What physical characteristics do Americans usually use to describe other people? For example, recently I was meeting a former Peace Corps volunteer at a local café and sent her a text saying I had blond hair and glasses. That’s enough here to describe myself to another expat. I might have added that I have long blond hair.
When I first arrived in Beira, I found myself using hair characteristics to describe people. Of course I can’t use hair color because everyone has the same hair color, but I would say something like, “Oh that girl with long fine braids?” I soon realized that that meant nothing because hairstyles change so frequently. That same girl might, the next day, have her braids out and have short frizzy hair.
In the absence of being able to use hair color or length or even height since I find Mozambicans are all pretty much the same size (with the occasional really short or really tall guy), other descriptions are used. I discussed this with a missionary family who I had dinner with the other night. They have a 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. I know the daughter from teaching Sunday school but hadn’t really spent any time with the son. During dinner he said to his sister, “You’re right. Tall and skinny.” Their mom said, “They’re referring to you. Katie described you to Peter since he couldn’t picture who was coming to dinner.” I said, “Wow, you think I’m tall? Thanks!” “Yeah but,” their mom said, “Remember that Katie’s short.” Then Peter said, “But I pictured you with a long rectangular face, but you actually have an oval face.” I don’t think I’ve ever been described in such detail before. My hair color didn’t factor in at all. Even though these kids are American, they’ve grown up in other cultures and have learned to distinguish other characteristics.
“Skinny” and “fat” are perfectly acceptable descriptors here. I mean perfectly acceptable to describe to the person’s face. I once had an amusing conversation with my former Portuguese tutor about cultural differences in usage of the word “fat” since we have a mutual friend at Oasis who is known as João Gordo (Fat John) to distinguish him from the other João on our staff. (Note: By American standards João Gordo is not the least bit fat, but by comparison to all the skinny guys around here, I can see why they call him that.) I explained that in my country you would never call someone fat. He said, “But what if they are fat?” I said, “Even if they weigh 300 pounds, you would never say that.” That made absolutely no sense to him. If someone’s fat, you call them fat. If someone’s skinny, you call them skinny.
It’s interesting and sometimes challenging to look at people in a different way. How would you describe your friends or family if you couldn’t mention hair color, length or style but felt free to use “skinny” or “fat” or “short” or any other descriptive word that we shy away from for fear of offending?