Los Angeles International Airport. That's where your weekly correspondent is seated at present, at Gate 46A, waiting amid the myriad Americans for my flight to Washington DC. And I am thinking about weight loss.
ILLUSTRATION: KANOKTHIP KHUNTEERAPRASERT
Not my own weight loss; The Secret - or was it the Power Of Now? - taught me never to dwell on lost causes. As the minions of Americans walk past, boarding pass in one hand, oversized Starbucks in the other, I'm thinking about Thais - and how they, like the food portions in this country, are getting way too big.
There is a chain of weight loss centres in Thailand whose billboards festoon the expressway and any other place that allows advertising, which means everywhere.
The billboards are generic - the sad "before" picture next to the methamphetamine-induced "after" shot. They feature Thai actresses who can't get a job on soaps any longer and thus, thanks to lonely nights waiting for the phone to ring while downing foam boxes of mango and sticky rice, have packed on the pounds.
The "before" shot shows them fat, forlorn and barren. But thanks to some proper dieting, regular exercise and excellent photoshop work around the hips, the "after" shot shows the formerly adipose actress now slim and terrific and all ready for that next soapie job. If only they'd call.
The name of this chain of weight loss centers is "Slim Up". Now call me uneducated, but to my knowledge the English language doesn't possess the phrasal verb "to slim up". We have "slim down", which means "to lose weight". For example: "Hi Loretta, long time no see! You look as though you've slimmed down ... stomach staples?"
If "slim down" means to lose weight, "slim up" is naturally the opposite so it must surely mean to gain weight, right? Example: "Loretta, what happened to you? You look as though you've slimmed up ... did the staples burst?"
I'm not going to get into a flap about a Thai company misusing the English language, and it's certainly not the most extreme case. For that honour we have to step back oh, 15 years in time, when there was a local chain of restaurants selling bland versions of that most exciting of cuisines, Isan. Somebody high up in the company thought "Isan" sounded similar to "Isn't" in English, which by the way it "doesn't". Thus what should have been "Isan Classic" became a chain of restaurants with big blazing signs out the front saying "Isn't Classic". And it wasn't. True to its name, it went bust.
What a shame. I'd love to go to a chain of Isan food restaurants over the proliferation of burger, fries and soda restaurants that dot every corner of this country. Thais have become fat over the past 20 years, a direct result of their love affair with all things western, and what a huge business weight loss clinics are doing these days. Women were initially their primary target, but now there are Slim Up Centers exclusively for men. Their most recent promotion is for couples who need to slim up - er, down. It will be only a matter of time before we see Slim Up Centers for Soi Dogs.
Twenty years ago Thais didn't need hundreds of Slim Up Centers because they weren't fat. Twenty years ago Thais didn't need fitness centers because, well, they weren't unfit.
Back when I first arrived here in 1989 there were exactly two MacDonald's in the whole of Bangkok. One KFC was situated at Central Lat Phrao, and why have any more than that? My feeling at the time was that KFC couldn't make it here because the local kai yang was just too delicious. Why give up the better tasting chicken for the Colonel?
Alas, Thais have a love affair with all things western, and to be seen eating a Big Mac at 50 baht a pop, while a plate of fried rice cost 10 baht, was making a statement. Suddenly hanging out in a MacDonald's or KFC was a status symbol.
A status symbol! How different is that to us, where fast food is the not a food of choice, but necessity when it's three days before payday and the pantry has nothing left but Vegemite and baking soda.
I was always a little embarrassed ordering from McDonald's at Sunnybank for fear somebody from St Barnabas church parish might see me. I contemplated a paper bag over my head as I went through the drive-thru quietly ordering a Quarter Pounder With Cheese when I had the late-night munchies because I, er, hadn't eaten for a while.
On the surface it appears crazy for fast food to blossom in a country with the best food in the world! How could you possibly forsake somtam, larb, a good penang curry, a streetside pad Thai - for a Big Mac or a Chicky Meal? But the farthest fields are always greener, and the Thais flocked to western fast food like red shirts to a flame.
But the worst is yet to come.
If Thais love all things American, then look out - there's a new chain of hamburger restaurants here in the USA enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity. It is being tipped to become the new McDonald's. And do you know its name?
I kid you not. Fatburger Restaurants are sprouting up all over Southern California, interstate, and now around the world. It seems in America it wasn't enough to have MacDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Jack In The Box, Arby's, Carl's Junior, In 'N Out, KFC, Taco Bell, Del Taco, Subway and International House of Pancakes. We want FATBURGER, and we want it NOW.
Could you make up a worse name if you were paid? What's next - a new breakfast cereal called "Diabetes Enhancer"? Last week I gathered up the strength to walk into a Fatburger. Remember the old days when the really big hamburger was the Quarter Pounder with Cheese - a whole four ounces of meat? Well times have changed. At Fatburger there's a "Triple King" burger which is 24 ounces of meat one friggin' POUND AND A HALF - with cheese! And that quarter pounder? Well Fatburger's nearest equivalent, a 5.4 ounce burger, is its "Medium".
This is not good news for those Thais. The crazy thing is, the Thais looked good in the first place. If only the fast food restaurants hadn't strode into Thailand and hitched their horses up at every main street. There wouldn't be any Slim Ups. There wouldn't be any California Wows.
If only, if only.
If only I wasn't so arrogant and condescending. The truth is that in Thailand, scratch the surface of any Thai and they still are very much proud of, and immersed in, their own culture. They may strut and sashay around the MacDonald's condiment counter, but when nobody's looking they'll choose a nam prik platu or kai jeo moo sap over a Big Mac or Chicky meal any day.
And as I board my plane to Washington, I only regret not having purchased shares in Slim Up five years ago. My dream for Thailand is for a peaceful future with proper education about nutrition and healthy eating. And please; no Fatburgers.
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs