One day, many many years ago, my friend’s little sister came running into the kitchen with an urgent mission to rat out my little brother. “Mom!” she yelled, “Kenny said the “f- word!” MY mom’s eyes got as wide as saucers but her friend just told her, “Wait.” Then she turned to her daughter and asked, “Alex, what is the “f-word?” Alex goes quiet before whispering a single word in reply, “Fart.”
Needless to say my mother was very relieved and I’m not sure Alex understood why they were laughing so hard, since she had been taught that “fart” was a word on the do not repeat list. We all learn while growing up which words are ok and which words aren’t. Some vocabulary taboos, such as “fart”, are purely age restricted. It’s a word many parents ban while helping their children to differentiate between words that are polite vs crass. Some words, like fuck, are words that aren’t exactly “bad words” for adults in the sense that we will get into trouble, but it isn’t a professional or polite word either. Yet aside from that glaringly obvious “f-word”, there is another seemingly innocuous yet equally adverse curse word that persists in America. “Fat”. You are absolutely not allowed to call someone, especially a female someone, fat under any circumstance. And the following slap would not be considered entirely out of line. Even if it might, maybe be true. On the other hand, in Thailand the word “fat” is supposedly simply a descriptor, no more offensive than “short” or “tall”.
I’m gonna have to raise my hand and call bullshit on that claim.
Yes, it is true that the word “fat” does not have the carry the same horribly offensive connotations here as in America. Yes you can use it as an unoffensive way to describe someone; it is true that if you call someone fat you aren’t going to be met with righteous condemnation (how dare you). BUT-it is not used solely as a harmless descriptor either. Thais are incredibly greng jai, which as far as I can tell is tightly laced together with the saving face mentality of neither showing negative emotion nor embarrassing someone else. This takes a great and admirable restraint that my more confrontational self cannot entirely understand. It can be as simple as not telling your server at a restaurant they got your order wrong (just eat it anyway and complain about it with friends later) or not telling your hairdresser the color they used to dye your hair was wrong or it faded too quickly because you don’t want them to feel embarrassed. As good as this being so cool headed and non confrontational approach can be, it does have some major pitfalls, including I believe bottling offenses against oneself and internalizing it rather than telling someone to shut up and mind their own.
I first noticed this observable contrast from what we are told about the Thais supposed impassivity to the word “fat” and the actual, physical reactions to receiving the “fat” label while teaching. I was new to Thailand and therefore new to the idea that calling someone fat was so freely thrown about. It was my first attempt at teaching my 12 year old students opposites; namely the opposite pair thin and fat. I told them some things that were thin, such as and ending with a giraffe, and asked them for an example of fat. Seeing as I had just given an animal example, I was expecting then to say something like ‘elephant’. Instead nearly every student pointed to one of their peers (who was a bit bigger than all of them) and yelled, “fat!” There was much laughter from the students and as I stood there completely at a loss for words, I noticed that one student was not laughing. I think you can guess which student. My heart broke for this poor kid as he seemed to cave into himself while staring at his desk.
The Thai teachers in my office, who are already skinny, wouldn’t eat dinner or sweet things because they were afraid of getting fat. They would even wear these thick bands around their waist under their clothes in the middle of hot season so they could sweat more to lose more weight.
One of my friends would always make fat jokes about herself, and I honestly think it was a self- defense mechanism. It bothered her to be called fat by someone else, so she would make a joke about herself before they could to gain that mental upper hand.
I was in Drift Bar with some Thai friends, and we were all dancing and having a great time. Then some tiny little descendant of a twig poked my stomach and giggled while saying, “Fat! Dance, dance!” I almost snapped that b**** in half. But she didn’t just do it to me. Oh no, she did the same thing to her friend who was dancing without a care in the world next to her boyfriend and having a great time. Her friend, upon being poked in the stomach and laughed at, suddenly stopped dancing and stood quietly in subdued and self conscious silence while sipping her drink.
Clearly, the word “fat” is not a harmless word here. I think people still use that word to break down someone else, the only difference is that in this culture it is socially accepted to do so! It affects everyone, and being called out on your supposed “flaws” (because why else would it be such a topic to poke fun at if it wasn’t considered a flaw) only damages your self worth.
I get called fat here all the time. I’m sick of it. I’m not fat, I know this. In fact, I have lost a bit of weight since coming here and when I went back to NZ for holidays the first thing one of my best friends there commented on was how skinny I was. It was a refreshing eye opener, because even though I know I’m not, being called fat multiple times a week for two years really starts to wear at you. Well this last year the comments aimed at me vacillate between, “Oh, you look fatter” and “Oh! You look thin thin!” (sometimes insisting that yes, I do look fatter even when I tell them I’m not..) Thais seem to think it’s ok to comment on someones weight, even if they don’t even know the person. I can’t imagine the effect this persistent and socially accepted form of bullying has over a lifespan, especially during the developmental years.
I want to tell people to keep their opinions of my body to themselves, and I have a feeling that a lot of Thai people want to do the same thing. But they don’t. I don’t think America is doing it right either by any means-I mean a lot of people really truly are fat and we need to stop denying that fact. A fast food small meal today is the same as, like, a super size ten years ago. That is a problem. So we aren’t right either, but….can’t we all just find a balance here?