Time for a monthly update, even though it feels like I last checked two weeks ago. Time is moving quicker now. It doesn't seem like much has changed, except that everything is changing all the time: we've stopped collecting acquaintances and have started forming real friendships. The people at the marvelous bao shop around the corner now greet us with signs of recognition. We have a regular dai pai dong around the corner. I've scaled back my work hours at the magazine and have dipped a toe back into freelancing; I'm relishing the freedom and embracing the terror. We're going to Japan next week.
I look, physically, different: I cut my hair, got my eyebrows embroidered. I've gained weight, though I don't know how much. Enough to make me feel extremely uncomfortable a lot of the time. My pants don't fit like they used to, but who wears black jeans in August in Hong Kong anyway? I was hoping to actually lose weight after moving here, what with the heat and all, but I forgot that I can't think or move in temperatures over 30 degrees. We've started eating meat again, and my carb intake has gone way up in the form of rice and baos. I used to walk everywhere in Montreal, and eat the same salad every day for lunch; here I MTR to my office and sit for 8 hours, getting up only to get a heaping tray of chow mein from the canteen. I've stopped smoking, that's a plus. Everything I eat is delicious—another plus. This is reality: I've gained weight, and I am largely okay with it because You Only Live In Hong Kong Once (#YOLIHKO!). But when anxiety hits, as it has been a lot lately, my body image problems are the first and easiest targets.
It's hard to talk about, but it's important for me to try. I grew up in a fairly typical Chinese household with the constant pressure to be thin looming over my early adolescence and teenage years like a spectre. Weight and food are hallmarks of Chinese smalltalk—"You've lost weight" is another way of saying Hello. "Have you eaten yet?" means "How are you?" It's also a point of gossip. In my family, at church, and around other Asian girls at school I felt as if my body was the most accessible measure of comparison. It was an easy anchor for name-calling and light bullying. Retrospectively, I don't think it was because I was even that overweight, it was just that classmates could tell this was the thing that I felt most insecure about.
In Hong Kong, impossibly thin girls with dewy, flawless skin are plastered everywhere: on billboards, along MTR station walls, propped up in newsstands, hawking the latest watches, skincare innovations, omega 3 fish oil pills. There's a section in Mannings (the Hong Kong version of Pharmaprix) devoted to weight loss tea, a method that was disproven so long ago it feels anachronistic just to even mention it. People, out of nowhere, refer to girls passing by as "Pretty girl" and it's not a catcall. There's a real obsession with thinness and beauty here, and it seems to me that it's because Asian girls have always just been expected to be naturally small-boned and delicate. On one hand, I have loved seeing media campaigns and ads that are not crowded with white people; on the other, it presents a more immediate crushing distance between myself and these touched up bodies. I recognize these features, their perfect hair is the same texture as mine, but I will never look like that. If this is beauty, I am not it.
Adversely, the reaction to fat, is something I can't quite grasp. The word fat, for example, is considered pretty insensitive in the West, and has been for as long as I can remember, but here it's thrown around so much that nobody reacts to it. "Fat" can be an endearing thing: There was an iconic actress and comedian affectionately known as "Fatty" (肥肥). Characters in TVB shows and Cantonese movies are literally named "Fat" when they are overweight—and nobody is just overweight in media here, they are comically overweight. They don't get episode-long interior explorations, nobody asks them how they feel. They're just fat: often the villains, or sidekicks whose fatness is a physical indicator that they are dumb, non-threatening and well-meaning.
Growing up among the thin, virtuous girls at my childhood Chinese church, I have often felt like the dumb, non-threatening and well-meaning sidekick, gracelessly barreling down the hallways. I talked too loudly, and too much. I was emotional and temperamental. I felt like the butt of a larger joke that was my life, and I overcompensated for it by talking more loudly, becoming more emotional. And then I hit a wall in my teenage years and just kind of.... receded. I started hanging with white people in high school, mostly boys, to whom I couldn't be compared. My Cantonese suffered. I wore a lot of black clothes, and stopped going to church. I did not talk much to my parents, out of anger, and because I was pretty sure I knew how they saw me: Always bigger than the rest of the girls, my size as an indicator of gracelessness and unintelligence.
I don't think about these things often, because doing so begins a pile-up of my perceived deepest insecurities, and one thing seems to link to another in a way that seems like self-pitying excuses: I was an overweight child PLUS a part of the culture I was born into puts extra pressure on overweight bodies EQUALS I cut myself off from my culture THEREFORE I do not speak Cantonese fluently despite having had every advantage to do so AND MAYBE AS A RESULT my parents are a little bit more disappointed in me. Oof.
It can't be that simple, but that's the connection my mind makes. Isn't it terrifying? My stomach dropped when I wrote that sentence.
Most of the time I know that I am always improving, as a person. I recognize my strengths. I have a strong support network, and I'm closer to my family than ever before. I am healthy, and getting healthier. I am able to see myself as pretty, I own my curves. But at my very worst, I am desperately obsessed with weight, repulsed by my reflection, and manage to attribute all of my personally perceived shortcomings as a person to a fatness that is only exaggerated in my mind. Which I realize is insane.
A few weeks ago, I was at a cocktail tasting and, in the middle of fairly innocuous small talk about her year in Taiwan, the PR sighed and said, "I ate so much and gained so much weight. I was hoping to lose it here, but I haven't been able to." Maybe she wanted me to say something, a non-thin body commiserating with another non-thin body. I shrugged and smiled and said something really throw-away, like "Oh no, you don't look it at all!" But what could I say? "I know exactly how you feel, body images issues are indeed crippling. I know the only satisfaction you can truly have is that fleeting sense of self-satisfaction but I honestly think you're beautiful, and do I have to finish this organic-gin-beetroot-and-chia-seed terrarium cocktail"? I wish I had said that. It was not a good drink.
When we had just landed in Hong Kong, we had dinner with some uncle and auntie and the first thing they said to me was, "You've lost weight!" I felt a sick sense of satisfaction and anger that this took precedence over "Welcome back," or "Wow, you moved your whole life here!". But I can't be mad at them. They were just saying the thing that people say. But wouldn't it be great if, instead of thoughtlessly making comments about other peoples' weight, people could be as direct about recognizing that individuals have nuanced relationships with their own bodies?
OK, fine, so that's never going to happen. In the meantime, I'll keep eating baos without regret. I will find solutions for my anxieties, even if it means occasionally crawling back inside of myself to whisper to Childhood Jessica and Teenage Jessica that Adult Jessica is getting better, and doing better. Above all, I will remember: #YOLIHKO.
An open message: If you're reading this, and if you have feelings to express but not necessarily in a comment section, or just want to talk to someone who is shameless about sharing feelings, please don't hesitate to email me at email@example.com.