Happy Chinese New Year. It is the Year of the Rabbit, but things may not be so cute in bunny land no matter what astrological system you ascribe to. Last month there were reports of a shift in the astrological alignments apparently due to an Earth wobble or precession. This wobble or twist of the Earth’s axis is caused by the gravitational attraction of the moon on Earth’s equatorial bulge. I may not know a lot about astrology, but I do know about anatomy, and with the sudden burgeoning of obesity amongst 325 million people in China, I suspect that equatorial bulges may, in fact, explain the wobble.
About twelve years ago I caught a segment on television, perhaps on 60 Minutes. Lay’s Potato Chips were being imported to China for the first time and a massive marketing campaign was underway to introduce these thinly sliced, deep-fried and salted tubers served in a colorful and crinkly bag. One early morning as millions of people in some enormous city were bustling to work on foot and bike, a very large display of cardboard boxes was stacked at the entrance of a market. The boxes were marked with lots of Chinese letters–and Lay’s. People were being stopped in their busy tracks and asked to sample this wonderful new product. Many of them were holding small paper bags of peanuts–their centuries-old “on the go” breakfast. The chips got a mixed review.
This segment was followed by a piece on the rapid increase in childhood obesity in China. Apparently, within ten years of the introduction of American fast food into China, ten percent of urban youth were overweight. Featured was a military boot camp-like program where about one hundred rank and file uniformed kids were being led sternly through a highly supervised exercise program. This did not look particularly fun, but to the Chinese government, this was no laughing matter.
Five years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Heart Association on obesity. A Chinese physician who now practices in the US was one of the speakers. He said, that twenty years prior–about 1985–when he attended medical school in China, it was extremely rare to encounter diabetes. For his training, he had to travel to a far off province to find a study case. He explained that now, diabetes is so rampant in China, that it is a significant drain on the Chinese health care system, and subsequently on its total economy.
As I sat to write this, my original thesis was that the US had purposefully set out to fatten up, sicken and slow down the industrious Chinese with fast food as an economic dominance tactic– but my research now makes me wonder if it was payback for what the Chinese had done to us–in retaliation for what we had done to them. Chinese cooks and restauranteurs had long ago figured out how to alter their cuisine to meet and oversatiate the American palate– happily to their own economic advantage. Consider that the first privately owned restaurant only opened in Beijing in 1980; while the first Chinese restaurant opened in this country in San Francisco in 1849. According to http://factsanddetails.com/china, there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than the top three large fast-food chains combined. Can that be?
I am often apt to echo Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation rant against food additives and flavorings and how their application to our food supply has fostered an epidemic of food addiction that afflicts even very young children. But, was not the MSG that peppered our Chinese take-out and addled our brains perhaps the grandfather of all such flavor enhancers? Had the Chinese immigrants who were so mistreated here, literally found a way to have us eating out of their hands? Nowadays, Thanksgiving is the only day of the year that Chinese restaurants here are not busy–apparently, it’s a big day for Chinese weddings.
One of the more difficult parts of my work is weaning folk off of General Tso’s Chicken, Beef and Broccoli, and pork fried rice. Big grown men look at me with sad puppy dog eyes and whimper like puppies too. They whine, well how come Chinese people aren’t fat–(or didn’t use to be)? I respond harshly, make them do a hundred jumping jacks and tell them to walk home.
The second that China loosened its restrictions on the West, American fast food conglomerates were ready to flood its shores with a deluge of the additive-enhanced foods we specialized in–and the modern, more prosperous populace was ready and eager to be seduced. The first American fast-food chain to set up shop was Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1987. Apparently, what has been attractive to the Chinese diner is the cleanliness, efficiency, and courtesy of the western establishments where customers get escorted to their tables. This gesture (perhaps along with the under 5-yuan menu) has put western establishments way above their Chinese competitors who actually serve food more accommodating to the Asian palate. However, once exposed to our mischievously enhanced food products, there is no looking back. Even the big Chinese national chain, Red Chinese Sorghum Mutton Noodle could not withstand the heat. Perhaps Confucius say: Kill enemy softly.
Though I know this is not breaking news, it is still hard for many people to fully comprehend the effects of these “manipulated” foods on our bodies. They have contributed to the alteration of the global waistline and median blood sugar level. It is really difficult for me to explain this to the many kind and gentle adults and children who sit before me as clients. How could we imagine that we are sold food that fosters a profoundly unnatural, addictive relationship? But, we are.
Well, I have a few more people in this country to tend to and then I may have to head over to China. Until I arrive, they may need to use some of those ghastly Chinese manufactured plastic food models that they ship here to teach us about food and proper portion sizes. Once there, I’ll have to convince them to reclaim their own cultural snack food of peanuts–or hua sheng. I am told that they do still magically appear if you say pi-jin–the word for beer. The stakes are high. The wobble may just make this the Year of the Hippopotamus if they do not act quickly.
I leave you with an old Chinese proverb: Wherever smiles happen and happiness is celebrated you’ll find Lay’s Potato Chips. So tell me, how are you going to celebrate?
- The Conversation: The Fortune Cookie Isn’t Chinese? (abcnews.go.com)