SUNDAY’S INTERMEDIATE ENGLISH class began with roll call as my Chinese students pulled out their homework. Scanning the room, I focused on the cluster of boys at the back. “Michael, give me one sentence, please.” Without looking up at me, he responded quickly, “Brian is shorter than Tony.”
Sitting next to Michael was Brian. Not only is he the youngest, but he works harder than any of his classmates. He scrunched his face when I turned to him, searching for the best of the ten sentences he’d written. “Mary’s hair is shorter than Lucy’s but longer than Cici’s.”
I was proud. Proud of him to have written a complex sentence, and proud of myself, knowing I had done something right as a teacher. I responded, “Yes, Brian, that is a wonderful sentence. Good job.”
Bill is the strongest student in my class. Of all my Chinese students, he’s the most eager to learn. When I asked him for his sentence, he didn’t even glance at the crinkled paper atop his desk. He spoke loud and clear, chin up, and with a pronunciation quality high above the rest.
“Whitney is the fattest person in our class.”
The room was silent. Zero reaction. I smiled slyly, restrained myself from grimacing, and responded to his “fat” comment in the only manner appropriate.
“Yes, Bill, that is a perfect sentence. Thank you.”
He’d called me fat. I knew he didn’t intend to offend me, because being “fat” in China isn’t the same as in Western cultures. I knew this, but I was still struggling to accept it.
Only a few weeks prior, I was the student in an intermediate oral communication class at the Chinese University. I was preparing the mental shift from English to Chinese for my morning lesson when my teacher, chuckling behind his podium, began class a few minutes early.
“Let me tell you a story,” he began, speaking Chinese. “I had an American student a few years ago. One day, before class, I told him he had become a little fat since arriving in China,” he paused, making sure we were following along. I pursed my lips, holding back a knowing grin, and nodded for him to go on.
He continued, “The student hesitated, and said, in a hushed voice, ‘Teacher, I’m sorry, but in America, it’s not very respectful to call people fat.’”
My teacher stood up quickly, black marker in hand, and began scribbling Chinese characters on the board. Every Chinese character starts with a radical, a simple character squished into a more complex one. The radical serves as a clue to categorize the character, often giving the reader a sense of its meaning before they’ve actually learned it.
For example, the radical “女” signifies “woman,” and is squished to the left of these three characters: 妈, 好, 姐. Their meanings, all related to “woman,” are: “mother,” “good,” and “sister,” respectively.
The radical “疒” is meaningless alone, but hints at sickness, disease, or pain when inserted around the edges of these characters: 瘦, 病, 症, 疼, 痛. The first character, “thin,” shares the same radical as “ill,” “disease,” “sore,” and “ache.” Grouped with these types of words, the negative connotation the word “thin” carries is impossible to ignore.
These four characters all have the radical “月” on the left, which, as a radical, signifies “meat”: 膀, 腿, 肚子, 胖. Grouped along with “shoulder,” “leg,” and “stomach” is the character for “fat.” Fat is simply categorized with other body parts. It seems far from an insult.
In America, fatness is attributed to laziness or disrespect for your body. It is assumed that fat people make unhealthy choices in their life and that they don’t engage in physical activity.
In China, fatness is attributed to health and prosperity. Being labeled “fat” is acknowledgement from some, envy from others, that you are fortunate enough to eat meat on a regular basis and in abundant portions.
Equipped with these facts of the Chinese language, my brain and my heart stand conflicted. When speaking Chinese, I’m able to use the word “fat” tactfully. But when my students use the word in English, I struggle to suppress a natural pained reaction.
As I continued around the classroom, checking their homework, I concentrated on reacting with my brain rather than my heart. The girls and boys always sit on opposite sides, so I moved toward the girls’ side, hoping for a volunteer. They all looked down to their desks, avoiding eye contact. “Lucy, I’m sure your sentences are great. Can you read one for me?”
In a voice barely audible, she responded, “I am tallest than Angela but shortest than Tony.” Smiling, I winked at her, “Almost Lucy! Do you remember the difference between –er and –est?”