Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow faces a cornucopia of food choices when dining with her Chinese counterparts. Her problem, its all so good.

The Art of Dining and Other Weighty Matters

Lesson Five in Snow's Job in China

October 23, 2007
by Nancy Snow

Nancy Snow, associate professor of communications, is a visiting senior scholar and professor in Beijing, China, through November. She is teaching a graduate course in public diplomacy at Tsinghua University’s School of Journalism and Communication, as well as working on joint research projects with Chinese faculty. While overseas, she will be sharing her experiences.

Lesson Five: When in China, eat smaller portions.

I've been in Beijing, China all of six weeks and I feel fat. By American government standards, like the Body Mass Index, I could stand to lose 10 to 20 pounds to pass muster.

Here I'm not so lucky. My Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) doctor said 40 pounds and I would feel better. I told him that I feel fine now. I work out at least four to five times a week with lots of cardio and even a little 4-on-4 basketball with the Chinese fellows on the Tsinghua University campus.

Feel better? Well, world peace and ending the war in Iraq might do the trick. But who can trust his judgment? I was lying down next to my Chinese translator at the time and he told her to lose 5 kilos (11 pounds). Ah hah, I said. He can't be trusted. To look at her, she could stand to gain 11 pounds.

Living in China makes this American obsessed with weight. If you are a guy from the West, it probably doesn't matter as much how big you are because your height and girth are valued. In certain parts of Beijing, like the nightlife Chaoyang District, it's common to see older Western men of all shapes and sizes with petite Chinese girls.

But me — I get stuck in embarrassing situations where I have to resist those tiny little outfits that one must wear when getting a massage. I was with two Chinese gals, both typically petite with not an ounce of body fat, and we decided to get a foot massage. I figured I'm safe from having to change into Chinese lounging pajamas because just the lower extremity was involved.

No such luck. A massage employee directed my attention to a rack of outfits from which I could choose. I pointed to the outfits and then to myself and said "incompatible," asking my friends to translate. The employee insisted. I resisted.

She won. I put on the largest outfit available and showed how tight and restrained it was on my body. Satisfied that I had at least tried to do it her way, she said I could wear my street clothes. I was able to keep the outfit as part of my massage package.

I am beginning to worry that the more global trade China has with the West, the more likely they will become like this Big American Girl. (Since everyone here has an English nickname, I told one student to call me "B.A.G." as a joke.) There are Western fast food restaurants galore in the big cities, including KFC, Domino's Pizza, Pizza Hut, and of course, McDonald's. While mineral water and hot tea still reign as the preferred beverage, soda products are quite common too, especially Coke and Diet Coke.

As China develops, will its waist size develop with it?

My friends and family wished me Godspeed on my travel with a parting shot that maybe I'll lose some weight while in China. I guess they were thinking about that little warning we all received as kids to eat everything on our plate. Well, guess what? I do eat everything on my plate. It just happens to be in China.

The Chinese food is delicious and I can't stop eating it. It's like Lay's chips. Not the best analogy, I know.

Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow selecting her meal.

The Chinese way is to eat communally and socially. Dishes are often served on a revolving platform and one turns the wheel to get to your favorite dish. When I've been treated to dinner, my Chinese hosts have chosen half a dozen dishes for taste testing. They are eager for me to try everything. When I find something I like, which is quite often, I tend to eat much larger portions than my hosts. I like to use my having been raised with four older brothers as the reason for my good appetite.

Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow enjoying a traditional Chinese dish.

Don't my Chinese hosts know that I'll have a lot of explaining to do when I return to the United States heavier than when I left?!

I know there's a lot of attention being paid to Made in China. I've given several talks to government officials about the Made in China products label and the worries the Chinese have about preserving their place branding and reputation. One official asked me if I were concerned about what I was eating in China based on U.S. news media coverage of food safety issues. My response was if only I were more concerned I might lose that U.S. Government Standard Weight!

One Chinese professor made my day, however. He told me that throughout history, wealth was associated with being heavier. A wealthy landowner might have meat once a week while a peasant might have it a few times a year. That long-ago association still lingers. He wished me continued wealth ... and happiness.

Nancy Snow’s e-mail is


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