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by Jessica Caudill

      For my aunt Michelle, the F-word is “Fat.”
      “Fat, I no like! Lazy! Why so fat?” she says when she sees overweight people in public. Michelle gawks at the bulging waistlines, the muffin tops, the poor souls who suffer from Dunlap’s Disease. Don’t assume I’m trying to be fancy by throwing complex medical terminology at you. It’s likely you won’t find “Dunlap’s Disease” among even the most common list of comprehensive medical terms unless you’ve got a copy of the Redneck Medical Dictionary in your home and you have a crude sense of humor. This “disease” is used to describe a person whose stomach has gotten so big that it “dun lapped over his belt.” And Michelle seems to have special radar that can spot these people a mile away. A little alarm goes off in her brain and her eyes lock on the targets. My uncle Mardell has to step in and do a bit of damage control: “Don’t stare at them; it’s rude!”
       “But why are they so fat?”
      While I’m usually shocked by Michelle’s sacrifice of tact in expressing her opinions I appreciate her honesty, however brutal. Despite what American stereotypes have done to label Asian women, my aunt is quite the boisterous, outspoken type. She acts as if she stepped off the plane from China and entered the world’s largest freak show where nearly half the human oddities are Fat Ladies and Gents. But I try to withhold harsh criticism for two reasons: She’s my aunt who, under that quirk of curiosity, is a warm and loving person, and I, too, ask why are they so fat (even though I have no right to judge when I find myself sitting in a Wendy’s drive-through and ordering a chicken sandwich with fries—the grilled chicken, because it’s healthier than the crispy chicken, right?)
      A 2012 ABC News article claims that by year 2030 most Americans will be obese. Researchers and doctors warn that America is on a slippery, greasy slope to dangerously high obesity rates: “Using a prediction model published in The Lancet last year, analysts estimated that if adult obesity rates continue on their current path, all 50 states could have rates above 44 percent by 2030. Thirty-nine states could have rates above 50 percent, and 13 states could have adult obesity rates over 60 percent.”
      Though they are fewer are further between, overweight people do exist in China. “The number of obese people in China is rising,” reads a February, 2013 article in China Daily. In the article, researcher Wang Mei at the China Institute of Sports Medicine says, “In the past 10 years, the average weight increase in Chinese people has been almost equivalent to the average weight gain among people in Western countries over the past 30 years.”
      As I read the facts and statistics, my mind returns to the initial shock I feel about my aunt’s reactions. Michelle cringes at the sight of overweight people. But why? It’s not a new concept for her. Why do any of us shudder or chuckle under our breaths when we see a large person rush to the front of the buffet line like closing time? And then my mind turns back a couple of years. I had an obese cousin. After his mother succumbed to lung cancer, he was placed in a nursing home because his two brothers couldn’t take care of him. Just in his early thirties, his body had expanded to nearly 500 pounds. Websites like “Obesity in America,” created by The Endocrine Society and the Hormone Health Network, try to reach out to people with severe weight issues, offering resources for medication and weight loss surgery. He wouldn’t take the help. I stopped taking his phone calls. One of the nurses on duty heard gurgling sounds and heavy breathing coming from his room one evening. They found him dead later that night, sitting upright in his wheel chair. If Michelle had seen my cousin in his state before he passed, what would she have said? Would I have told her to stop staring at him, or stood by in his shadow, ashamed of him, or mostly myself?
      I wanted to add, “Let’s ponder this for a moment,” but there were other factors at play that would take more than a moment to decipher: My cousin suffered other health issues like Rheumatoid Arthritis and Gout (though they were most likely brought on or aggravated by the obesity) as well as depression (which could have also been affected by his weight.) Sometimes the thing to ponder is which comes first, the body or the mind? Did my cousin gain weight because he was depressed, or did his weight make him depressed? What about the people standing at the buffet line? If you’re reading this over your morning coffee you might be saying, “It’s too early to preach about sensitivity and The Golden Rule. PS- When is this thing gonna get funny again?”
      Let the redemption commence.

      Is China giving Western countries a run for their money … to the nearest McDonalds? The fast food giant began in California in 1940, and the United States is home to more than 12,000 McDonalds restaurants. A January 2013 article in Reuters states that McDonald's “…is rapidly building restaurants in China and has set a goal of having 2,000 in the country by the end of this year.” The fast food corporation is in a heated competition with YUM! Brands, owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. YUM! operates about 4,500 KFC outlets in China. But as more of these restaurants open across China every year, more people are less inclined to indulge. A January 2013 article in The Guardian says that the appeal of these fast food chains in China is decreasing. What was once seen as an expensive novelty from the West is now being viewed as nothing more than junk food. The articles states that as Chinese people grow richer, “…they’ve begun to regard eating at KFC as less of a sign of status. They are also becoming more health-conscious.”
       Assuming that tastes and concerns for health are changing in China, how do they explain McDelivery, a system available in at least eighteen cities in China, 24 hours a day? “Our professional delivery teams, equipped with the swift transport and uniquely designed delivery bags, will let you fully enjoy the fine foods while you’re relaxing at home,” the McDelivery website proudly proclaims. Are these health-conscious eaters slowly rising as the direct result of their own expanding waistlines? Maybe if they watch the documentary Supersize Me, they’ll all shriek in disbelief and disgust like Michelle, throw their Mashed Potato Burgers in the garbage, and run to the nearest city park for an invigorating workout on the free exercise equipment.
      Wait a second—Mashed Potato Burger, say what? Let me explain: in 2012, McDonalds China introduced the Mashed Potato Burger as part of its “Manly Campaign” to attract the young urban crowd. The burger features the classic two all-beef patties, thick-cut slices of bacon, and a heaping scoop of mashed potatoes, all on a sesame seed bun. If you don’t believe me, go check out the video ad in the archives from February 2012. Under it you’ll find related articles with titles like, “5 Signs You’ll Get Cancer.” That same year, a French/Belgian fast-food eatery known as Quick launched a campaign of novelty burgers to celebrate the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace 3D. One of those quirky delicacies was the Darth Vader Burger (excuse me, Dark Vah-Door) a sandwich that was nearly identical to the Big Mac, except for the black buns. Yes, black hamburger buns—not severely roasted, toasted, and burnt to a crisp, just buns dyed as dark as the force that courses through the veins of the Sith Lord, himself.

      How might the Chinese combat expanding waistlines? In China, playtime isn’t just for kids, it seems. Parks are full of groups of adults doing tai chi, dancing while a portable radio plays music, and exercising on equipment made from metal and painted up in bright colors. When I was in Dalian, I was pleasantly surprised to see grownups “playing” on machines that closely resembled the Gazelle elliptical that Tony Little has been promoting since 1997. I felt a bit nostalgic as I looked around at the exercise equipment that looked like what you might find on a school playground: jungle gyms, monkey bars, balance beams. I saw an elderly man walking backwards along a stone path. “Good for the legs!” a woman said to me.

      A farmer’s market in America is China’s everyday market, and the ones I visited in Dalian were housed in old buildings on both sides of dusty streets, upstairs and down, with clear plastic vertical blinds for doors. Inside, I saw mounds of fresh fruits: strawberries, cherries, apples, oranges, bananas—nothing that most of us have never seen. In one market, my eyes locked on a curious specimen that was hot pink with green spikey sprouts; it looked too dangerous to eat, but too pretty not to. “Dragonfruit,” a female market employee said, slicing open the fruit and exposing the white flesh that looked like it was sprinkled with poppy seeds. I didn’t have the nerve to try it at the time, but I’m told the divalicious Dragonfruit tastes like kiwi.
      I saw vegetables too: bamboo shoots, snow pea, and cabbage—an understatement, really. There are hundreds of varieties of cabbage in China in every shade of green that are used for stir fry and pickling. I saw meats—mostly seafood: clam, crab, tuna, lobster, oyster, shrimp, squid, creatures with bug eyes, claws, and spikes. Everything was stacked on tables under low fluorescent lighting in spaces as big as a flea market. The markets that offered pre-packaged, processed foods pushed them to the sides or outer edges and the fresh foods were center stage. These places are plentiful, on just about every street corner in smaller cities, while the larger markets are a short walk away, so it’s nothing for people to go grocery shopping every day. On their way to and from the food markets, people buy fresh roasted corn from street vendors. They lift the lids of their carts and puffs of steam rise into the air.
      After eating fresh food for a whole week in Dalian, my uncle and I decided that we missed the convenience and the grease of fast food. After a day of walking up one side of a busy street we worked up an appetite. We spotted a KFC on the other side and quickly crossed the road, trying to avoid getting run over as there was no proper crosswalk of traffic light. That’s how it goes even if there is a Walk-Don’t Walk sign on a congested street corner; you say a prayer and run. It’s as if drivers in China don’t notice pedestrians. We stepped inside the restaurant and inhaled the familiar smells of scorching oil and the secret eleven herb blend. We ate fried chicken sandwiches like they were our last meals and we were trying to savor each bite before execution. The next day I felt like my bowels were trying to execute me; I didn’t leave the bathroom for almost an hour.
      Except for that first and last encounter with fast food in China, all the restaurants we went into had seafood so fresh it was if the fish competed with one another to be eaten: “Pick me! Frank over here has gill rot!” We could pretty much walk up to a tank of lobsters, pick our dinner, and wave it goodbye as it was transported to a boiling pot or skillet. The meals I had in Dalian was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and once I got the KFC out of my system, I didn’t have any more stomach troubles for the remainder of my trip. People in the West scoff when they see pictures of glazed ducks hanging in Chinese store windows. But after my experience of feeling like my intestines were being ripped from my nether regions I wonder which is safer to eat: the deep fried chicken sandwich or the glazed duck.

      Seven-thirty in the morning. A low, dull *bump bump bump* wakes me up. What is this noise that has jarred me from my already-restless sleep? Too early for the neighbors to be blasting their hip-hop music, I think. I hope. The voice of a woman counts in time with the beat: Yī èr sān sì wǔ.
      Michelle is awake and exercising to her workout DVD. I’m staying at her house for ten days to work a temporary job in Lexington. Every morning it’s the same routine. Michelle wakes up between seven and seven-thirty, exercises, eats breakfast (usually a black sesame paste or soup) and then she opens her workbooks and practices her English.
      With the temporary job, I didn’t have to be at work until nine or ten o’clock on most days. I went to bed early. I should have been well-rested and refreshed enough to get out of bed the same time as Michelle, pull on a pair of yoga pants, and bend and stretch and sweat alongside her. Instead, I put the pillow over my head and tried to sleep another fifteen minutes or so. When I finally decided to get out of bed I took a shower, got dressed, put on a pot of coffee, and put two Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits in the microwave. Some mornings Michelle cooked breakfast for the both of us: fried eggs, pancakes, sausage patties. But she left the larger portions for me. “Too skinny! You finish!” she said.
      I heard the very same words from a woman in Dalian during dinner at a restaurant one evening. My uncle and I sat a table with another family. The waitress had brought a large plate of sticky dumplings to the table, and the elderly lady who sat beside me said I was too skinny, and she made me eat about ten sweet sticky dumplings. “Too skinny! Eat more!” she said to me. Everyone at the table thought it was funny. I laughed my way through the first five dumplings, and nearly cried through the next five as my stomach tightened. I held up my hand and said, “Please, no more. I am full.” But the woman insisted I eat more. I’ve always been puzzled by this notion of being considered too skinny by some people, especially when those people dislike fat. You want to fatten me up and then turn around and make fun of me for being fat? I know that’s not the case, but the thought has crossed my mind more than once. Maybe they’re looking at my overall size and my petite stature has something to do with being seen as, not too skinny, but too small in general.
      Body Mass Index, a sensitive matter for some people, is calculated using a person’s weight and height. The numbers vary, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention believe that a normal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 is considered overweight, and a BMI greater than 30 is considered obese. A 2013 article in South China Morning Post says that, “In China, the World Health Organization defines overweight as a BMI of 23 and a BMI of 25 is considered obese.” What is considered to be a normal body mass index in America is overweight in China, but this is not to say that China has harsher standards on the ideal body type. Take my own body mass index, for example. If I take my height, which is five feet two inches, and divide it by my weight, which is none of your damn business so just take my word for it, my BMI is 22.9, within the normal range by American standards but dangerously close to being overweight in China. Now take my aunt Michelle, who is around four feet ten inches tall. If we both weight the same, then her BMI would be 26.1. She would be viewed as pleasantly plump in America and “Jesus Christ, you’re fat” in China.

      My husband Jack shows Michelle a few of our wedding pictures on his iPad. In one photo Jack, in a black tuxedo with a yellow rose boutonniere, stands with his cousin and three close friends. His friends and cousin are taller and much wider than he is. Jack looks uncomfortably sandwiched with two hefty gentlemen on either side. As soon as she saw the photo Michelle gasps and points to the iPad. Her finger moves across the screen from left to right as she says, “Ooh! Fat! Fat! Handsome. Fat! Fat!” Jack is the “handsome” one in the photo.
      Jack stands at about five feet seven inches; just like Tom Cruise, but without all the crazy. He, too, has fallen victim to the phrase, “Too skinny!” and endured food being shoveled onto his dinner plate by Michelle. When this happens, Jack tries to politely tell her that he cannot hold another bite. I, on the other hand, have realized that Michelle sometimes responds better to directness. “No. Full.” If she has no problem telling a person she is fat or too skinny, she should have the thick skin to take being told no. And it does work: “Ok,” she says. Even if I were to gain an extra twenty to thirty pounds, I’d be told by some to embrace my curves and not despair because those new folds around my midsection only give my husband more of me to love; a little cushion for the pushin’, if you will. Michelle, with a kind of tough love savoir-faire, would sympathize with my husband: “Oh, poor Jack—so skinny. His fat wife eats all the food!”

Jessica Caudill is a writer and fantasy barista originally from Hazard, Kentucky. She studied creative nonfiction at Spalding University, and her stories and poems have appeared in Inscape Magazine, Zygote in My Coffee, and the anthology The Writing Disorder Presents the Best Fiction and Nonfiction of 2012. She is the recipient of a Kentuckiana Metroversity Writing Award for fiction. She writes for Mour Magazine in Lexington, KY.

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