Each time I visit my homeland, Vietnam, I find that many of my relatives have gotten wealthier and progressively fatter, especially their overly pampered children. One cousin in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in particular is raising an obese child. When asked why she was feeding him so much she simply shrugged and said, "Well, we barely had enough to eat during the Cold War. Now that I have money, I just let my son eat what he wants."
Unfortunately what that entails for her boy is access to an array of American-owned chains like KFC, Pizza Hut, Carl Jr.'s. His favorite meal? "Pizza and Coke," the boy answered with glee.
Besides the tasty draw of fatty foods and sweet sodas, there's another reason why such establishments are making inroads in countries that are otherwise known for their excellent culinary traditions. Unlike in the U.S., where fast food is perceived as time-saving and cheap and often the preferred meal of the working poor, in Asia places like Burger King and Pizza Hut are the fare of choice for those with dispensable incomes. For a regular factory worker in Vietnam who makes around $5 a day, eating at KFC is completely out of the question. For those who can afford to eat at one of Pizza Hut's air-conditioned restaurants in a chic sparkling shopping mall in Hanoi or Saigon, however, eating is only part of the experience. The other part is equally, if not more, important: Consuming American fast food is the proof of one's economic status in the world.
The writer Ha Jin captured this modern tendency in a hilarious short story called "After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town." It's about a family of nouveau riche who book their wedding at a brand-new fast food chain called "Cowboy Chicken" -- never mind that the Chinese know 150 better ways to cook the bird -- to celebrate their new wealth in capitalistic China. If the story is hilarious, it is also a sad statement as to how quickly a thousand years of culinary expertise is thrown out for the new -- which in this case, is deep-fried chicken and steamed corncobs served up in a paper box.
And if common sense and taste are often the first casualties in a world where western fast food and brand-name sodas proliferate at an alarming rate, the ultimate casualty is health itself. According to the World Health Organization, one billion people are malnourished in the world and another billion -- many in developing countries -- are overweight. At least 300 million of them are clinically obese, and the economic costs of related illnesses are staggering.
China is home to more than 380 million-plus people with weight problems. And recent studies indicate that the problem is especially prevalent among youth. In 2005 there were 18 million in China who were considered obese. In 2011, that number jumped to 100 million.
It would seem that not only are the Chinese catching up with the American economy, but with the American size as well. According to the Chinese Health Ministry, in 2007 Chinese city boys age 6 are 2.5 inches taller and 6.6 pounds heavier on average than their counterparts three decades ago. "China has entered the era of obesity," Ji Chengye, a leading child health researcher told USA Today in 2007. "The speed of growth is shocking." Almost 100 million Chinese now suffer from diabetes.
In this regard, Vietnam too is catching up with China. While 28 percent of rural children suffer from malnutrition, according to the National Institute of Nutrition, 20 percent from urban areas suffer from the opposite: obesity. "The number of overweight and obese kids is increasing at a fast pace in Ho Chi Minh City [formerly known as Saigon] where the highest ratio of children with the problem is recorded," Do Diep, deputy direct of the Ho Chi Minh City Nutrition Center, told Tien Phong newspaper two years ago.
For many Vietnamese, the irony is all too obvious. Previous generations known as boat people fled out to sea on rickety boats to escape starvation and extreme austerity under communism during the cold war. But they are quickly being replaced by a new generation, one that needs to go to the gym or a fat farm to drop excess weight -- or if they can afford it, "flee" abroad to shop for the latest brand name items like Hermes belts and Louis Vuitton Bags.
Years of struggle against imperialism resulted in an odd defeat: Anything western is automatically deemed superior, no questions asked. It is a situation that one intellectual in Vietnam coined as, "Selling the entire forest to buy a stack of paper." A case in point: When asked what he wanted from the U.S., a cousin in Hanoi didn't hesitate: "Starbucks coffee." Yes, he's quite aware that Vietnam is the second largest coffee producer in the world, second only to Brazil; and yes, on practically every block in the city there's a coffee shop. "But no one has tasted Starbucks coffee in Vietnam," the cousin explained. "Everyone wants to know what it tastes like."
These days one reads quite a few articles about the decline of the American empire and the rise of Asia, and in the same breath, how the Chinese are gaining the upper hand in the global economy. But one wonders if that's true. Because even if declining, America still manages to sell its "superior" lifestyles to the rest of the world in ingenious ways, from food to movies to clothing to music -- and in the area of food at least, our obesity problems as well.
Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing In Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in 2013.