This past week, while riding the bus, I witnessed two separate sets of kids being escorted after school by their guardians/parent. The first set of kids, aged five or so, each had in her hand, pastries she’d half-devoured. The little brunette, with large, blue elfish eyes, had a half-eaten chocolate glaze dusted in nutty bits, and her friend, the small blonde, ate her raspberry jam cream cake, covering her chin and cheeks with whipped cream.

Something instinctual within me curled my upper lip when I saw each child sidle into her seat, and eat away at the adult-sized pastry. Kids and drippy sweet things offend my idea of cleanliness and hence I recoil in horror. It’s not the child’s fault, and having never been a parent, I reflected on how little concern and consideration the adult escorting them had given, especially with the way these kids were eating in a public space. It also caused me to wonder at the level of indulgence the adult gave to these two little girls: the sugar intake of just one of those cakes on her pint-sized system would be enough to send the girl over the moon and come crashing down again. Not to mention setting a standard of gluttony for her later (fat-inducing) years. The whole public space situation drives me nuts, especially after I watched the little blonde vigorously wipe both hands, palms-down on her dress and all over the fabric of the bus seats in an attempt to rid the sugar and cream from between her fingers once she’d finished eating. I felt sorry for whomever’s clothes sitting down next. The parent never said a word about that, but instead reached over to unevenly wipe the child’s face with a small, rumpled piece of napkin. No baby wipes, no disinfectant, nothing. Only a positive compliment for having consumed a sweet pastry that added nothing to the child’s nutritional value.

The second set of kids, a brother and sister, each had Magnum ice-cream bars. The sister ate hers more quickly than the brother, as she was slightly older. He sat in front of me, the half-eaten bar covered in chocolate and threatening to slide off any minute. I watched as time, heat, and gravity worked their magical powers to sweat the chocolate covering off the vanilla, and lo and behold, a jagged piece fell down on the boy’s trousers and the bus floor. Then the vanilla ice cream dripped down his hand. The sister and his father looked on, jokingly berating him for letting the incident happen. Nobody bothered to help clean up, and in the end, the boy ate the whole ice-cream bar. Again, I paused to recall what sort of snacks I’d consumed as a child; my mind could only remember fruit and many, many cups of whole milk. I reflected on my own mother cautioning me to not make a mess (on myself, and public spaces), but clearly these were her (and now, my) priorities in life. I wished I’d a time machine to project me 25 or 40 years into the future to see how these children would grow up, and examine their eating habits.

It is in the recent years that I’ve noticed how I’m the exception in my eating habits, compared to my peers. I can only imagine eating nutritionally well was my mother’s influence. She fortunately had a daughter possessing no sweet tooth, and whose experience of Coca Cola fizzing up her nose left her with unpleasant associations. At the Lee household, I was served three square home-cooked meals a day, with three cups of milk per meal. Fruit, nuts, or Chinese beef jerky, for snacks. My mother rarely used canned foods, and the only frozen food were the stored cuts of meat she’d bought prior at the butcher’s. My parents, though working-class and frugal, stuck to their Chinese diet of rice, meat, fish, and vegetables every meal, and growing up, I followed suit. Dessert consisted of orange slices to cleanse the palate, then black tea. Food was simple, nutritious, thoughtfully-prepared, and delicious. It wasn’t until my rebellious and growing teenage years that I gorged myself on processed food, eating through whole phases of TV dinners, frozen Eggo waffles, heavily sugared Rice Crispies, and oven-ready pizzas. These foods were never touched by anybody else in the household as they were seen as foreign, and treated as, well, a treat, for me to experience, as long as it didn’t interrupt me sitting down and finishing home-cooked meals (which, I’m sure, any teenager would do given the rapid growth spurts!).

I grew up with a clear understanding of the dichotomous nature of being ethnically Chinese living in a foreign and white majority land. Though I have fond memories of consuming Aussie meat pies, ice-cream, McDonald’s, sponge cakes, and attending countless barbeques, these were not my staple diet and did not underline my nutritional intake. And despite my mother telling me to eat every grain of rice in my bowl (“There are starving children in India!”), she also never encouraged me to overeat.

Which, with all this tracing back, is why I’ve noticed the difference in eating habits between myself and my peers, both here in the UK and in the States. This affects women and men, but my sympathy is biased towards women. The light began to dawn on me when an ex of mine who was conscious of his work-out diet casually asked me what diets I’d used; I turned to him and said, “What diets?” When I probed him further, it was revealed that most women have been on a diet or some sort or another, usually starting in their teen years. Not me, not with my installed sensitivity to my body’s needs. It’s not that I’m vegan or anything extreme either. I’m omnivorous. Ask any person who knows me of my deep, unabiding love of food, and they will tell you I’m the biggest foodie, eating any and all cuisines (even Ethiopian, though the tanginess isn’t my more favourite). Ask any of my friends if I’m a great cook, and they will acknowledge the countless dinner parties I’ve thrown (this month, I’m experimenting with cooking Thai). But ask them how I maintain my frame and figure, and they will not be able to fathom how I’ve kept the same clothing size since high school.

There is not one female friend that I know that doesn’t struggle with weight issues, or her diet, how to cook, or understanding portion control. These are concepts, thank to mom, that come easily to me, but which my friends now are grasping to understand. I watch as my peers fight with weight fluctuation, gorge then battle with guilt, and torment themselves with sadomasochistic snippy comments directed at both their bodies and other women’s. More than anything, I wish I could pluck out the foundational programming that went into my upbringing with regards to eating habits, and implant it into each of my friend’s brains. Women have enough to worry about, and food, especially in relation to body issues and self-esteem, seems to imprison so much of their thoughts, attitudes, energy, and lives.

Erica, 34, London UK

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