Being Big in a Country of Small

My family has always been big-boned. And you know what they say about children being at least 1.5 times of a better version of their parents – Trust me, that doesn’t just apply to smarts. In the case of my sister and I, we got the 1.5x heavier-taller-bigger-muscular combo from our parents – who were already considered pretty tall for Asian people.

As a result, it was year after year of bullying, taunting and ‘big’ jokes from not only cruel classmates or tactless friends but also some of our closest relatives – of whom their children came out tiny enough to make Jyoti Amge proud. (Did anyone else love her in American Horror Story?)

Seriously, if I hadn’t found writing, I would’ve probably needed therapy.

‘That’ Australia Trip

I remember there was a year where my family took a trip with our relatives to Australia to visit our (now estranged) oldest uncle and his Australian wife, who were at the time still childless, and more than welcomed the presence of their favourite nieces (two from my dad, two from my youngest uncle). Upon entering the villa that the family had booked, my uncle presented my Polly-Pocket-sized cousins with two Princess Dress-up Box sets – complete with the generic China-made plastic shoes, cheap tiara and frilly dress. Naturally, it came in only one size, suitable for children “ages 6-8”.

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Because you know, all Asian kids aged 6-8 came in pretty much the same size: Small.

Eagerly, my sister and I approached my uncle with shining faces and hands outstretched. A Princess set – as cheap and unauthentic as it may seem now – was a treasure box to a 7-year old, laden with the Disney fantasy of living out the dream as the characteristically beautiful Belle, or the swishy-tailed songstress Ariel.

(Psst: To clueless male readers who still have absolutely no idea who these people are, ask your wives/girlfriends. Don’t worry, we’ll only make you sit through the entire movie to better acquaint you. It’s not a sexist thing, it’s very normal in fact.)

My uncle looked at us, half-awkward-half-unsure. After a few agonizingly painful (and silent) moments, it slowly dawned on my 7-year old mind that my Uncle hadn’t actually gotten anything for us. I felt the embarrassment throbbing dully at the centre of my chest, as a fire started creeping up my neck and towards the roots of my hair. My parents, who were also witnessing this cruel presentation ceremony whilst perched on a nearby sofa, immediately stood and hugged my sister and me, ushering us away into another room.

I remember bursting into tears as I was brought away, my uncle and my dad hashing it out in the living room. I faintly remember hearing words like: “They’re too big, they won’t be able to fit anyway! Look at the size of their feet! They’re like Bigfoot! Oh come on, it’s just a joke! I couldn’t get anything for them anyway…” I’m sure there was more, but my mother closed the door.

We don’t speak anymore. This, along with a stream of other insensitive and selfish antics my asshole uncle managed to accomplish, was probable cause for the estrangement.


Being Big-Boned in School

Thinking back, I sometimes get heartbroken for my silly younger self, who placed so much importance on the affection of others to validate her own self-worth. But what was a kid to do? Words like self-confidence and assuredness escaped my uncomprehending brain, and for some reason, I failed to appreciate (or take the effort to digest) anything my mother said – be it advice or otherwise – under the impression that everything she said was “nagging”.

You’d understand if you grew up with an Asian mom – their nagging is just next level. It might even be considered an Olympic sport.

Of course, it’s perfectly normal to have a big kid NOW. What with the 21st century and its social media, motherhood forums, favourable portrayals of “big-boned Asians” on YouTube, etc. Back then, we didn’t’ have anybody telling us that heavier babies would excel in school, or have a single piece of medical propaganda spouting the “Big Babies are Better” bullshit, which would’ve probably influenced Asian parents of the 90’s just as the two-child policy effectively did.

Growing up, I would pray to God every single night, begging him to make me a smaller, more petite version of myself – Like my cousins, classmates, and most girls my age. It was always hard being placed at the back of class photos, with school and their skewed systems brutally unhelpful, exacerbating the bullying problem by indexing students according to their height and weight.

The ones deemed too heavy for their own good were placed in TAF (Trim-And-Fit) club, a barbaric weight-loss programme designed to keep childhood obesity in Singapore at bay. Despite weight being a rather private matter, teachers in school weren’t the brightest – or the most tactful.

Kids like myself – who were big-boned, chubby or just big-sized – were forced to set aside 15 minutes out of their 25-minute recess break for this programme, where teachers cruelly selected a field right in front of the canteen where the other students dined. That was to be our ‘exercise area’. Not only did this make me and rest of the TAF kids bullying target practice for the rest of the student body, but no kid at that age could’ve guessed – or be bothered to guess – the acronym for ‘TAF’. As a result, everyone just assumed that ‘TAF’ was a nice way to reverse ‘FAT’, and prided themselves on the knowledge that they had cracked the intricate ‘code’.

TAF kids were forced to do exercises like run laps around the scorching field, or navigate through a painful exercise ‘maze’. At the end of these sweaty sessions, we TAF kids barely had time for a proper meal before the recess bell rang, hence going hungry for most of the day and overeating for lunch. This shit has been proven, people. 

It has since been discontinued, I suspect from school’s complete lack empathy and disregard for the fatter kids. Holistic my ass, there was nothing holistic about it.


Doing it all over again

Contrary to my younger – and disillusioned self – I wouldn’t wish for another version of myself, let alone a smaller-sized one. Thank you, God, for not answering this particular prayer. Yes, it took a while but I eventually grew into my feet, and slowly grew to love the perks that came with being tall and big-boned. It’s still hard to find shoes in Singapore – or any Asian country for that matter – and online shopping’s never a 100% guarantee.

But the baby fat eventually melted away (hello collarbones!), I grew out of my Disney Princess phase (maybe), and discovered that standing out from a crowd was one of the things that I loved most about my big-bone-ness. Being able to command the immediate attention of a room (and men), coming across as naturally confident, having dresses fit better, long legs to compliment an array of shoes (especially my favourite: boots) and very importantly – Kissing is amazing, because no awkward neck-craning.

My mother was right, again. It may have seemed torturous growing up as “The Big Kid” – accompanied by that Unibrow and upper lip hair – but I love being me now.
I still can’t find shoes that fit, but I’m happy. It’s homeostasis.

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