Jumbo the giant panda

So it’s about 8:45 in the morning and for once I’ve woken up early enough to remember to pack all the various articles I’ll need for the day’s errands. Today that includes several white (or formerly white) dress shirts, wrinkled, crumpled and ready to be taken to the dry cleaners, conveniently located in the basement of my workplace.


One of the many foods contributing to my “jumbo-ness”

Upon arriving to work, I roll downstairs, shirts in hand, and walk up to the counter. There are two women working the register – one an older lady I’ve talked to before, and the younger one with a “trainee” sticker on her nametag. My pandar senses start tingling even before I’ve finished setting foot in the door, and I already know something is about to go down.

Walking up to the counter, I plop my four shirts down and politely go through the standard dry cleaning spiel: “French cuff, three white, one striped, can I have them folded, not hung, and by Wednesday if possible”.


One guess as to where all my dress shirts are from…

The young girl nods and dutifully starts punching in my order into the machine. The old woman, however, takes my shirts and starts laying them out, all the while watching me intently. Something about her gaze let’s me know that she’s the one the drama is going to pop off from. I almost burn a hole staring at the young girl’s name tag, steadfastly refusing to meet the old woman’s gaze, kind of a Zen-like “if there’s an old woman in a dry cleaners and you refuse to look at her, will she still make a sound?”

Sadly, much like the tree falling in the woods, it turns out that regardless of my lack of participation, the old woman is very much determined to make a sound. And by “make a sound” I mean “say something stupid”. And with a phlegmy throat-clearing to my right, she opens her mouth and then, as they say, it was on.

“sugoku ookii dane! ookii, ookii!!” (“super big, huh?! Huge, huge!”) she says, taking one of my shirts and holding them up for all to see.

I turn to regard her with a baneful look, hoping that the marked lack of approval in my eyes might be enough to shame her into silence. I must be losing some of my ferocious panda edge, however, since she doesn’t even pause for breath before continuing.

Ookii, ookii!!”” (“big, huge!!”) she repeats, dropping my shirt to the counter to make big scooping, scooping motions by her sides with her hands, which I suppose is intended to represent fat jiggling or something.

“uhh….” I try to figure out what to say. It’s like watching a train wreck, only it’s an 80 year old Japanese woman doing the Oompa-loompa dance while calling me a fattie in the middle of a dry cleaning shop. You can, I trust, understand why my usual razor-sharp wit had to take a brief step back to contemplate an appropriate response to the situation.

The old woman, however, mistakes my internal attempt to find a Japanese phrase that accurately encapsulates the subtle nuances of “can it granny before I jump over this counter and open a can of whoopass” as indicative of a total lack of comprehension and decides to rack her brain for what little English she can remember.

“..eeeto.. jumbo, jumbo! Fat fat!!


Yeah. Thanks granny, I got it back at ookii. And even if I didn’t, your disturbingly accurate imitation of the Staypuft Marshmallow man dancing a jig in a dry cleaning store also drove home the point with the subtlety of a sledgehammer so…


Here’s another hint: I actually have this entire outfit.

Anyway, this proves to be the deciding blow and with ms. geriatric riverdance faux-jiggling up a storm over a pile of my dirty laundry whilst calling me “fattie” to my face, my brain concedes defeat with an exhausted collapse and I just glumly nod in response, pay the young girl my 360 yen bill as the old woman looks on with a look of smug self-satisfaction (at what, I don’t know, but perhaps at what she perceives to be her successful attempt to interact with foreigners?), and leave, head hung in shame.

I wish I could say that being called “jumbo” (among other things) by old Japanese women in random places is an isolated incident, but sadly it’s not. Spend any amount of time here and you quickly get the sense that Japanese feel an almost pathological need to comment on people’s physical appearance in ways that would be considered ridiculously inappropriate at best or outright insulting or antagonistic at worst back in the West. But you get used to it after a while, and just start chalking it up to a cultural difference and learn to ignore it after the first couple of years. Plus after all, if your nickname is “Panda” and you choose to live in a country where 38 year old adult men have waist sizes that are approximately on par with those of 14 year old girls from back home (this no lie!) you have to kind of expect this to be part of the experience.

I’ve long since stopped being bothered by the actual questions or comments themselves. What gets me now is the profound sense of mystery surrounding just what kind of reply – exactly – are they looking for? What possible sort of response could you be hoping to elicit when you come out and say “wow, look how fat you are” to someone’s face?

And while it’s not the most inappropriate comment I’ve ever been subjected to in Japan (that dubious honor going to the intrepid junior high school boy who caught me off guard once with “hey panda-sensei, how big is your cock?” in perfect English (my snarky-yet-simultaneously-pathetic (insofar as I’m comparing penis size with a 12 year old) reply: “bigger than yours will ever be”, greeted with tremendous “oohs” and what I can only assume is the Japanese middle school equivalent of “snap!!!” and “awwww shit!” from his boys – penis measuring humor is universal it appears)) – nonetheless it seems to me that one doesn’t make a comment like “look at how huge you are” without having some sort of specific desired response in mind.

And for the record, while I am certainly bigger than the average Japanese person, it’s not like I’m morbidly obese…! After all, I am still vaguely human shaped (panda shaped?) – if I was a huge round ball who moved from place to place by rolling around on my belly and had trouble fitting through doors, then yeah man, I could understand the need to vocalize a comment here and there. But the fact is, though there aren’t tons (haha, punny) of Japanese people bigger than me, I’m willing to be dollars to donuts (which may be the problem right there) that if you stood on any city street here, you would spy at least one or two Japanese with a good 20 or 30 kgs on me in no time at all. And by western standards, I’m damn near the middle of the the bell curve when it comes to weight, thank you very much.


Who’s a Banana Republic whore!? … sigh…

Anyway, so my point is, what on earth is going on in these people’s minds when they say this? What response could possibly be deemed appropriate? If I’m like “yes, yes I am huge”, then where do we go from there? Do we stand there and nod and smile awkwardly over my pile of dirty laundry? Would they go on to ask further questions about my hugeness? (them: “So how does it feel to be so huge?” me: “pretty much the same as you, only I’m more confident walking outside in a typhoon”) Would they then try and spin it into a blanket racial or nationalistic stereotype? (them: “Makes sense though, since all Americans are fat” me: “Yeah, actually that’s true…” [cue previous awkward standing around in silence over a pile of my dirty clothes])

In some ways, while Americans seem to go obsessively out of their way to avoid pointing out differences between people and refrain from acknowledging physical characteristics that could potentially be divisive – sometimes to the point of politically correct ridiculousness (“African-american” vs. “black”, “vertically-challenged” vs. “short”, etc.), Japanese go 180 degrees the other way, reveling – as previously noted – in commenting on differences (both cultural and physical) between people in a surprisingly blunt and direct manner.

Why this is, I don’t know – perhaps with the greater variety of people all struggling to get along in America we feel the need to pay homage to that fallacious ideal of diversity where differences between people are supposed to be ignored – fearing perhaps, that acknowledging them might lead to offense, offense to division, division to strife, strife to social instability? The disruptment of our much vaunted melting pot or salad bowl or whatever cute metaphor we’re using these days.

On the other hand, Japan, with its 99% homogenous population and emphasis on conformity is a different story altogether. To be sure, part of the pointing out of “differences” is that old “us vs. them” “Japanese vs. gaijin” apple and when the difference is as marked as a 6 foot tall white person in a sea of short black hair brown eyed Asian folks then it’s hard not to see things that way. Of course, there’s sometimes a darker element to it as well, as superficial observations of physical differences are repurposed in the service of furthering xenophobic or nationalistic ideals – nihonjinron and all the other assorted racial evil that the Japanese were – and still are – guilty of perpetrating on an everyday basis.


Onsenkuma-chan is in peach belgian waffle heaven…

But as tempting as it might be to head down that road of chalking up the obsessive Japanese need to comment on differences between people to out and out racism and close mindedness, that isn’t the whole truth. There’s also another decidedly more innocent – by which I mean devoid of racist intent – aspect to it, and this we can see when observing how Japanese point out differences even amongst themselves. Sit back and watch them and you can see how womens’ age or physical appearance is often one of the first topics of conversation (usually capped off with an amusing admonishment to get married quickly if they’re still single), or the self-congratulatory fawning of groups women pawing over each others bags or clothing or whatever (some would argue this behavior is universal but who knows).

But thinking about it even more, I realize that my knowledge in this area is pretty limited – try as I might, I can’t recall ever seeing any situation where a Japanese man’s appearance was commented on, where chubby Japanese people had their appearance commented on by other Japanese directly (though heaven knows society’s not exactly friendly to them), or where anyone has ever raised an eyebrow at some of the more outrageous fashion you see people prancing down the street with on a daily basis. In fact, the more I think on it, the more I realize the degree of silence with which Japanese greet behavior that falls outside the narrowly defined “norm”.


Unlike humans, kumachans don’t mind if they become jumbo!!!

This silence should not be taken to mean acceptance – in its own way the lack of words hits harder than a sledgehammer of disapproval in the nuanced fabric of this society – but the point is, I wonder if the Japanese only feel the need – or perhaps the “freedom”? – to comment openly on physical appearance with foreigners. Perhaps thinking it’s okay because we’re “foreign” or perhaps because our appearance is already so strikingly different than Japanese that there “couldn’t be any more harm in noting other differences” or perhaps in their awkward bumbling ways (reinforced by a more than unhealthy dose of TV-approved racism and state-sponsored programming) thinking that pointing out differences between foreigners and Japanese is a legitimate form of “international communication”, a perverse sense of curiosity or what, I don’t know.

Lest you suspect I’m hyperbolizing, keep in mind that this type of behavior is not limited merely to comments – it’s not unusual for Japanese men to assume all western women are sluts (and to act on this!) because they have blonde hair or long legs, for little children or even grown women to paw at foreigners’ curly hair or grope their breasts fawning all the time in the sickly intonations of the tired old “kawaaiiiiii” (“cuuuutteee”) mantra, for little kids to grab your cock co-workers to wonder openly about how “big” you are because you’re black or white or whatever all the while trying to maneuver for a better angle, for your girlfriend’s mother to sit across the table and analyse your prospects with her daughter based solely on your “round eyes” and how cute – by which they mean “cute” in the same manner as those stupid tiny chihuahuas vapid socialistas like Paris Hilton carry around as “accessories” – your resulting offspring will be as opposed to acknowledging you as a person – the list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong – if this was the middle of the countryside China where not only had they never seen a white person in their lives, they probably never even left their tiny village, I could understand. But here? In Japan? The (arguably) most advanced nation in the world and the second richest, with TVs and internet and a populace that has a repuatation for traveling all over the globe on a daily basis? It’s stupefying. But that’s the way it is when you’re different and everyone seems compelled to remind you of it on a daily basis.


Mmmm… jumbo Wisconsin cheese…

But in the end, my little rambling ponderings are neither here nor there – whatever the complex intersection of reasons underlying this bizarre Japanese need to comment openly on people’s physical appearance – it doesn’t matter. I don’t take offense at it anymore, I’m just at a total loss as to what response they’re hoping to elicit in return. I suppose there’s no way to know short of asking someone directly what they want me to say the next time they comment on my size or whatever.

And that my friends, should make for an interesting story on the blog. Stay tuned.

Now listening to: Oceanlab – Satellite


My love is like first steps in this snow, baby,
I follow you everywhere you go, baby.
The pain as light has come to wake you
But you will never realize
That I inspire the dreams that guide you baby.

I follow the winds that bring the cold, baby,
I light a fire in your soul, baby.
The lightest touch of feathers falling
My love might be invisible
But I inspire the dreams that guide you, baby

You’re a half a world away
But in my mind I whisper every single word you say.
And before you sleep at night

You pray to me, your lucky star, your singing satellite.

7 Reactions

  1. andrew

    I have not had many comments about my weight..though I am not too much over weight. Though some of my co-workers have taken to calling me Kuma-kun (tons of body hair) after a company trip to an onsen.
    An ex-girlfriend did oberserve one day, “You can not really say that you are white, because you are many different colors all over your body.
    Since my face is a little more tan than my arms or legs and other areas paler still.
    Gotta love it.

  2. bellish

    Dear God. Jumbo? I can’t imagine what that woman was trying to achieve – perhaps she is just senile. Perhaps you should ask her to elaborate next time: “Do you mean that as an insult or a compliment? Or do you simply pass the time in your boring job making extremely inane comments?” Alternatively you could point at her and start saying “short! short! bent over double from osteoporosis!” and see how she likes it. (Is that too mean? I’m not sure)
    The comments and touching that foreigners get in Japan reminds me a little of the situation of celebrities who, in putting themselves out there, find they have to surrender some privacy and answer questions about their lives to people they don’t know. Not to say that gaijin are like celebrities (although of course sometimes they are) but to put oneself in that position – where you stand out a radically different specimen to everyone around you, both culturally and in most cases physically – is taken by most as an invitation to comment on that. Obviously Japanese people don’t have the same concept as us of privacy and what is a rude question, as is regularly observed to great consternation and hilarity. However, just as asking what a westerner has for breakfast is basically an enquiry about their whole country’s habits, perhaps they see playing with a foreigner’s curly hair as something different to an investigation of the specific individual. They don’t expect the victim to take it personally. Perhaps… or perhaps they just think they can get away with it. Who knows.

  3. ashan

    Oh no, how awful. I know what you mean. For some reason, old asian ladies can be terribly upfront and insensitive (I speak from some experience -_-;). The problem is that it’s like them gossipping — in the sense that they probably don’t intend any insult or malice, so you can’t really hold a grudge against them for being deliberately mean. Either way, it must sting. :( Don’t take it to heart! You’re really not “jumbo”.
    I’m not sure what reaction they expect (though I suspect they don’t really expect any), but I normally respond in one of two ways. One, I laugh it off with an, “Oh really?”, or Two, I express worry/justification in the same gossipy tone. Either way, you should never imply that they are wrong — or there will really be gossip.
    ps: the food looks delicious. – hungry a.

  4. Lupinthewhite

    Well, I totally empathise with your take on the ‘lateral’ movement. How eloquently put. With regard to your shortly-to-arrive wheels-of-steel, I sincerely hope that the days of bike vandalism are forever gone (like the past days of mansion-dwelling!). Good to see you’re doing well,
    a kindred spirit but you’d never know it…

  5. kitty

    no ones believes me that people are always touching my boobs, calling me cute and telling me im fat.