Old men in Lamphun, 2013

In the US, if you call someone fat, it is considered insulting, even if it is true. It’s more polite to say “heavy” or “big”. But in Thailand, the word “fat” does not have the same weight because it’s the height that means the most.

In fact, if you call someone “short” in Thailand, get ready for some fake tears and light drama. Recently, my students were playing a game where pantomime is allowed to help a particular student say the word on the whiteboard. P stood up in an effort to get the student to say, “stand”, but instead M shouted, “short!” The class erupted in Oooohhhs and guffaws. P admonished M much to the hilarity of the students, and me.

As far as Southeast Asians go, Thais are not the shortest (it appears Indonesians are), but on average men are about 5’5 and women are about 5’2. And even though I grew up in Hawaii, which according to the Wiki is the only state with an Asian plurality, I never felt tall until I came to Thailand.

At 16, I was astonished with I realized I could see over people’s heads. We were in Bangkok, too!

I’m not tall, I’m only 5’3 on bad days and 5’4 on good, but here I’m considered tall for a female Asian. When I tell folks how tall I am they are surprised and they inevitably say, “I thought you were taller.” Or when students use adjectives to describe me, they say, “tall” and I used to look at them like, “What?” But now, I just make my smug-face.

Thai women (much like Japanese women) crouch/slouch in front of people to show politeness or make themselves look small in certain situations like when they are sorry. Ironically, they also wear stilettos, platform, or wedge shoes to make them look taller. We want our Asian women to be demure and sweet, but we also want them to be Amazonian supermodels.

The advantages of being short, Sukothai,
 The advantages of being short, Sukhothai, 2013

Height is considered attractive. Height looks good (unless you’re a kid, anything outside of average is weird). Height seems important. I know everyone notices Thais’ obsession with white skin, but I think they are also crazy about being tall. Thailand has been urging Thais to drink more milk despite lactose intolerance. I think the campaign is working because many of my students claim to love milk. On the other hand, I find it disgusting. Although, I do wonder if I had drank more of it if I would have been taller.

When I was around 10-12 years old, I held the promise of being tall. I was all legs and my mom seemed proud to have a tallish, well-behaved and nice-looking daughter. Her Thai friends would remark on my “maturity” (lack of talking) and height, but that’s only because Thais are generally short and I got a little bit of my father’s Chinese genes. (Of course, these days Thais are much taller.)

I’m not sure how tall my mother is, but I don’t think she’s quite 5 feet and my father was 5’10. So, at an early age, I started to anticipate being taller. Coupled with pouring over fashion magazines, I wished to be a model, but I never got taller.

In high school, my tall friend Rachel told me that it was hard for her to find jeans that fit, so I should consider myself lucky. Then later, I realized that I would be shorter than most men and this seemed advantageous in the romance field, and helped me to accept that I was not going to grow anymore. I also enjoy asking for help from taller men. I’ll take any excuse to flatter someone.

When I compare my height to my shorter students, they are good-natured about it. I stand tall next to them, pointedly, and they laugh and act exasperated. And I now accept that being called short is a put-down and that I have to explain that words like “fat” and “stupid” are considered too strong in English.

In the end though, I think I’m lucky to be 5’3-5’4. It seems to be the right height of blending in and standing out.

Standing tall with my mom, great aunt, aunt and cousin, Bangkok, 2009
 Standing tall with my mom, great aunt, aunt and cousin, Bangkok, 2009

Thank you Mabel for the inspiration!


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36 replies on “🇹🇭 Don’t call Thais short.

  1. We always want what we can’t have it seems – being tall and pale seems to be the classist ideal in Thailand despite that they seem so proud of being the only Indochina country not having been colonized by a Western power.

    I always found it strange that they would embrace so Western/Imperialistic idealization of beauty.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. Of course, the Western white beauty standard is very much entrenched in popular culture.What I can’t stand is how “generic” Thais are starting to look in their attempt to not look like themselves. Weird.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 🙂 It is strange that so many people strive to look different only to look the same as everyone else in the end…such a paradox.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I always have been rather average with my height, however especially during my sporty swimming days I havebeen called ‘shorty’ with my 6’1…
    In China however I am usually one of the tallest when I go around the city but the younger generations get taller and taller it seems as most kinds are often a head taller than their parents (I am a head shorter than my dad:p)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. What’s the average height for swimmers!? Yes, in China I would imagine it would be a good mix for tall and short depending on where you were at. You’re shorter than than you dad! Sounds like a tall family 🙂


      1. Yeah, I am the very short one, brother and father a head taller :p
        At least I am over a head taller than my Chinese father-in-law! (even my wife is taller than her dad 😀 )

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved this post, Lani. I really did. I laughed at the story of your studies – it really seems being short is still isn’t a desired trait in Asia. I remember when I was visiting Indonesia, I felt “tall”. A lot of Indonesian women were half a head shorter than me. However, since I’m small-boned, I blended in very nicely with the small-sized Indonesians 😀

    It’s interesting to hear how we have euphemisms to describe certain things. As you said, we call “fat” people “heavy”. Once I said proudly to one of my mum’s friend how happy I was being short, and she said, “No, you’re not short. Just petite. Petite.” She emphasised the word petite. It’s almost as if some Asians are embarrassed of being short.

    You’re the tallest one in the photo, Lani! You look very happy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course, petite! I remember seeing that petite clothing in women’s clothing stores and thinking that was not for me. I didn’t consider myself tall but I didn’t think I was petite. The word denotes size and I never considered myself tiny.

      When I did try on petite clothing it really was hit or miss. It seems to be for shorter people. The funny thing is when I’m in the States I shop in the children’s section. The tops for girls are cuter and cheaper. I’m all about the bargain 😛

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks!


      1. Petite clothing. That reminds me. Earlier this year, the Target here in Australia launched a women’s Petite clothing range. Like you, I thought, that’s not for me. I browsed through the clothes in this range and they seemed to have weird cuts aimed at older women.

        Oh dear, Lani. If I come to the States where would I shop then? 😀 The baby department doesn’t sound right at all!


      2. Hahahha. Forget the States for clothing, everybody is getting super fat. Just joking,not really, I don’t know, I haven’t been there in ages! Don’t worry, we’ll find you something!!!


  4. I cannot help myself, demented thoughts arise from no where, sorry, but……

    Did you know that you may start shrinking after the age of 30! Crazy. I am now 63 and have shrunk by almost an inch. Pants that once fit drag on the ground. Arrrrrrr!

    So enjoy your height while you can, LOL.


  5. That’s so interesting! And how ironic that you’re “tall” over there 🙂 I kind of loved living in China and Korea since even at 5 feet I wasn’t the shortest woman in the room. One of my middle school students was the “tall girl” at 5’5″. And EVERYONE listed their dream man qualifications as handsome and > 180 centimeters.


    1. Now I know how tall you are. I was waiting to hear that you were some giant glamazon or something. And as far as men go, yes, we all want someone who is tall, and then they turn out to be a-holes and then you realize you want a man that treats you well.


  6. How do you come up with all of these great thought provoking posts? I can relate to this on several levels. I have one leg shorter than the other by 3/4 of an inch which is 5′ 3/8″ on my left leg. But when I stand on my right leg I actually feel taller! It counts a lot when you are much shorter than everyone else. When my 6 foot tall son was a teenager I thought I would be a smart mouth and said to him, “What would you do without me?” Without blinking an eye he said, “Put everything on the top shelf!” I nearly died with laughter!

    I remember the song Short People and felt the humiliation of being the target of others jokes directed at me. In the US I could never see around anyone or over anyone and was always lost in the crowd. It was hard to embrace my height. But true to my nature I love to laugh and several times thought to tie a balloon to my shirt so my family could keep an eye on me.

    The only time I didn’t like being short was when I was fat. I just looked like a giant millipede. Now that we are in Thailand I do seem to be taller than some and it surprises me. I am loosing weight and will be….in my words (Thai Size) in a couple more months. I am currently a US size 10 and here I wear an XL! I have had women clothing vendors see me and say, “Free Size” OMG! I don’t wear a tent!

    I used to work with a woman who is in her 50’s from Taiwan. Her job is financial management for the university. She is 4′ 6″ and I had to chuckle every time she would stand toe to toe with a man over 6 foot, tip her head back, raise her arm and wag her finger at him while saying loudly, “You have no money!” They would always react with immediate respect and walk away like a dog with it’s tail between his legs.

    As I get older I am finding it easy to embrace my humanness!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It truly is interesting what you learn about other people when you post these kinds of things. For being “vertically challenged”, you seem brimming with confidence. And please, pass on the tent 😛

      Now I can’t help but look back at all the times my brother and I stood tall next to my mother and made fun of her height. The good thing is, she was probably just damn proud that her kids were taller. I love what your son said, by the way.

      As always, thanks, Lin 🙂 xxoo


  7. I’m like a freakish giant here. Small children stop and point in the street yelling ‘Godzilla’ and then rolling on the floor laughing.

    It’s got to the point where I’ve had to stop wearing my green onesie with tail and lizard mask. When will the racism stop!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was a 13 and 14 year old boy in Thailand, very blonde, really white and blue eyed, and at that age growing past 5’9″. This was about 1970 and not a lot of tourists were there. I remember an American lady telling me over and over again “NEVER, ever, touch a Thai person on their head!!”. I thought, OK, why would I anyway?

    This admonition didn’t seem reciprocal as Thai kids would follow me everywhere and delighted in tousling, stroking, and pulling the hair on my head and arms. It freaked me out at first, but later I got used to it, enjoyed the kids, and now have good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You must have been a sight to see 🙂 And I’m sure they would have loved to touch that blond hair. I’m curious why you were here then, assuming family vacation? Or did family work here?


      1. My Dad was a professor at the University of Michigan. He worked a lot at U of Hawaii in the East-West Center which is an organization that exchanges curricula and training for higher education in East Asia. We spent the greater part of a year in SE Asia because of his work. Lot’s of time in Hawaii too!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I am 5’10 and can often stick out in a crowd in Thailand. Here in Phuket there are many foreigners that are taller than me though. So many expats/tourists here that I can blend in sometimes. 🙂
    And yes, because I am tall it has always been difficult to find pants long enough and often dated men shorter than me when I was younger and not married (obviously). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had no idea you were so tall. I definitely don’t see that in pictures. How interesting. But since you live in an area that sees many foreigners, there must be a kind of comfort in blending in.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, you do look “tall” in your wonderful family group photo, Lani. I had no idea about the average height of Thai women @ 5’2″. I’m 5’1″, the shortest in the family. But then sisters..tallest was 5’4″ and she’s no longer alive.

    My brother is 5’10”.

    Parents have shrunken to my height but they were around 5’3″ or so.

    I never got any vibes from parents that tallness was something to aspire for. I think they were more concerned about our general weight/fitness. Yes, myself and siblings did drink milk regularily. Yes, I do think that has an influence and nothing wrong…: stronger bones! No, we are not lactose intolerant.

    I do think diet has an influence on North American-raised Asians..but it’s all mixed up now with eating fattier, heavier foods for the past decade and now chubbier children in some families that was unheard of 35 years ago when I grew up in Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mom was also very much concerned with weight when my brother and I were growing up. In fact, years after I had left home, one of her common questions were, “Are you fat?” And each time I had to say, “No, mom. I’m not getting fat. You don’t have to worry about me.” She’s finally stopped asking 😛


  11. Great post Lani!
    I can’t relate to being short, I’ve always – ALWAYS – been one of the tallest or THE tallest gal in the room at 5’10, and when I’m in heels…forget about it.
    Being this tall in Korea isn’t so bad, many Koreans are a lot taller than we would assume, but in Vietnam – oh my – I felt like the jolly green giant clomping around. It seems like the Thai people are closer to the Vietnamese in height by the sounds of it.
    I always find it interesting how personal height is to everyone. Whether we think we’re too tall, too short, could be taller, could be shorter…it’s a common feeling everywhere in the world to question one’s own height I think.
    You look like a perfect height – you stand tall and if I was just looking at the picture I would have guessed you to be taller than 5’4 – just sayin’ – it’s all about how a person presents themselves! 😀
    Loved this ~ Andrea ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Andrea. And yes, I agree. Height and weight, the way we look, we’re so obsessed with “perfectness” and yet, there is no such thing.

      And now I know you are a giant! Hahaha. I mean, perfectly tall! xxoo


  12. I didn’t realize that the short thing was offensive. Hmm. I’m 5’8 by the way, so now way someone could offend me there. 😉 Also, is your dad from northern China? That height seems to be a little above average for many Chinese males, right? At least in middle or southern China where I was. When I visited northern cities I was shocked at the “normal” height.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, he’s from Beijing and especially for the time period (he was born in 1947), I do think he was above average. His mother is 5’6 and I don’t know about his dad, but I believe he was tall, too.


  13. I like this post.

    I am under 5”2 and my husband is 6”0 (he is from Taiwan). Many of his family members are tall. There are cousins who are taller than him. No, his ancestry is not from Northern China.

    Liked by 1 person

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