Culture Shock


Michelle Mairesse

Loretta Oliphant, many years ago called Loretta Elephant by schoolmates, became belligerent when anyone suggested she was overweight. Her new lover, Lee Chen, in the month they had been together since meeting at the trade fair, had never made that mistake. He sneered at the knobby-kneed, spindle-armed American actresses on the movie screen, saying they were unwomanly.

Tonight Lee ordered in Mandarin from the menu, explaining to Loretta how happy he was to have met a woman with an appetite. Glancing around the restaurant, which was slowly filling with Hollywood regulars, he theorized that the rage for anorexic models and actresses reflected the unconscious desire of gay designers to dress boys rather than women.

"No," Loretta said. "It's the universal male impulse to minimize women."

"Why should men wish to minimize women?"

"It's a mystery to me. As you probably know, there was one Chinese emperor who liked his concubines so thin that he starved a bunch of them to death."

"One Chinese emperor makes it universal?"

"No, but it's a single example of a universal tendency. Like foot-binding. As far as I know, only the Chinese did it, but it's another example of the universal tendency--"

"Wait, please. I am more authority about foot-binding than you, and you perhaps are mistaken."

"Because I'm a woman or a Caucasian?"

"Both. The foot-binding actually gave the women a peculiar gait--"

"How could they have a peculiar gait if they couldn't walk?"

"Most of them could walk a little. They had a peculiar gait that tightened the muscles of the vagina--"

"I don't want to hear about it."

"Sorry. I understand. But the motive for foot binding was to make the women more sexually attractive to men. It was not to diminish women."

"Exactly. Crippling a woman is okay if it increases a man's sexual pleasure. I call that diminishing."

"You choose to ignore some things. Why is it do you think European and American women wear high heels? To walk on stilts is uncomfortable. It changes the center of gravity, but they do so because it gives them a peculiar gait. Men find this gait attractive."

"Some men, maybe."

Lee Chen knew this was dangerous territory and said nothing.

"Lee, I wasn't implying that all Chinese were male chauvinists."

"I hope not."

Loretta wondered if his lowered eyes and tight-lipped expression meant boredom or that she had offended him.

She smiled and said lightly, "Different cultures have different ways of diminishing women. That's all I'm saying. American soldiers returning from Vietnam had all kinds of expressions to refer to the women, none of them very flattering, I'm afraid."

"That also is a universal trait. You would be astonished to learn how many bad things all Chinese say about Americans, both men and women."

"I know. You have Tienamen Square. We have Vietnam."

"I do not speak of politics. As you said, it is different cultures. You doubtless do not realize how difficult it is for native Chinese to become accustomed to the smell of Caucasians. It is the meat diet, I suppose. To enter into a crowd of them is like visiting to a zoo. It is exactly the smell of wild animals in the zoo. Another thing is notable about Americans, specially Americans, is extreme obesity. We consider obesity to be very bad form."

"'Obesity is very bad form'," she mimicked, trying to capture his accent. "You made a pun--bad form. Was that on purpose?"

"No, I said 'bad form' instead of something much worse, something to do with pigs."

Inwardly raging, Loretta took a deep breath, rose, and said in a steady voice, "Well, the shock of another culture is always interesting. Enjoy your dinner. Now you'll have twice as much."