“You look so fat”

Greg Sutton, ETA in Gondanglegi, East Java –

That’s exactly how my colleague says it, too: “You look so fat,” as she laughs, pointing to her belly area.

No kidding, I look fat. People have been feeding me four to five meals a day since I got here a month ago. I’ve been finishing every last bite to avoid appearing rude, so I’m constantly bursting at the seams over here. Give a guy a break.

Channeling my inner Indonesian, I do my best to conceal my facial expression. Indonesians are good at hiding what they’re thinking, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that in situations like these, I should keep my poker face on. It’s not always easy to control your instincts, and I try to avoid contorting my face into a position that would give away my embarrassment. I’m not sure what to say, so I let out a chuckle: “you think so?”

Exhaustion is a feeling I’ve become familiar with. I am constantly full, sweating my way through each day in the humid classroom, attempting to navigate the language barrier, stumbling from one misunderstanding to the next. Hunger, however, is certainly not a sensation I’ve experienced recently. Eating seems to be a national pastime, and I have to politely weave and bob through various snacks thrown my way every half hour.

I told myself that for the first two months in Indonesia, I would not say “no” to anyone, for anything, in order to fully experience life here. I’ll be the ultimate yes man. It will lead me to amazing experiences and unforgettable memories. While it’s been a worthwhile attitude thus far, a bulk of this experience has meant stuffing my face until I’m half asleep. I’ll be the ultimate fat man. It will lead me to weight gain and perpetual drowsiness.

I learn later that it is actually a compliment to tell a guest they look fat, particularly when they have been there for an extended period of time. In Indonesia, to tell a guest “you look fat” really means: “you seem comfortable here. We are taking good care of you.” If you don’t gain some weight in the first few weeks, it means you are unwell, uneasy, homesick. Putting on a couple kilos is a sign to the hosts that you are adjusting well, and you are happy with your time in the community. I guess that explains why people are constantly feeding me, offering me food, taking me out for lunch. It’s how you show someone you care about them.

It is often said that visitors to India will experience “an assault of the senses.” I think the best way to describe a visit to Indonesia is that of “an assault with kindness.”

My first few weeks here, a bit jetlagged and adjusting to the heat, people would constantly ask:

“Are you OK?”
“Are you tired?”
“Are you sleepy?”
“Are you sad?”
“Are you hungry?”

Going down the list, I would answer, yes, followed by no, no, no, and no. This became a familiar ritual by the end of my first week here. This line of questioning can eventually get a little tiring, but it comes from a good place. People are constantly checking in to make sure you are comfortable, at ease, well fed.

A close friend recently observed: “Indonesians are always thinking about the other person. It’s something everyone can learn from.” Indeed – if there’s anything I’ve learned from “The Archipelago” so far, it’s that the world would be a better, fatter place if everyone just checked in with each other a bit more.

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