30 Day Travel Series: "I love your body; you are so fat."

She pointed at Julian, puffed her cheeks full of air and put her arms out like she was a 500-pound balloon man.

In Vietnam, Julian and I were about 20 times bigger than most people. It was common to have people say, “Wow - you guys are very FAT!” People would run up to Julian and pat his belly and throw their heads back in laughter.

It annoyed me, but I tried not to take it personally. However, one night in Da Nang I had to use every ounce of my energy not to start yelling profanities at an innocent ten-year-old girl.

Julian and I had just finished a training and we were wandering along the tiny, dark sidewalks, reflecting on the day. We had stopped at one of the many food carts lining the streets and bought one veggie bun and one pork bun. They were so good.

We were passing the buns back and forth when a young girl jumped out in front of us and stopped us in our tracks. “Hello!” She yelled and waved. She held a pack of gum out to us. “Want gum?” We smiled at her and politely declined. “Come on, buy gum from me,” she said. She had a commanding presence; she was boss-like. She continued to insist that we buy gum, and then abruptly, in the middle of her sentence, she covered her mouth and started laughing. I asked her what was so funny.

She pointed at Julian, puffed her cheeks full of air and put her arms out like she was a 500-pound balloon man. She started to waddle around. My blood boiled. She kept going, holding her lower back as if to support her big belly. She was pushing her cheeks out so hard she was almost cross eyed.

I started to lecture her. “Look, just because people are all hella skinny in your country doesn’t mean you can be mean to people who aren't rail thin. He isn’t even fat in our country and if you ever came to the United Sta--” I had to cut myself off before I told a ten-year-old Vietnamese streetkid that if she ever came to the US people would make fun of her too. I knew it was ruthless but I was seething. Nevertheless she continued pushing her cheeks out and waddling around. What a brat, I thought.

Julian didn't seem bothered by it at all. He laughed, poked her belly and said in a baby voice, “I'm going to tickle you, you mean little girl.” She laughed and ran a few steps away, playfully looking back and holding her big imaginary belly. She really had the waddle down. She would waddle around in a circle or two and then just stop and laugh, waiting for our reaction.

I was infuriated. I continued to yell. “Seriously, that is so rude, you shouldn't do that. Nobody is going to like you if you act like that,” I shouted. Julian looked back and saw for the first time how angry I was. “Let's go Heather, you are getting too worked up,” he said, grabbing my arm.

Allowing myself to be half-led, half-dragged down the sidewalk, I yelled over my shoulder that maybe we would have bought some gum if she hadn’t been so mean.

Unfortunately it wasn't the only time it happened in our four months on the road. When we got to Uganda it got worse for me. Woman would constantly come up to me and say, “I love your body; you are so fat.”

One day, after a small workshop in Northern Uganda, I was standing outside our hosts’ hut and a participant came up to me, grabbed my hips and peered around to view my backside. “Where is your hump?” she asked. She pulled my dress down against my legs so she could get a better idea of how big my butt was. “Oh,” she said, sounding surprised. “You are pretty fat, that’s good.” My blood didn’t boil as furiously as it did when the little girl in Vietnam did her sumo wrestler act, but it still boiled. I just rolled my eyes and said, “Margaret, it is so offensive in my country to call someone fat.” She smiled big and said, “No, stop worrying. Fat is good,” as she patted my butt. I took a really deep breath and let the conversation end there.

I never got used to being called fat, or having people call Julian fat, but I reluctantly learned to hear it as a compliment. I do understand that there are social, economic and cultural reasons why calling someone fat in a developing country is different than calling someone fat back home. Being really skinny in a place where a lot of people don’t have enough food usually means you are very poor - but damn - understanding something intellectually and being able to embrace it are two very different things, aren't they?

Goal for my next trip: Even if my blood is secretly boiling, try to get to a place where I can hear “Look at you, you are so fat!” and just smile, and say thanks.
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This is one of 30 untold stories of launching a global project (with my boyfriend, Julian) about love, story telling and connecting change makers.

Read all 30 days here: http://www.smithmag.net/community/people.php/HBOX

Throughout Vietnam, South Africa, and Uganda, we engaged with 650 everyday people working to make the world a better place to share their stories. Inevitably, there were parts of our adventures we couldn’t tell while on the road, because we were a start up trying to prove our merits as a serious social change project or because of nervous families monitoring our journey. But the truth is while we worked passionately to bring our dream project to life we also had an adventure of a lifetime. Here are the stories behind the stories of the Million Person Project: http://www.millionpersonproject.org.

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