My parents visited us on September 11th, 2001. They were supposed to fly to New York City to meet my brother first, who lived there then. However, their Japan Airlines Boeing 747 was re-routed to Chicago that day, because of what happened in NYC. It was their first time on a plane, first time to go abroad, first time to meet Maria and Benjamin, and they do not speak English. So we were really lucky that I happened to live in the Chicago area. I drove to the airport and picked them up around noon that day.
At that time I had not seen my parents for 6 years for financial and visa reasons. So naturally I was pretty excited about it. One of the first things they said after we met was: Haidong, you are fatter than before.
I smiled a little after hearing that, for I know that my parents were not trying to insult me, although I felt they, especially my dad, have done plenty of it before. (I’ve made peace with that.) On the contrary, they meant it as a compliment.
You see, I was born and raised in a rural village in ShanDong province, China in the 1970s. I was born in 1971, in the middle of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the time, the country was in chaos and most people, especially those in the country side, were very, very poor. My dad was a middle/high school Chinese teacher. His status was non-agricultural, meaning that he got a salary from the government and did not have to do agricultural work. People with non-agricultural status also got a lot more ration coupons for food, oil, and other daily essentials. My mom, although an elementary school teacher, was classified as agricultural. That made her children with an agricultural status also. As a result, we didn’t have government furnished housing and we had to live in the Ji Village. As peasants, we were hungry most of the times. Most of the country’s population were peasants then. Even today, there are still significant amount of people who make a living from the land.
Like everywhere else in our shrinking globe we all call home, one’s economic situation has a real large impact on the social custom and the kind of language you speak. Since we were hungry a lot of times, one common greeting we used then was “Have you eaten?”, instead of “How are you doing?” or “How do you do?”.
Obesity was virtually non-existent. Instead, if you looked a little chubbier and had a healthy glow on your face, that could only mean that life had been treating you well. And it was something to be congratulated. Thus, “You look fatter than before” is the equivalent of “You look great”. If somebody said that to me, I, as a modest Chinese, would simply say something to the effect of: “No, no, no, I am just slightly fatter than before. You should see so and so. He is really fat!”
The economic situation has improved rapidly in the last 30 years or so, especially in cities and the coastal regions of China. The common greeting of “Have you eaten?” is rarely used nowadays. For younger and town folks, “You are fatter than before” is probably an insult. However, there are still significant amount of people in China who are very poor and do not have access to good education. I would not be surprised if these greetings are still used.
To get a better understanding about life under the social, political, and economic turmoil in China before 1980s, I highly recommend the movie To Live. It is a touching, powerful, and realistic movie that tells the tragedies and hopes of a simple Chinese family. The movie covers the civil war right after the Japanese invasion was defeated in World War II, the establishment of the People’s Republic, the Great Leap Forward movement, and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. You will need to read English subtitles to watch this movie. Come on, get over it:-) You really miss out a lot if you only watch English movies.