Fulbright predepature orientation prepared me for a lot of things about Nigeria. Being called “chubby” or “fat” on the regular wasn’t one of them.
Not even a day after my birthday event, one of the cleaners walked into my room to straighten up. The manager of the hostel came into my room shortly after to interpret yet another communication misunderstanding that she and I had.
However, this time she added what seemed to be a very glaring insult directly at me.
“Kala, you were so fat when you came here, and now you don’t look nearly as chubby. What happened?”.
Absolutely shocked, I managed to stammer out the fact that I was the heaviest weight I’ve ever been before I moved to Nigeria, and am now just sizing back down to my normal weight. The hostel manager shrugged, not understanding a thing I said, and left with the cleaner.
Offended, I immediately called my friend Babatunde, one of my straight gangster friends who saved me from a scammer in my early Nigeria days. I had him call her to see if I missed anything in translation.
Turns out what I missed was the cultural context.
Babatunde defended the hostel manager, by saying that I was indeed fat when I first came here, but now I look “worse”…
Photo of me leaving my hometown in the US to conduct research in Nigeria in August 2018.
I calmly asked him to explain what he meant by that, where he told me that being lean is seen as a sign of stress and poor health here. Unless you’re naturally a smaller person, being skinny is not an idea beauty standard.
Photo of me as of November 2018.
Now, it’s important to note that I in no way see myself as chubby or fat, neither in August or today. I really love my body type and am proud of the skin I’m in. However, just like any other girl, the last thing I want to be called while minding my own business, is “fat”.
Since being here, I’ve been called more subtle terms like “strong boned” “heavy” and then not-so-subtle terms like “huge” and “big”. It’s been a really irritating adjustment for me to get used to being called what is considered to be a huge insult in my home culture, and it’s difficult to take it as a compliment or a neutral observation here in my host setting.
However, in the meantime, I’ll continue to run on occasion, as it’s something I like to do with my good friend here. Additionally, and much more often, I’ll also continue to stuff my face with amala and ewedu, and jollof rice, plantains and fish.
In either circumstance, I’ll brush off the haters (er, or admires?) and continue to live out my chubby, fat, happy existence here in good-ole Naija.
Have you ever experienced a cultural misunderstanding while abroad? What was it like for you?