Obese Americans: Not Wanted in China

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Anybody who blinked over the holidays might have missed important news from China. DaimlerChrysler announced that by 2008 it plans to import small "B-class" cars built by the Chinese automaker Chery, the first time a Chinese-made car will go on sale in the United States. Pfizer won a big lawsuit that, in theory, will prohibit Chinese companies from selling blue, diamond-shaped knockoff pills that look exactly like Viagra. Best Buy opened its first Chinese outlet in Shanghai. And Westinghouse nailed a deal to build four nuclear power plants for China, which will bring about 5,000 jobs to western Pennsylvania and other states.

But that's just material for the back pages.

The headline-grabber is a change in the rules for people hoping to adopt Chinese babies: Fat people are no longer welcome.

In addition to new requirements for wealth (minimum net worth: $80,000) and age (maximum allowable for most babies: 50), anybody who wants to adopt a Chinese baby must have a body mass index rating of less than 40. BMI is a simple measure of weight relative to height, and 40 is not a terribly hard standard to meet. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute considers people with readings of 30 or higher to be obese. I'm 5 feet, 11 inches, and according to the NHLBI, I'd have to weigh about 290 pounds to disqualify myself from adopting a Chinese baby. A 5-foot, 5-inch woman would have to weigh 245 pounds. The numbers alone seem cartoonish.

Yet obviously some potential parents fit such dimensions. Anybody care to guess where they come from?

That's right: It's obese Americans the Chinese are thinking of. America is home to more adopted Chinese babies than any other country. And the land of fried Twinkies and supersize sodas produces more than its share of the world's heaviest consumers, too. Here, they tend to blend in among Hummers and McMansions. But anybody who travels overseas knows that even before you hear Americans complaining about the service, you can identify them by their bulbous bottoms and baggy sweats.

Sure, there are a lot of overweight people in China. But none of them are Chinese. If you see a gaggle of blobby shapes off in the distance in Beijing or Shanghai, place your bets immediately: Odds are high that they are westerners, and the heaviest among them Americans. It's the same story in the rest of Asia, South America, and even in Old Europe.

And the local people in those countries notice. When I was in China in 2005, I bought my first custom-made suit, a luxury unaffordable to me here at home. The tailor complimented my unremarkable physique. "Most Americans are so fat," he said in good English. "Like those over there." He pointed disgustedly to half a dozen businessmen gathered in a hotel lobby, speaking American English, all of them portly.

Does it matter if Americans around the world come off as decadent and undisciplined? "I think it does," one senior industry executive told me, off the record. "It makes us seem lazy. It's embarrassing to see fat Americans everywhere you go."

Frank Brown, an American who is dean of the international business school INSEAD, in Fontainebleau, France, cites life-expectancy figures as a proxy for the effects of obesity.

"In France," he explains, "nobody is fat." And the average life expectancy there is five years longer than in the United States. "I'd say that matters," he insists. "That's five fewer years [in the United States] you're working or living productively."

Obesity might also impair the ability to parent.

"Obese people are more likely to suffer from diseases and might have a shorter life expectancy," Xing Kaimin, the director of China's adoption ministry, told the quasi-official People's Daily newspaper in Beijing. "We want to pick the most qualified [parents] so that our children can grow up in even better conditions."

Sounds preachy, but who can blame the Chinese? Adopting Chinese children has become so popular that they are sometimes called "boutique babies," even serving as a kind of status symbol in rarefied communities like Manhattan's Upper West Side. Anybody who has looked into adopting knows that demand for healthy Chinese babies is high, and supply tight. It's a seller's market. The Chinese can preach all they want and get away with it.

They might even be right. After all, they're hardly the first to highlight the obesity epidemic in America. And they're leaving a small out: The new rules don't go into effect until May. So there's still time for a little more bingeing before starting the Adoption Diet.

--Rick Newman

  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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