“Tumaba ka (you’ve gotten fat). Pumayat ka (you’ve gotten skinny).”
Live in the Philippines for a while and you will hear these words. My missionary mentor noticed that his Filipino friends/associates would frequently update him on the perceived status of his weight (especially after returning from furlough in the States). He affectionately called this the “fat report.”
This is an interesting dichotomy in Filipino culture. I’ll explain.
Filipinos are incredibly polite–so polite that they are often indirect in their communication. Filipinos, for example, are unlikely to give you a direct “no” if you invite them to something. You may hear something like “we’ll try,” which really means “we’ll come if there’s a snowball fight in Manila.” A Filipino might not show you a mistake that you’ve made—he/she would rather not embarrass you, and would hope that you realize it on your own. Being too direct can be interpreted as rude here.
The opposite, however, seems to be true when it comes to comments on one’s physical appearance. A few years back I developed a pimple on my forehead. It seemed that everyone I met felt the need to call my attention to the blemish, as if I needed to have emergency plastic surgery to have it removed. After a few comments I was ready print my own t-shirt logo: I KNOW I HAVE A PIMPLE. DON’T PANIC, IT WILL BE GONE IN A FEW DAYS.
This is particularly evident when it comes to the words “fat” and “skinny.” It has taken me some time to get used to hearing these words used so loosely. In America, you just don’t call someone “fat,” especially a woman. Calling a woman fat is essentially a declaration of war. Here in the Philippines it is completely different—commenting on someone’s weight is done just as casually as one would comment on a new set of earrings.
I’ve learned a couple of things that have helped me better understand the “fat” and “skinny” labels.
First, the “fat” term is a bit ambiguous. Any type of perceived increase in body mass is called “fat,” even if the individual has not gained bodyfat. I spent my first summer break (April/May) in Antipolo for language school. There was plenty of food around and I had some good weightlifting sessions. I put on a few pounds of “good weight” (mostly muscle) as a result. I frequently heard “tumaba ka” (you’ve gotten fat) when I returned to campus. Some of the students made gestures to imply that I had gotten “fat” through my chest and shoulders.
Secondly, the “fat report” is very subjective. A couple of weeks ago a friend told me I looked thinner. A couple of days ago someone told me I’ve gotten fat. Call me crazy, but I don’t think I’ve gained weight in two weeks. It seems there is a strong cultural compulsion to comment on a friend’s physical appearance, regardless of how accurate or inaccurate the perception may be.
I feel very blessed with the body that God has given me, so I’m not sensitive about this issue. I do, however, take a closer look in the mirror if I start hearing several “fat” comments. I don’t mind having a little extra encouragement to avoid developing the “Baptist preacher midsection.” That “encouragement” will always be present here. As long as I live in Manila, I can count on hearing the “fat report” on a regular basis.
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