Vietnam is no country for fat men.
I’ve written about this before, but I’m genuinely shocked at how difficult it is to be fat in this country. My job is a proper grown-up one. I train people to be teachers. On Thursday morning, I was walking into class, with my laptop and my papers in my hand. I sit at the back of the room, evaluating lessons while the trainee teachers teach the students (a group of Vietnamese adults). I was on my way to my seat at 8:50 am when one of the students, a 50-something year old engineer, grabbed me around my middle and jiggled my belly, in fits of laughter. He and the other students at his table were all breaking up with laughter. The trainee teachers who saw this gaped in horror. I nearly dropped my laptop and I also nearly started crying. It only lasted 30 seconds, and I managed to laugh it off. Fake jolly smile plastered on my face, I proceeded to my desk, shuffled papers and started fiddling with my computer. Then I had to assess people teaching, people who had just seen me shamed and mocked by the people I was meant to assess them teaching. I spent the next two hours mentally writing my letter of resignation.
Later that day, after I had calmed down, I was walking to the bank when I saw a group of three women in their 20s. One of them saw me first and she poked her two friends and pointed at me, giggling. I am so used to this now that I’m ready to write it off, and say that it’s just because I’m a white man, and not my weight. But then, the woman in the middle, the one who had originally noticed me, just as I was passing, pointed at me and said (in the most sarcastic voice I have ever heard) “So beautiful!” and she and her two friends fell around laughing.
This is like schoolyard bullying. Except the really obvious version from TV shows. Today is the third day in a row that someone passing me on the street has either reached out and poked or squeezed or jiggled my belly. And the pointing and laughing is getting intolerable. Today, when a young woman came up behind me, poked me in the belly and then moved on, I felt like pushing her back, pushing her into the traffic passing us on the street. Obviously, I would never do anything like that, but I can understand how the victims of bullying end up lashing out.
Any body confidence I gained this summer is gone. Vietnam has confirmed all my suspicions: that I look disgusting and am a laughing stock. And it has made me avoid going outside even more than usual. (This isn’t a new thing for me. I think most fat people spend at least some time avoiding being seen by other people.) There are only so many times you can say “Haters gonna hate” to yourself.
I haven’t seen any particularly overweight adults here, no one approaching my size. But plenty of the kids are fat. And part of me can’t wait until they grow up. Then I’m going to come back here and mock them all. And their parents. (Obviously, I’m not going to do anything like that. What do you take me for?)
It’s funny that I find myself feeling this way, because so many of the other bits of my life are going well. The relief of not doing the PhD any more washes over me like a rainbow. The freedom and nourishment from being rid of that ball and chain is incredible.
I’ve started writing again. For the first time since 2003, I’m making a genuine attempt at writing a novel. And it’s working and I love it and writing is so much easier now than it was in 2003. Thank you for that, blog.
And I love living on my own again. It’s amazing living in a country where no one knows me. It’s amazing being able to recreate myself. It’s amazing having this blank canvas. And it’s amazing how the lack of people I know means that I have so little food guilt.
And I love the adventure. I spend hours with my guide book, matching destinations to various weekends next January and February.
And I love the work I’m doing here.
I wake up in the mornings with more energy than I’ve felt in a long time.
It’s an odd mix of feelings. I feel very good about myself and about my life, but I’ve found myself avoiding going outside for fear of being laughed at.
I’ve been binge-watching weightloss shows online for the last few weeks. And I think I’m ready to start the fight again. While I was lying in bed watching an episode of Extreme Weight Loss, I realised something. I’m part of the X Factor generation. I’m just like the sobbing seventeen-year-old with a guitar in Cheryl Cole’s “judge’s house” sobbing that this is his “last chance”, because TV has sold us the lie that success as a musician lies through making a name on reality TV, even though it’s obvious that nothing you do at seventeen is your “last chance”, and just as many music careers are made outside reality TV as are made on it. And The Biggest Loser, and Obese: A Year to Save A Life and Extreme Weight Loss, and Fat Families and You Are What You Eat have sold me a lie. I don’t “need” the opportunities a TV show would give me to lose weight, and waiting for a TV show, or any “big moment” is idiotic.
I haven’t been able to rip the plaster off and actually start, but I’m getting closer. And I will announce when that day has come. It needs to come. The other day, I felt my knee go. I have constant pain in my ankles and knees and hips, but they all work. That day, my knee stopped working, and for twenty minutes I couldn’t walk. And I panicked. Is this how immobility starts? I’ve read messages from men on the internet who would like to feed me into immobility, and nothing about that is appealing to me. My knee snapped out of it. It had probably just fallen asleep, but the thoughts of life without being able to walk is terrifying.
When I do start, I know that I’ll be sensible. I’ve learned lessons from before. I’ve learned from mindfulness that I shouldn’t try to automate my eating, that I need to enjoy food and to enjoy eating and to actually be conscious of what I’m doing. I also need to take the lessons I learned from Overeaters Anonymous. I have to change my relationship with food for the rest of my life, but I can’t do that. No one can do something “for the rest of their life”, so I have to do it one day at a time.
As I say, I haven’t started just yet. I’ve had a ridiculous amount of pizzas since I came to Vietnam. But I’ll start soon.
Today was my work permit medical. I knew a BMI test (weight vs height) was part of the medical and I presumed I would fail it. I had a sneaky plan that would allow me to stay in Vietnam for a few months and see everything I wanted to see, and then move on to the next adventure, long before my contract ended (which I wouldn’t have been able to fulfil anyway because I failed my medical) and everything would be fine.
Life is funny though.
On my way to the medical, I was drinking water like a fish. I find it very difficult to pee on command. And I knew I’d have to give a urine sample. I’m a minimal pee-er, and I’ve had doctors get angry with me before for not being able to pee for them. (Doctors and me aren’t friends). I also knew that I would have a chest X-ray and I didn’t want to take my nipple piercings out. The sweaty weather here has meant that my new piercing has had some difficulty settling in and I really don’t want it to seal up. I was also worried about my blood test, because nurses can never find a vein from which to take blood. I also wasn’t sure that the Vietnamese hospital would have the special fat person blood pressure cuff and I was sure that their weighing scales wouldn’t register my weight (few doctors’ surgeries in Ireland have a weighing scales that will work for people as heavy as me). I was certain that I would be sent away from the medical with a report that said that my blood and urine were not tested as I couldn’t produce a sample, that my chest X-ray was unsuccessful as I had refused to remove my nipple piercings and my weight and blood pressure were unattainable as their equipment couldn’t cope.
I was wrong.
The first test I had to do was the blood test. This was just as difficult as I suspected. The nurse poked and pricked. She tied the belt thing more and more tightly around my arm. She had me squeeze and pump my fist. She slapped my arm hard, like a heroin addict in a late 90s movie to raise a vein. She couldn’t do it. She called for help. Eventually, after TWENTY-SEVEN minutes – I checked on the clock, she managed to draw blood from my wrist – I squeezed, she called in an orderly who also squeezed my arm and between the three of us we squeezed the blood unwillingly from my wrist. While this was happening, a doctor wandered into the room and told me “It’s because you’re so fat” making a big belly mime with his hands, and laughing, as the three of us squeezed our hearts out.
That was the worst part. I managed to produce urine unproblematically. My ear, nose and throat exam was fine. So was my dental exam. I wasn’t made to take my piercings out for the X-ray. They had the supersize blood pressure cuff. And the weighing scales measured up to 160 kilos, and I was 158! So I was weighable! And 158 kilos is only 24 stone 12 pounds.
I’ve lost weight! I’m lighter than I was after my juice fast in January. I’m at my lightest so far this year! Wow! I knew I’d lost a little weight – I have been walking a lot and I have been drinking a lot of water, but I didn’t think I’d lost that much. I would have guessed I was more like 26 or 26 and a half stone.
The doctor I met at the end was hilarious. The conversation went like this:
“You’re from Ireland”
“The English in Ireland is similar to the English in America”
“Yes. I suppose so”
“The English is different in the UK.”
“It’s not like America”
“New Zealand is like Ireland”
“But not Scotland or Canada.”
“What about India? Hahaha!”
Thankfully, he then started going through my medical reports. My blood and urine and blood pressure and chest x-ray are all fine. I’m not diabetic (yet), I don’t have high blood pressure (yet), I don’t have high cholesterol (yet). He said I was perfect, but my weight was far too high (I didn’t mind this, I was secretly giggling that I had lost weight.)
He signed me “fit to work”.
So now my plan has hit a hitch. I was ready to fail my medical and be forced out of Vietnam. I had a plan and I had a new adventure lined up. I’m not going to tell everyone about it yet, because now I have decisions to make.
But all of my options are good.