America Revisited

This past weekend I helped my sister Grace move into her new apartment in Atlanta. Atlanta seems like a cool city, and the area she’s living in really impressed me as being so green. Trees and grass galore. The really bad part about life in Atlanta seems to be the horrible traffic.


I hear from different people about “reverse culture shock,” a phenomenon experienced after one acclimates to a foreign culture and then returns to one’s home country. Since I’m not home to stay, but only visiting, I don’t think reverse culture shock applies in this case. But after spending almost four years in China, there are certainly aspects to life in the US of A that stand out.

There are two big ones that slam me in the face as soon as I arrive at the airport, and they can be summed up in a word each. Diversity and Obesity.

America: strength in diversity. When I taught a college-level American Society and Culture class in Hangzhou, I used to emphasize the role of diversity in American culture. It really is pervasive. It explains much of our mindset and behavior, and I think it’s something that’s hard to understand if you live in a mostly homogeneous society such as China’s. China’s “56 ethnic groups” really pale in comparison to a society built by people from all over the world.

And yet when I return to the United States and see all the different skin colors and body types, when I hear four different languages spoken within a span of five minutes and it’s nothing unusual, it doesn’t cause me to reflect upon the various achievements of such a diverse population. It just makes me feel warm and cozy inside. Because America is like that — it’s diverse — and diversity is good.

America: land of the obese. This is a topic that’s been discussed to death, but I find it so fascinating to revisit it again and again because it’s so complex. It’s about our advertising industry, our food culture, our image as a nation, our societal subcoscious. Every time I come back to the United States, I’m confronted physically by the same old question: Why the hell are Americans so damn FAT?? There’s no simple answer.

Today in the car on the way back from Atlanta, I was listening to some comedy on tape. The comedian was talking about diet programs, and one in particular that he’d like to market. It was called the “Stop Eating, You Fat Bastard” program. I have to admit, that’s largely the way I feel about the issue after having lived in China for so long.

Besides those two staples, I’ve had some other minor observations. All the greenery in Atlanta was one of them. It was so refreshing.

I am also very unused to strangers greeting me. You know, the random guy you pass on the sidewalk that looks you in the eye, and for no reason at all just gives you a “how’s it going.” In America, strangers say hi to you for no reason at all. Crazy.

And then I was eating in a deli-style restaurant with Grace on Saturday. I was almost done with my drink when I stopped to ask her, “are there free refills?”

Looking at me like I was a bit simple, she responded with, “why wouldn’t there be?” Ah, America, Land of the Free Refill, I have missed thee…

After that meal I got chastised by Grace for leaving my tray on the table. Oops.

In a week I’ll be back in a country where restaurant staff are bewildered by customers who clear their own tables.

But I don’t quite miss it… yet.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. “In America, strangers say hi to you for no reason at all. Crazy.”

  2. Is this compared to China where strangers scream hello to you for no reason at all?

  3. Dan, HELLO, HELLO!!! I take it you were sarcastic, right?

  4. umm… I did mean John

    whoops. just goes to show how much the hellos have been getting to me lately, haha

  5. Hmmm, actually I wasn’t thinking of the HELLO’s in
    China at all when I wrote that. I’m not sure whether that’s because I can forget an awful lot in only one week of being back home, or if it’s because life in Shanghai gets me a lot fewer hello’s….

    The hello’s I was talking about were genuinely friendly, not taunting.

  6. John,

    Do you think I’m fat? –from a secret admirererererer

  7. hehe, Why fat? free refills certainly contributes:)

  8. Props to your sister Grace. The ATL rules in a good way. Home of Aqua Teen, Sealab 2021, Harvey Birdman, all of Ghost Planet Studios, Ludacris, Mystikal, the Cheetah Club (best Caesar salad in the south) and Little Five POints. Not to mention a kick ass ghetto bowling alley that serves Henny and Remy, a great hockey arena and Peachtree Tower hotel (with a spinny bar on top.) My sis (wo jiejie) is moving back there as well. The Paris of the south it is. I’m glad you are having fun, and dropping props to Hot-lanta. It’s more than just a delta hub and a Coke bottlng facility.

    Miss you Lanky J,

  9. When I returned from Asia several weeks ago, I arrived in NYC where I stayed for a few days. I was at an Embassy Suites Hotel, where the signature offering is a free breakfast. The next morning I had my first bout of reverse culture shock. Hundreds and hundreds of people assembled for their breakfast, like pigs at the trough. I sat there with my NY times, a cuip of coffee and two slices of toast and watched in disbelief, as it was so, so different from what you would ever see in China. One obese person after another filed by clutching their plates, upon which they hoisted piles of hashed browns, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, French toast, cheap danish pastries, packets of butter, ham, omlettes and other sundry staples of the American breakfast. I saw very few truly fat people in China — and none like the ones I saw that morning. I wondered, did they have any idea what they looked like, grabbing at all that food just because it was free, filling their plates to the point of overflowing. How can there be so many fat people in one place, I asked myself? Why did they all congregate here?

    I know this runs the risk of being perceived as some sort of prejudice or snobbery, but it isn’t. I simply had forgotten just how fat so much of the American public is, and this was a most brutal reminder. Welcome home.

  10. Richard,

    Thanks for that little anecdote. I, too, have had moments just like what you described. I don’t want to offend anyone either; it’s just an honest emotional reaction.

    Sometimes (and not only when home in the States), I feel like the Americans around me are doing a cariacature of Americans. Sadly, they’re just being Americans.

  11. John, I have been reading your blog for about a year but have only commented twice in that time. My daughter is Chinese and I was only there for 2 weeks but am facinated by China and like to read about your perspective. I live in Atlanta and must admit you pretty much nailed it. It’s almost obscene to watch people at restaurants here because your always served too much. On the weekends if you don’t get to a restaurant by 6:00pm you’ll wait at least an hour. It’s not uncommon to wait 2 and 3 hours at nice places just to be seated. After topping out at 220 lbs, I’m down to 185lbs at 6’1″. The funniest thing is to hear out of shape, overweight guys at bars point out the girls they feel are, or are not up to their standards, and somehow you never see these guys with girls. I guess we should be thankful that we have such excess but we certainly abuse it. Atlanta is a beautiful state, we have mountains, plains, swamps, ocean, red necks, Yankees and a whole lotta ass. I’d like to write more but I gotta head to the Waffle House for a Moon Pie and RC cola, dinners comin up in an hour and I wanna make sure I get plenty to eat.

    See y’all later

  12. Infidel Says: June 2, 2004 at 10:34 am

    I’ll agree with you on the diversity issue, but on obesity I have to disagree.

    I was impressed immediately upon arriving in the States (and my South Korean wife noticed it before me) how Americans don’t stare at strangers, like South Koreans do. I knew this, and told my wife, but Americans were less curious than I suspected.

    But, I was surprised to find an American population little different from the Busan population I came from. I saw the same number of people clutching cellphones, and many of them were bulimic stick figures. There were some bloated figures, but the mix was no different than in Busan. Perhaps this speaks to the extent to which South Korea has westernized (or globalized and urbanized) more than anything else. Perhaps China is not at that point.

  13. I applaud your ability to read Chinese. You not mentioning an overload of written English proves you do very well with written Chinese.

  14. To me it seems that there is a regional component to the “Fat American” syndrome. The Midwest and the South must have the highest blubber per square inch density on the planet. The East and West coasts don’t seem to be quite as heavy. That comes from 100% anecdotal evidence and my personal observation. At 6’3″ 190 lbs, I am biased: tall skinny people should just take over this country and put everyone on a diet.


  15. Americans seems to be conditioned early that “It’s not polite to stare!” That sticks with you.

    Food is relatively cheap in America, especially compared to personnel. Good help is hard to find & expensive to keep. It’s easier to pile a plate with food & ‘impress’ people with the great deal that they’re getting for their money — & hope that they might not notice poor service. Then there are the “all you can eat” buffets that have minimum personnel with maximum food. You see a lot of “big eaters” there — in both senses of the word: they usually overflow their seats. And, of course, everybody’s out to get their ‘money’s worth’ — and more.

    Too bad that restaurants don’t reduce the price of their food AND cut down on the serving sizes. They could advertize it as their “low carb” menu. Remember the “low fat” craze? Now everything is “low carb (carbohydrates)”.

    I agree, tho, that the best diet would be the SEYFB diet mentioned by the comedian. Maybe it’s not really that funny.

  16. Da Xiangchang Says: June 3, 2004 at 4:14 am

    I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve never seen more heifers per square mile than in America. Even in England, Europe’s fattest country, people are generally slim. It’s easy to explain why so many Americans are fat–it has to do with the eating habits and the car.

    Americans eat too many fatty foods, and don’t restrict their caloric intake at meal times. For a lot of Americans, the day goes like this:

    Mid-morning Snack
    Mid-afternoon Snack
    Watching-evening-TV Snack

    Compare this with the fact that Americans generally NEVER WALK, and voila, you get the world’s fattest people!!!

    The American economy and culture are definitely helped by its diversity. California, America’s most diverse state, has an economy the size of France’s–with half the people. LA County alone has a higher GDP than all of Russia, a country with over 10 times LA’s population. So it’s all good. And I seriously doubt American pop culture would dominate the world so much without black- and Hispanic-American contributions. Still, diversity often adds social problems–high crime, race tensions, etc.–that you won’t have in a homogeneous country like Japan. It’s unbelievable how much crime America has–it’s a national shame, much more than the fatness of its citizens.

    But, despite this, I think the cliche basically holds–diversity is a lot more good than bad. In America’s case, at least, though probably not in 90% of other countries!

  17. Infidel Says: June 3, 2004 at 11:50 am

    A recent WHO report cautioned that over a billion people in the world are overweight, and 300 million are obese. Also, Asia’s population contains 25% of the world’s diabetes patients, and is expected to skyrocket. Numerous individual governments in the region have also released figures based on local definitions of obesity which are even more alarming. by one group’s conclusions, Pacific Islanders are the fattest people in the world

    Its easy to condemn America for its health problems, but the rest of the world is developing also. As Asia matures and grows economically, urbanization could conceivably hurt Asian people more than westerners. Asian governments have a chance to release information, improve healthcare delivery, and promote better diet and exercise habits.

    Many of my South Korean students have said that Asian people are incapable of becoming fat, because of special diets. But over a third of South Koreans are overweight, according to South Korea’s own Health Industry Development Institute. Anyone can see fat kids and elderly people anyday on the streets. I also see fast food stores, both western and Korean, jammed with customers every day, and I don’t even eat hamburgers, ready-to-serve noodles, or Korean street food.

    Some Americans have argued that there is a genetic and racial component to obesity. Although the generalization is little better than the Asian one that Asians are all slim, these scientists argue, that Caucasians have larger builds, and hence look bigger. The South Koreans I see might be smaller than Americans on average, but clearly, there are fatter South Koreans and thinner ones. Most of my students’, and perhaps Da Xiangchang’s Asian slim pride, might be the effect of the inability to distinquish build and weight.

    As a corrective, I offer the body mass index(BMI): divide bodyweight by height squared. If over 27, a person risks some obesity-related disease.

    People in the Asian region need to get beyond the simple-minded slur, “you’re fat!” (and the reverse is true for westerners, too). Any population which is globalizing, will need to adjust to a sedentary lifestyle from an agricultural one, where labor changes from menial to intellectual. The WHO recommended a low-fat, low-salt, low-sugar diet and 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day. No one on this planet can claim perfection in these regard.

  18. I am glad that Infidel put the BMI equation in. Plug youself in and also plug in some others you think fit and not fit. Non-metric people be aware that you have to do the equation with meters and kilos.

    I am writing this because I think the equation is basically bull shit because according to the equation many olympic athletes are overweight and on the contrary, many fat muscle-less folks not.

    Throw the numbers out the sunroof. Forget about the package. Get to the juice instead.

  19. I have been reading you blog for sometimes (it makes me miss Shanghai), and have never ever commented until now. I was born in Shanghai, but was raised in Canada for most of my childhood, and now attend school in New Orleans.

    Growing up in the Northwest, most people are not obese by any means, but every year when I go back to Shanghai for a visit, I immediately feel a need to diet. However, over the years, I have notice that people in Shanghai are not as skinny as they once were, especially kids. With the rise of Fast food, it has become a western craze to eat unhealthy. For example, in a recent movie, a man ate at Macdonalds for 1 month and gained 25 pounds.

    Moving to the south last year for school, I immeidately notice that I was considered very “skinny”. I think the biggest difference I noticed is one of life style. For example, all my asian friends would agree, we were raised to not order drinks at restaurant. In fact many times, my parents scold me for wasting money. I use to resent them for it, however, now I realized how many calories I do save. A coke, or juice contains over 200 calories. I have a friend who drinks 3 cokes a day, that really add up. Second, like someone else mentioned, as a young kid, I enjoyed exercise, walking, and being active. But in a country of cars it is really hard to do so. For example, I enjoy walking 20 mins to school, while a lot of my classmates would drive.

    To change a society from being less obese, or to make a country more obese is really a matter of life style, I hope that China will start teaching the young kids that Macdonald should not be considered a healthy meal choice.

  20. When Chinese people come to US, they become fat too. I am one of them. 🙂

    My roommate just got back from Hongkong recently, she stayed there for a whole month and half, eating good food everyday, and lost 5 pounds. Now she come back for three weeks, she control what she eats carefully, still she gained it all back.

    All the breakfast choices here are bagel, hashed browns, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, pancakes, French toast. I really miss those delicious chinese breakfast. The variety and the taste and the low calories:)

  21. greg pasden Says: June 6, 2004 at 3:17 am

    You are right on target with the obesity of America. That is why I try to stay as fit as possible so that when I travel overseas, I can give a positive impression (that goes with being fit vs the negative conotation that goes with being obese).

  22. It seems then the general fatness seen in American even from those with Asian genes comes from mostly lifestyle and diet. I would say genetics has some to do with it, but probably not as much as is stereotyped:

    FAT =
    0.700 * (fries + cokes + shakes) +
    0.275 * (time spent on ass) +
    0.025 * (% WASP/European genes)

    Europeans, though I’ve never been there, probably have a lower incidence of overweightness than we do here. I say that because a lot of Europeans I’ve met have mentioned how fat people are in America compared to their home country.

  23. er.. delete “though I’ve never been there” 😉

  24. wow..that’s kind of funny..what’s funnier is that people sometimes think everyone in california is on a diet or they’re vegan or something alone those odd lines…I’ve lived here for like 5 years now (the military I tell ya) and you go places like disney land expecting to see mickey mouse but instead you get large things in tie dye. Horrifying…I have to write paper on the obesity of america compared to the rest of the world… well I’ve learned one thing.. Americans are really fat.I agree with the downsizing of meals (I watched most of supersized…I think that’s what is was called…)when I go to places like taco bell I’ll get a burrito supreme but I can’t eat all of it at once just watching people scarf down these obscene amounts of food just make me wish I wasn’t american…I’ve read that 65% of americans are overweight…wow I must be one of the lucky few who are underweight. (horray for the skinny americans haha) For me it’s easier to lose weight than to gain it because I can burn it all off in a matter of minutes…I just wish the rest of america could do the same…but hey if america wasn’t fat anymore what would the other countries make fun of us for? haha
    well I really have to write this paper it’s due tomorrow (yay for procrastinaters!) sorry for my nonsense and ramblings
    ciao loveys

  25. […] long enough. There are always different things that I notice, though. I’m well beyond “wow, Americans are fat” observations. This past trip, my most poignant “American” experience was on a […]

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