by Larry Feign
How do I tell my mother? I just found out that I'm a meso-endomorph!
Sounds like a creature from one of the Aliens movies. Actually, that image isn't too far off. It's the name for my body type, according to some health and fitness websites.
What that means is I have a body like an ostrich: from the chest up and the hips down I'm the classic scrawny pencil-neck weakling, right out of the back pages of a 1960s comic book. But inbetween I look like I swallowed a watermelon whole, which then turned to jelly.
I wasn't always this way. Until a few years ago I had the build of a stick bug and the strength and energy of a spider monkey. People assumed I was a junkie. I was, in fact, an ectomorph, according to those fitness sites, someone who never gained or lost weight no matter what I ate. I suppose age caught up with me and my midsection swelled up like a balloon in the hands of a birthday party clown.
I dealt with it in the way most people would: switched from Mars bars to the healthier Snickers, started wearing belts to prevent trousers from exploding (and got irritated any time my wife suggested I buy new, wider pants), and engaged in strenuous sessions of wishful thinking that if I simply decreased my Dorito intake I'd shrink back to my old malnourished-looking physique.
Actually I should be proud of my shape. In Hong Kong, and Chinese society in general, fat is good. It's a sign of prosperity, which explains why most Hong Kong tycoons are the shape of Russian babushka dolls. The idealized family, as portrayed in local advertising, always includes a chubby son, never a thin one. Note that the idealized family does not include daughters.
So I was left feeling ambivalent about the expanding prosperity around my waist. My fate was sealed one day in a cheap generic motel outside of Boston. While my wife and I packed for our return flight to Hong Kong, we switched on the TV. We discovered that American cable television consists of around 350 channels of programming so banal that you can feel your brain cells committing suicide. My thumb got tired after half an hour of triggering the remote as if it was an automatic rifle. Actually, had it been a rifle I would have happily continued firing until the television set was reduced to a pile of glass and plastic splinters. Instead I flung the remote onto the bed and left the TV tuned to whatever the selection happened to be.
After a while we both realized we were being subjected to an infomercial which hadn't paused for 45 minutes. Men and women with average-looking faces and impossibly fit bodies showed "before" pictures of themselves as shapeless lumps, while a voice-over promised you'd lose 100 pounds in ten minutes. They were selling a video exercise program.
"Call now and start losing inches today!"
"We should get that," my wife said. Like any women would, she was agonizing over the approximately one teaspoon of fat she'd added to her slim, petite figure after two weeks of eating in American homes and restaurants. So the "we" she referred to was about 5 percent herself and 95 percent my prosperous torso.
Companies which produce infomercials don't spend tens of millions of dollars for nothing. This one worked its hypnotic charms. Even after hearing/watching it for over an hour, neither of us made any move to turn it off.
"Call within the next fifteen minutes for a free gift."
"Call the number," my wife instructed.
I learned long ago to expect the worst when trying to place an overseas order with an American company. I wasn't disappointed this time. Though 6.5 billion people live outside America's borders, this company didn't seem to realize it.
The sales representative started by taking my address.
"Zip code?" she asked.
"Sorry, we don't have zip codes in Hong Kong."
"Oh. Uh...we'll try it without that." A pause, then: "Hmm. I'm afraid the system requires a zip code."
"What about 00000?"
She tried. "Nope. Didn't work. You'll just have to come up with a number."
I thought about which postal code most Hong Kong people would want to live in, if Hong Kong had postal codes.
"Try 88888," I said.
"Sounds like somewhere in Utah," she said. "Tsk. Not a valid zip code. Can't help you." After ten phone calls, 15 exasperated e-mails and three or four live online chat sessions with someone in Bombay who couldn't type a grammatical English sentence, the package finally arrived on our doorstep in Hong Kong.
The "free gift" turned out to be an extra workout session which was already included on the DVD. I wondered if they had a special edition of the DVD without that extra session, just to punish people who phoned on the 16th minute.
My wife tried the program with me for about a week. Her teaspoon of fat disappeared as advertised. But my gut required further work.
Losing flab takes more than ab crunches and deep squats. It's a simple formula: burn more calories than you consume. Easy in principle. Dozens of websites enable you to set up a diary of every bite you take, automatically adding up your daily intake of calories, carbohydrates, fats and protein. But only if you eat like an American. Want to know how many calories were in your Taco Bell spicy chicken enchilada platter? One click and there's your answer: 1050, more than the average Sudanese family consumes in a week. But this method falls flat if you live and eat in Asia.
Look up Chinese food on any calorie tracker site. You can find out that Trader Joe's brand Chicken Chow Mein is a lean 240 calories, and that a typical fortune cookie has between 25 and 30 calories. You can find values for such faux-Chinese delicacies as Egg Foo Young (220 calories) and crispy chow mein noodles (237). But what happens if you just had a vegetarian dim sum meal of cheung fun, taro cakes, lotus root slices and a platter of fried gluten and tofu skin? Where is congealed pork blood and chicken feet on the calorie table? Someone must have this information somewhere, but it isn't on
Maybe all these fitness videos and calorie tracking are just more western obsessions that don't quite fit into an Asian context. My own Chinese father-in-law, who never ate a hamburger or pizza in his life, always did his daily Qi Gong and drank ginseng wine, never had an ounce of fat on him (he wasn't rich, obviously) and was fit as a fiddle and strong as an ox until he passed away at age 107. He's probably up there laughing at his silly gwailo son-in-law puffing and sweating in front of a TV trying to calculate the calorie-carb ratio in his whole wheat bagel and hydrolyzed whey protein shake.
Well, if you're a life-long ectomorph like him, go ahead and laugh. Meanwhile I have to work off some of this prosperity.

This article appeared in CULTURE Magazine, June 2009 | ©2009 Larry Feign