these skewed ideals.
Our ideas of happiness are not the same as our parents'. The brighter futures 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 that our Asian immigrant parents brought with them are bad. They exist for the most part because our parents want the best for us. They're what got our parents over whatever body of water separated them from financial security and political stability.
I love my parents. They are some of the most liberal Asian parents I know. They gave my brother condoms for his birthday one year. But even then, I feel a constant, sometimes unspoken, sometimes voraciously verbalised pressure to meet the expectations they set out for me.
Is the dynamic changing? Probably. As generations of Asian immigrants come to pass and we learn to continue the traditions we like and reject those we don't, maybe we’ll reach a stalemate.
Until then, I'll hover between two cultures and two ideals. About weight, career, about how I live my life. I will be considered an average size here while harbouring the inferiority of feeling fat. I will resent Asian aunties for making me feel lesser while being grateful that they will rarely leave things unsaid.
And then one day, I will stop giving a sh*t and will be finally free.
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