Adam Bray: Being fat makes me famous

Adam Bray: Being fat makes me famous

How a big fat American copes with life in Asia

Adam Bray, journalist in VietnamFor any curious traveler, the hope that you’ll arrive at your destination, instantly blend in and be left to explore your new home is a strong one.

That hope was instantly dashed for me when I first came to Asia eight years ago, a 1.8-meter, overweight, Caucasian American.

The last time I weighed myself the dial only stopped moving once it hit the maximum 100-kilo mark.

In contrast, the inhabitants of my new home, Vietnam, are slender and shorter due to a combination of diet and genetics. Individuals here rarely, if ever, attain sizes comparable to my own.

I can never hope to blend in. I might as well be Gulliver in Lilliput.

Fat and famous

Much like Swift's fictional hero, my remarkable size bestows instant celebrity status wherever I venture.

Being such a curiosity encourages my tiny counterparts to flock beneath me with abandon, firing queries like a volley of arrows.

The first question uttered is invariably “How much do you weigh?” That comes right before “What’s your salary?”, “Where are you from?” and “Can I recommend my cousin [for you to marry and take back to America]?” 

Many Vietnamese are blessed with a direct, uninhibited conduit from their minds to their lips, facilitating unrestrained communication of both the deeply profound and profoundly trivial.

Assuming foreigners can’t speak or understand Vietnamese further enhances the expression of their keen observations.

On routine walks through the village market I often hear endearing exclamations such as:

“Holy [expletives], he’s fat!”

“[First profanity], two hundred kilos, [second profanity]!”

“[Speaking-ill-of-one’s-mother], what does he eat to get so fat?”

“How the [four-letter-word-equivalent] does he procreate?”

Question of girth

Sitting next to a group of ladies in a café can be quite entertaining when they assume I’m ignorant of their mother tongue. Conversations inevitably turn to pondering sexual encounters and how I might approach such activities, given my extraordinary girth.

The people of these countries appear to lack a respect for personal space. Perhaps when you are so small, you just don’t need very much.

While it’s common for foreigners to have their arm hair pulled (which Asians usually lack) or be otherwise prodded and manhandled, people of larger sizes tend to find even more hands on their bodies, and in alarming places.

Walking into a crowded rural area, especially at festive times, can be a bit like First Lieutenant John Dunbar (played by Kevin Costner) entering the Native American village for the first time in "Dances with Wolves".

Instead of head-butts however, I’m running a gauntlet of butt grabs, breast thumps and spare tire jiggles.

Pint-sized communists, in particular, sense an urgent call to action when they see a large person. They don’t know exactly what to do, but surely, they reason, all such situations must be addressed by a People’s Committee.

Feeling up fatty

Cars honk their horns, flash their lights, pull alongside and pedestrians swarm.

As I sit at a traffic light, straddling my motorbike, I suddenly feel a hand run up and down my thigh. The man next to me has actually gotten off his motorbike at an intersection to rub me down like Kobe beef.

“You are going to have a flat tire!” he preaches emphatically. “You are too fat!”

It’s an uncomfortable thing at first, to have a strange man down on his knees, caressing my plump calves as though contemplating them for a Sunday roast.

After two or three incidents each week, for years on end, I’ve begun to use this to my advantage.

“Can you tie my shoes while you’re down there?” I ask.

Going out to dinner is also a spectacle. Restaurant owners drag out a second or third plastic chair, unseating me in a grand ceremony, and stack them on top of each other to support my considerable heft.

Of course plastic kindergarten chairs (so common in Asia) aren’t meant to be stacked in heaps and sat upon like mattresses in “The Princess and the Pea.”

It’s hard not to take some wicked satisfactions then, after being publicly dethroned, when I sit down and hear them snap, crack and splinter.

Asia's getting fatter 

Much like Gulliver’s second adventure, one day I may find myself among giants, and the situation reversed.

In many Asian cultures, fat children are considered a sign of wealth and prosperity.  

With increasing standards of living, parents now have more money than ever to overfeed their little emperors.

Schools are now packed with herds of morbidly rotund progeny for the first time.

Some parting advice to Asian parents: there’s nothing beneficial about fattening your toddlers up like Christmas hams … unless you really do intend to eat them.


Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and has written (and in many cases provided photography) for publishers such as DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, ThingsAsian, Berlitz and Time Out. He is fluent in Vietnamese and speaks a smattering of other local languages, including Cham and Khmer.

View Adam's blog

Read more about Adam Bray