Thursday, August 19, 2010

Becoming Pang

I was back in China during the month of June, after nearly a year of being away. I noticed a lot more pudgy young women on the streets this time. Maybe it was just more noticeable, as it was very, very hot, and a lot of girls were sporting the new fashion of very, very short shorts.

Or maybe they were actually just getting fatter. This wouldn’t be surprising, as the young Chinese are packing into the western fast food eateries. Yum! brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silvers) operate more than 3000 restaurants in mainland China. I admit to succumbing to a McDonald’s near our apartment in Shanghai, when I couldn’t live without ice cream for another day.

There is another interesting phenomenon around becoming pang (pronounced "pahng"), which means fat in Mandarin. There is no value judgment attached to pang. One young woman might say to another “You’re looking fat today, ” just as easily – and inoffensively -- as a new acquaintance might ask “What is your salary?” or “How much rent do you pay?” Newcomers to China are always startled by questions like these, but they soon come to expect them.

Most of the fat girls didn’t carry themselves as though they felt conspicuous being fat. And there was still very little chatter I overheard about complaining about being fat. The models in ads were never fat, however, and I saw no “natural” shapes in models, as is becoming more common in the US.

As for nutrition campaigns, Chinese television runs some interesting public education programs about parenting, including guidelines on basic nutrition. The host would be suggesting healthy snacks to feed the kids. Sitting in a row of glass booths behind him, fielding incoming phone calls (presumably from parents) were young nurses, dressed in their starched uniforms. This is surely more in response to the surprising number of increasingly fat – ok obese – young boys, the only-child “little emperors” in the family.

Watch this space..

(image from 1000 general managers of Yum! restaurants on the Great Wall)


  1. There is another word means Pang 胖, Futai 富态. It is a bit old fashioned and not used much any more I think. It is used as a complimentary in the past. As being Pang means you are wealthy enough to feed yourself well.

    And Fei 肥 is negative sounding, which makes it the closest to Fat in English I think. Although in Cantonese, Fei seems to be used as part of an endearing term sometimes, such as 肥姐沈殿霞.

    Many Chinese thinks that children should be pang. This drives me crazy sometimes. As many will advice me on what food I should give my daughter to make her pang. I wanted to say "I'm happy with the way she is, thank you very much", but always end up smile politely and say nothing.

  2. One of the hardest things about studying a foreign language is getting the "sense", like Xuezhou has described, that a word "sounds old-fashioned" or has a negative sense or an endearing sense, or some other sense. There's no substitute for time spent with the language to develop these instincts.

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