Each time I visit my homeland, Vietnam, I find that many of my relatives have become wealthier and progressively fatter, especially their overly pampered children. One cousin 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's Jr. and, most recently, Burger King. 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 United States, 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 disposable incomes.
For a regular factory worker in Vietnam who makes around US$3 a day, eating at KFC is out of the question. For those who can afford to eat at one of Pizza Hut's air-conditioned restaurants in a shopping mall in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, 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, After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town. It's about a family of nouveaux riches 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 1,000 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 Organisation, one in three people in the world is malnourished and 1.4 billion others - many in developing countries - are overweight. About 500million of them are obese, and the economic costs of related illnesses are staggering.
While the overall obesity rate in China is now more than 5per cent, that number jumps dramatically to over 20per cent in the big cities. Despite the relatively small proportion of obese people when compared to that of the US, given the size of China's population (1.35billion), that 5per cent accounts for about 70million obese Chinese. It would seem that not only are the Chinese catching up with the American economy, but with the American size as well. Chinese health ministry figures released in 2007 showed that Chinese city boys aged six were over 6cm taller and about 3kg heavier on average than their counterparts three decades ago. 'China has entered the era of obesity,' Ji Chengye, a leading child health researcher warned at the time. 'The speed of growth is shocking.' Almost 100million Chinese now suffer from diabetes.
In this regard, Vietnam, too, is catching up with China. While 28per cent of rural children suffer from malnutrition, according to the National Institute of Nutrition, up to 20per cent from urban areas suffer from the opposite: obesity.
For many Vietnamese, the irony is all too obvious. Previous generations known as boatpeople 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 generation that needs to escape to the gym to lose weight.
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 US, a cousin in Hanoi didn't hesitate: 'Starbucks coffee.' Yes, he's 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,' he explained. 'Everyone wants to know what it tastes like.'
These days, one reads 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 is it so true? Because, even if it's declining, America still manages to sell its superior lifestyle to the rest of the world in ingenious ways, from food to movies and clothing - and in the area of food as least, its 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