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March 07, 2009

Is It True That In America, Poor People Are Fat?

When you live in a culture different from your own, you will encounter all kinds of new ideas, foods and ways of looking at the world.

You will also get questions about your home culture - not only questions you may have never expected - but many questions you wouldn't have even considered.

This one started out innocently enough....

...I guess.

It started out with the usual Asian half embarrassed apology - "Our teacher who went to America told us, but we don't believe her - is it true that in America, poor people are fat?"

As soon as I heard the question, I realized that, not only did I have to do some impromptu thinking out loud, but I had to figure out what they were really asking.

My first response was a totally uninspiring "Huh? Oh, yeah...I guess so".

One of the many bizarre aspects of being an American is that everyone around the world knows - or at least thinks they know - all about America. They have all heard American music and have seen endless American films, and they assume that America does what every other culture does. Every other culture expresses its strength and cultural power and authority through its arts.

America, for whatever reason, likes to express its fears and failings across movie screens. The average American lives a life far from what the world sees in America's movies.

In American movies, for example, fat people are rarely seen - except perhaps as a spectacle or comic relief type character.

The primary film stars are trim - if not skinny. There is almost a moral framework here - the "good' character will almost always be trim and well-groomed, the "bad" character will virtually always be sloppy - and probably overweight.

But on American city sidewalks, you will see very few people who look like Brad Pitt or Gwyneth Paltrow. You will see many people who are vastly overweight. And in the poorer neighborhoods, you will see even more overweight people.

Most of my college age students in China were amazingly thin -sometimes two of them would sit in one chair in my classrooms.

Most workers out in the Chinese community had ribs protruding - even through clothing. To put it mildly, human ribs are a rare sight on a typical American street.

As I gave my students a highly compressed version of my thoughts on this question, I realized two things at once - yes, in America poor people are fat - rich people are thin; poor people drive cars, wealthy people ride bicycles and somehow, in America (and a few other countries) the rules of life are turned upside down. America, in the eyes of the world, is a place where, yes, anything is possible - and anything, wonderful or horrible, can happen.

And a simple conversation might show us just how alien our home country really is.

Most English teachers, who drift through foreign schools and cities, with their backpacks and improvised teaching strategies fulfill these stereotyped fantasies. Most of us act like crazy foreigners - it is almost a cliche' to hear of Americans (or others) - far from home and responsibilities - to take advantage of the privileges of education, race or wealth.

What have you seen - or done - far from home - or in a host culture?

I want to hear from our readers. I have many more stories - but I look forward to hearing yours....

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf spent about six years working for a Native American Tribal College, a few years teaching various humanities, English, writing and ESL courses with the community college system in Washington State (including one year as part of a faculty exchange program with The Beijing Foreign Language University). While in China, Morf was briefly a radio host for CRI (China Radio International) and did recordings for the "English can be enjoyable" book and tape series. Morf currently teaches English and writing for a local technical/vocational college with many international students. Morf prefers international and independent films, foods he can't pronounce, music no one else likes and riding his bicycle in unlikely and ridiculous situations.

Posted by mmorf at March 7, 2009 01:40 PM

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I ran across your question while searching for a translation and thought that I might shed some light on it. I am in no way an expert though.

Your question not only has a socioeconomic answer, but a geographic one as well.
In America, if you live in an urban area, many times it is cheaper to buy convenience food (even at the grocery store) than it is fresh food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are more costly than those that are processed and pre-packaged. In most households, the adults hold full time jobs. To save money and preparation time, many people buy these pre-packaged foods. Farmer’s markets offer a wonderful alternative. The produce is less expensive than that you would find in the grocery store – fresh or pre-packaged. The problem with this is that in urban areas, farmer’s markets are few and far between. One is not going to drive twenty miles to buy fresh produce after working 8-12 hours. So when at the store, you have two options, more nutritious, or less expensive food. The lower income people in urban areas are going to pick the less expensive food that gives you less nutrients and usually contains more fat.

Rural areas are another issue. It is easier to eat well – even if you are poor – if you live in a rural area. That is if you have a little spare time and a small plot of land, or a generous relative who does.

In rural areas, it is much easier to find access to fresh fruits and vegetables in season. There are farmer’s markets, or you can grow your own. However, you still need protein. This is where history comes in. Many of the ancestors of rural populations lived in them as well and were involved in either agriculture or some industry (such as textiles in the South.) Historically, many families had a few chicken, pigs, and maybe a few cows. Many people eat the same types of foods that were eaten in their area 100 years ago. The problem with this is that most of us burn fewer calories a day than our ancestors did just by nature of modern professions. While we still eat fried eggs, sausage, fried chicken and roast, we don’t burn the calories in the same manner. We are much more sedentary.

So in rural areas, while the poor population has more access to healthy food, many don’t have the time, land, or inclination to grow their own. The farmer’s market issue is the same. If one isn’t near one, or doesn’t have relatives with gardens then they won’t have access to inexpensive healthy food. The grocery store problem is the same – nutritious foods cost more, so many people choose not to buy them.

In both cases, urban and rural, most of the problem has to do with access to healthy food, and time – both time to go to an extra place to get food, and the increased preparation time in cooking healthy meals. I won’t get into the apathy issue here, but it is also an impediment for some poor people for eating right.

I hope this helped in some way, and sorry if the answer was too lengthy.

Posted by: kyla at March 8, 2009 11:13 AM

I've contmplated this phenomenon for a long time. My theory is that there is a direct correlation between many of our country's poorer folks being overweight and the low cost of high carb, high calorie foods. Comfort foods are not necessarily all that expensive. From mashed potatoes and gravy to yummy sweet rolls, poor people are eating an unhealthy diet. I realize, however, that this theory does conflict with findings that tell us to shop more frugally on the perimeter of our grocers' aisles, not to mention, healthier. And I try to do that -- only going down an aisle if there is something in particular that I need. I think, too, that poorer populations tend to be less educated when it comes to nutrition. Poor eating habits among the poor is often a cycle not easily broken.

Posted by: Karen Taylor at March 30, 2009 12:37 AM

I'm teaching in South Korea and I'm a South African Black woman. I have had a very interesting question about South Africa and Africa as a whole from both young and old. At a conference one Korean-Americanteacher, asked me if I had ever gone hunting animals in the jungle and if in my family we have a lion or giraffe as pets. I was so amused, I couldnt stop laughing. She had heard from someone that in South Africa wild animals are roaming streets in the middle on Cape Town. The answer to these questions is obvious, No we do not have a pet lion, it is illegal to keep wild animals as pets, especially such big ones, to keep four dogs you need a special permit in an average surbub in South Africa. All the wild animals are either at the zoo or at National Parks. To the second question the answer is still no, I have never gone hunting, only men go hunting and they have to have a permit to kill those animals. South Africa is a well developed country and only some Parts of Africa still have wild animals roaming around, but in most cases wild animals are protected by extinction laws. Africa is potrayed as rural and an undeveloped country. The truth is most African countries are very civilized and we do not walk around half naked and wearing skins.

Posted by: Thubamajola at March 30, 2009 12:46 AM

I am an English teacher and I really enjoy reading your stories.

Posted by: mayada moh at April 2, 2009 01:46 PM

I have lived in Korea and China for the past sixteen years, and I have seen a lot of fat Asian people in those two countries. Therefore, fat people are everywhere, so why are the questions being asked. Most come from pseudo teachers giving a lot of wrong information. If backpackers don't have a teaching credential, they are not a teacher. They are simply speakers of English pretending to teach, and from what I have seen and heard they are making lots of mistakes. I assume that as long as Asian countries are hiring non-teachers to teach, there will be a lot of false statements made causing students to ask the next "teacher" they meet questions that border on misinformation.

Posted by: Bob Toomey at April 7, 2009 04:16 AM

I think that advertising is a big factor here. It's much cooler to drink Coke than drink water and tea. It's more fashionable to eat at macdonald's. Most people are slaves to advertisments and the vast majority of advetisements are for junk food. Everyone I know says the never make choices based on adversiting but companies spend billions a year - it must be working, espeically when their sports heros are the one's advertising. Most people are slaves to it and the less education you have the more we are vunerable to it. Bad choices are COOL and cheap. It's difficult to combat this duo.

In response to the teacher from South Africa. I have worked in China for 5 years and get the same kinds of questions about many cultures. A common question for me, as an American, is how many guns do I own. I've only touched one real gun in my life. It is not common, but movies and news give the impression Americans are gun hungry. They also think that American women will hope into to bed with almost anyone. Again, movies, where sex is easy. But, when I was moving to Inner Mongolia, many Americans asked me if I would be riding horses to work. I think we get our ideas from movies - there are few movies about modern China or that take place in modern African cities. People believe what they see - ah, the power of the media.

Posted by: craig at April 8, 2009 08:19 PM

Hi, I am a former ESL student. Reading comments like this really reminded me when I first came to America. For a limited exposure to the American culture, I had assumed many typical stereotypes as well. America is a very upside-down countries as you have point out and I never really realize that much later. These are some of my new stereotype that I generated after coming to a conclusion. Because of the mass media of the “American Dream” I find that most poor try to live like the rich, in order to protect their self-esteem? And the rich live the poor because of a common believe of nature provided the best. I think today's movie sometime act like those in the Great Depression. It is an escape for the people to image what they could be. Skinny and with super power! But to put it in a more personal view, I am a size of a typical Asian girl before coming to America, skinny to the rib kind. But once I am here, everyone around me is so "fat", so slowly and surely I gain weight, and once I went back to my home country, my parents are shock! Stories like these goes around all the time and therefore, Americans are fat! Please ignore my grammar.

Posted by: Angel at May 14, 2009 05:27 PM

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