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.
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.
Thank you Mabel for the inspiration!