The day after speaking to the cheerful old man on the train who just had to know how much I weighed (in an admiring way, because he liked sumo), I went to my gym and, since I seem to have hurt a tendon in my shoulder (and can’t swim very well anyway), I opted to go for a long march – 2000 metres – in the walking lane of the pool (most pools in Japan have these). Imagine walking steadily for 2 kms in chest-deep water: a good low-intensity aerobic exercise and a good wind-down after work. Well, I was happily striding away (sometimes backwards, sometimes crouching, always looking ridiculous) when I noticed a woman about my age in the beginner’s swimming lane, next to mine. She had cap and goggles on, earplugs in, and was looking at me.
– Why are you walking?
I had never seen her before in my life. Taken aback, my Japanese evaporated.
– I can’t swim (suiei ga dekinai), I eventually blurted out, ungrammatically.
– So why don’t you learn?
– My arm hurts. Hurt it. Upstairs (the gym). I turned and kept walking.
Fifty metres later, there she was again.
– So you’re just going to walk. That’s all?
– I exercised and now I’ll walk (I was not in a chatty mood).
– It feels good.
– Yes, but why?
I pretended I didn’t hear, turned, walked another lap. She bobbed up from the water and and smiled triumphantly.
– I know! I know why!
She pointed to my belly.
– Metaboli (メタボリ)!”
Metaboli is the trendy new word, short for “metabolic syndrome”, which has entered the language via the media here in the past year. It just means you’ve got a beer belly, but because it’s got a foreign faux-scientific sound to it (if you’re Japanese), it’s become the cool new way of calling someone a fat-ass. I don’t think she was being malicious, but she was certainly being insensitive (not that Osakans are accused of that very often…), and was probably a bit snapped (my turn to be insensitive).
Sadly, there’s only one way out of a situation like this without causing a scene (which would be blamed on me). I made a self-deprecating joke and moved on.
– I like Japanese beer too much, I said, over my shoulder (and so did your mother when she was carrying you, honey, I failed to add).
This seemed to satisfy her, and she laughed, continued swimming for a few laps, then mercifully left. I kept at my routine until I’d reached my goal, then went for a shower and sauna, where a naked old Japanese man relentlessly tried to speak to me in French until I fled. Je pense que vous aimez la cuisine japonaise, he remarked, pointing to my gut.
No wonder I drink.
I’ll say this much for being overweight in Japan, a country where fully 25% of all women in their 20s are officially underweight but whose media only talk about the danger of beer bellies: you’ll have no trouble starting conversations in public places. Now if only I wanted to.