You gained weight!
Every time I visit, my Ama (grandmother) says that I gained weight!” says my student M. “[Even if] I don’t think I did. To make things worse, Ama prepares lots of dishes for my visit, even if I tell her I’m on a diet. She says I’m fat, yet she expects me to finish my plate, and keeps on giving me second or even third servings.”
Together with her late husband, Ama was the typical hardworking immigrant from Fujian province in China who founded the retail family business that has become successful enough to support their clan. Family members are close-knit, and M has fond memories of her grandparents teaching mahjong to the third generation when the latter were in grade school.
When Angkong (grandfather) passed away, everyone was in grief. M then grew especially close to her Ama.
“I love Ama,” says M. “I admire her strength and work ethic. She is kind and fair and compassionate. But she is so tactless when it comes to my weight! Her remarks about my weight did not bother me when I was a child, but now that I am in college, I am getting angry. She doesn’t know it, but when she says I’m fat, I feel bad about myself!”
“My therapist told me that I should confront her about this,” M continues. “Ama has no right to be so critical.”
“I don’t think your grandmother is being malicious,” I say. “Asking about weight is a Chinese custom, usually done by elders who don’t mean any harm. My late grandparents, on both sides, subjected all of us to this observation. I know this is irritating, but I noticed that was also how they often greeted their friends.”
“I did not know that,” says M. “When we visited her last Christmas, Ama said, ‘You gained weight! You look good!’ Then I blew up. I told her that I was already very conscious of my short height and my chubby arms, and that intermittent fasting was not making me lose the expected weight.”
“How did your grandmother react?” I ask.
“She was shocked at my outburst,” M says. “Then she started asking why I was dieting. She said I should take care of my health and make sure that I eat enough. She said I look perfectly fine. Then she gave me my favorite foods. I was mad and confused and resentful, but I couldn’t be angry for long. I was so stressed out that I ended up eating too much.”
To M’s surprise, I start to laugh.
“Your therapist has the best of intentions,” I say, “but she does not understand Chinese traditions. In other cultures, like the US, asking about weight is a loaded question, something not done in civil society. Many husbands know that to keep the peace, they cannot give an honest answer when their wives ask, ‘Does wearing this make me look fat?’”
But for many Chinese, commenting on weight gain is a “show [of] their affection,” say Yi and Bryan Ellis in their book “101 Stories for Foreigners to Understand Chinese People.”
“It indicates their familiarity with you. It is almost their way of saying, ‘Hey, long time no see. I’ve missed you.’ By noticing your minute weight changes, they are saying that they care about you enough to notice the difference.”
“Your grandmother loves you,” I tell M. “Mentioning your weight and plying you with good food are ways to show that she cares. Do intermittent fasting before and after you visit her this Chinese New Year, but one way to show your love for her is to partake of the meals she lovingly cooked. You can bring second and third helpings back home.”
May this coming year of the dependable, sturdy, diligent Ox bring us health, fortune and peace.
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” on Lazada and the e-book version on Amazon, Google Books, Apple Books. Contact the author at [email protected]
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