There comes a point in every serious relationship when your partner’s family enters the picture…and let’s just say that every family (mine included) has its fair share of quirks. I was recently—and repeatedly—reminded of this fact by my fiancé’s mom, who has a bizarre fixation with other people’s bodies that can occasionally take the form of unsolicited and unflattering observations. OK, I’ll cut to the chase: My future mother-in-law has called me fat more than once…and it sucks. (For the record, I’m a petite woman—but that’s beside the point, since her comments would still be completely inappropriate no matter my weight.)
Sean, my partner, is a wonderful person who never calls me fat. He’s also a Chinese American whose parents immigrated from Burma to the United States roughly 30 years ago, and our relationship has introduced me to many new customs and traditions. Some of these cultural differences have been exciting to embrace, like learning how to cook a delicious ohn no khao swè, for example, a rich and comforting chicken coconut noodle soup. Others have been less fun, however, like how it’s seemingly more socially acceptable to comment on someone’s appearance. Of course, his mom’s habit of bringing up my weight isn’t solely a function of cultural differences, but I am pretty sure that it’s a factor. (Sean agrees, remarking how his aunts are always calling him skinny and pushing food on him, only to tell him that he’s going to get fat once he’s done eating. “That’s just how it is in Asian families,” he says.)
At any rate, it certainly didn’t feel like a new and interesting cultural experience when a friendly video call with my kids in the room became an inquiry into how much I like food and how much I’ve been eating, simply because my loose-fitting nightgown and the angle of the camera suggested I’d gained a few since she first met me six months prior: “Emma, you’ve been eating a lot, haven’t you? When you came to Chicago you were so skinny. Now you got big, right?” Call me closed-minded, if you wish, but that was just awkward and downright hurtful.
It was the same deal this September when, about six months after said video call, I made my second trip to Chicago to spend time with his family. At one point, she abruptly interrupted our heartfelt conversation about her family history by pointedly asking me why my stomach looked so big. I reminded her that I was recovering from a very unfortunate tango with Salmonella at the time (true story) and nervously joked that I was, in fact, just full of gas. She persisted: “So that’s just gas, right? Or water? Is it fat? I saw you in that T-shirt the other day…” and, turning to Sean, “She’s not pregnant, right?” Oh, and this all happened while we were leaving flowers on the graves of Sean’s relatives at the cemetery where they were buried. Needless to say, I was stunned.