Summer of Gluttony
Excerpt from On the Move
December 2007 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
I spent the summer of 1995 back in China with my extended family while my parents prepared to move us from New York to Los Angeles. I had visited China with my mother two years earlier, but this was the first trip there by myself. I was eleven years old then. When my plane landed in Hong Kong, my uncle picked me up and drove me to a nearby Planet Hollywood (a gaudy chain restaurant founded by American movie stars) where we ate burgers and fries. He wanted to give me an American-style welcome. When he saw that I was gawking at a display case containing a denim jacket decorated with the Planet Hollywood logo, he instantly bought it for me without saying a word. He also let me use his cell phone to call my parents in New York to tell them that I had arrived safely—wow, an international call on a cell phone in 1995! Let the spoiling begin.
That summer was the peak of my uncle's career in China as a real estate developer and import/export entrepreneur. He made loads of money and never hesitated to spend it on me. He was my mother's younger brother, and she had taken good care of him back when they were kids, especially during tough times in his pre-teen years while my grandparents were in labor camps during the Cultural Revolution. He remembered my mother's compassion, so he wanted to give me the best possible treatment to repay her. Family loyalty is a strong Chinese value.
My uncle and I took an hour-long boat ride from Hong Kong to my hometown of Zhongshan, where the rest of my mother's family greeted me with open arms. They set me up to live in a guest bedroom in my grandparents' house. I was still the only boy of my generation, and they treated me like royalty; they had far more money now, so they gave me even more preferential treatment than when I had grown up there as the Little Emperor a decade earlier.
Excessive food was the most prominent manifestation of my pampering. Every morning, my grandmother would go down the street to the market to buy fresh meat, fish, and vegetables for the day's cooking and make me porridge for breakfast. Almost every single day, some relatives would take me out to eat dim sum at different upscale restaurants throughout the city. They knew the managers and waiters by name since my uncle and grandfather were prominent figures in the city of Zhongshan, my uncle known as a wildly successful businessman and my grandfather as the chief architect who oversaw much of the development of this modern city. My grandmother would spend all afternoon in the kitchen preparing dinner, and we all ate together as an extended family when everyone came home from work. Usually, almost a dozen people gathered around the table—cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Sometimes my aunts or uncles would take me out to eat a midnight snack and cruise around town on their motorcycles.
Everybody marveled at how pudgy I grew during those three months. Look at that cute fat boy. Fat boy! Among the older generation in China, it was a compliment to call kids fat because fat was synonymous with health and wealth—the exact opposite of the perception in modern Western society. Back when my parents were growing up, almost nobody in China could grow fat since the majority of people received barely enough food to survive: rice, vegetables, and occasionally some meat. Accustomed to images of emaciated, malnourished children, the older generation thought that kids who were pudgy were healthier than kids who looked too skinny. The only people who could grow fat were members of the privileged class in society—high-ranking Communist government officials and their families. Thus, being fat was also a symbol of high social standing.
As China opened up its economy to the global market, American fast food chains such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken invaded Chinese cities. Parents loved taking their kids out to these fast food joints because they felt like they were experiencing a slice of Americana—an unhealthy cholesterol-laden slice. My relatives sometimes mailed us family photos taken at fast food restaurants because those were viewed as cool and trendy places to hang out. The increased availability of high-fat, low-cost foods combined with the old-school view of pudgy equals healthy led to the explosive growth of child obesity in China during the 1990's.
The one-child policy exacerbated this epidemic: Because parents placed all of their resources into keeping their single child happy, they were more reluctant to refuse requests to eat junk food all day. Neither parents nor kids received proper nutrition education about calories, fat, cholesterol, or the long-term dangers of obesity. Since millions of Chinese parents had grown up without much food on the table, it was absurd for them to ever deny their kids the privilege to indulge just because some arrogant Western doctors were saying that it was unhealthy.
I was such a gluttonous pig. I could not stop myself from eating everything in my sight. All of my relatives encouraged me to eat as much as possible, and I could not resist. I had absolutely no self control. I did not exercise one single bit. It was so hot and humid in Zhongshan during the summertime that it was painful to even take a walk outside of the house. My relatives relished in how fat I was growing, and they just laughed and kept feeding me more and more. They loved to parade me around town as the fat boy from America. Whenever I went shopping with my aunt, she would tell the merchants, "Look, that's my fat nephew from America. Look at how healthy he is, that American boy!" I gained over 20 pounds that summer.
I became so spoiled that I even began to think at the time that I might actually be spoiled. Whenever I saw a toy that I wanted, my uncle would buy it for me without asking any questions. When I returned to America, I ended up filling three huge suitcases full of expensive model cars, name-brand clothes, video games, and other toys that my uncle had bought for me throughout the summer. My relatives often took my two female cousins and me to amusement parks, arcades, and hotel/resorts to go swimming or to play tennis. We dined at the finest restaurants with first-class treatment. My uncle loved to take me around to do cool manly things like driving go-carts, building gas-powered remote controlled cars, and riding around the countryside in a Porsche sports car, speeding over 120 miles per hour. At that time, he owned several luxury cars including a Mercedes S500 sedan, a Ferrari, and three Porsches. My mother's family had cell phones, expensive cars, recognition at local restaurants, hotels, and shops, and all other material luxuries that money could buy. I was the corpulent prince of that empire built upon my uncle's newly-acquired wealth.
But, wait a minute—this was China, a place I had described earlier as where everyone grew up in relative poverty. Even if a family like my mother's had prestige in their local community, they still could not accumulate significant monetary wealth to buy excess material goods. Then how was all of what I have just described even possible? Well, this was definitely not the same China where, only a decade before, nobody made any money beyond what was necessary for bare survival. Starting in the late 1970's, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China underwent a nationwide economic reform, opening up its economy to global interests. By the mid-1990's, it was possible for a fortunate and savvy few to make huge sums of money as entrepreneurs.
I didn't know how long our family's wealth could last before the Communist government launched another campaign against the nouveau riche: people like my uncle and other like-minded entrepreneurs who were getting too wealthy too fast. But I wasn't thinking about the future at the time. I had everything that I could possibly imagine in terms of material goods and personal entertainment. I had never experienced such extravagant material wealth before that summer, and I doubt that I ever will again. Unfortunately, my uncle's luck in business ran out a few years after my visit, and my mother's family can no longer afford to live like they did back at the peak of his career in the mid-1990's.