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As Tall As I Can Be
by Chikako Atsuta  (12/17/00)

For a Japanese woman I am tall. Five feet and six inches. It's far more than the average.

My mother is as tall as I am. I must say that she is exceptionally tall among the women of her generation. She firmly believes that it is not appropriate for women to be so tall that they have to look down on men. She told me that my father's best quality was simply being taller than my mother. It made her feel comfortably feminine.

When I was getting taller, she started to worry about my height. When I was at elementary school, she used to say that I should be nice to boys because I was taller than most of them. She meant I had to compensate for my above average height so that I could be popular among them. As a teenager I suddenly became chubby. My mother told me I should be extra nice to boys because of my unnecessary body fat.

Her constant preaching made me feel automatically guilty anytime I faced a man shorter than me. I was fine when standing next to shorter women (Most Japanese women are shorter than me.) I only had problems with males. Whenever I had to look down on them, I immediately felt uncomfortable, scared of making them angry at me for my indecent height.

I dated Japanese men who were shorter than me because I was trying to overcome my psychological problem. It was usually not successful, though. Whenever I walked with those shorter men, I noticed my stride becoming wider and wider, so that our difference in height would not be so apparent. When we stopped for a traffic signal or to hail a taxi, I could not help searching for somewhere to sit so I did not have to deal with the fact that I looked down on them. I usually felt exhausted after these dates.

If I could have been a basketball star and capitalized on my height, I would have felt fine with my stature. In reality I was not athletically talented at all. We used to play softball for high school physical education classes. Whenever I went into the batter's box, girls in the outfield called out to each other, "Here comes a big hitter!" assuming that I could do well only by looking at my height. I usually did not even make a contact with the ball. The outfielders, coming back to the bench, would snort at me. I smiled back to them because I was usually nice to everybody thanks to my mother's preaching.

When my high-school friend organized a girl's volleyball team, she asked me to manage them. I accepted the job and usually went with the team to games held at other high schools. At the schools we went to, coaches of opposing teams asked our coach why I did not join the game. I was, of course, the tallest of our group.
"She is our secret weapon. I don't think we need to use her to beat you, " he usually replied knowing very well that I could not jump even an inch.

When I finally discovered swimming, I was saved. As long as I floated horizontally in the water, nobody cared if I was tall or short. What a different way of looking at human form, I thought.

All the problems I had with my height have melted away since I came to the U.S. four years ago. It is not only because that I am closer to the average height here, but it is also because I do not sense the notion in this culture that I have to be tinier to be an attractive female. I don't know if the ideal of the petite woman really does not exist in America, or if I just haven't sensed it yet. Whatever the case may be, it is such a blessing that I do not have to curl up my back or bend my knees in a subtle way whenever I face men shorter than me. I enjoy shoes with heels. I enjoy looking up to the sky in the middle of conversation with them. "Mom," I call out in my head, "There is a place that you can be as tall as you want to be."

I recently met a Chinese biologist at a party in Boston. She was in her late 30's, and a few inches taller than me. She told me that she had come to the U.S. from Beijing about ten years ago to study. She got a job here, met a German biologist and married him. She told me how much she missed her home county and her family members, who have been asking her to come back to China. Looking around the room restlessly, she mumbled about her career and husband as reasons that she would not return to China. "And also," she added, " I'm too tall in that country." I immediately understood what she meant. Without articulating, we shared those humiliating memories - the times we had hunched our backs and scrunched up our necks on the other side of the planet.

There was one incident concerning my height here in the U.S. When I was looking for an apartment the north of Boston a year ago, I met with a prospective landlord for an interview. When I showed up in his place, he looked at me with surprise and said I was the tallest Asian woman he had ever seen in his whole life. I pasted an inscrutable smile on my face and did not say anything. What I noticed was that I did not react to what he said with any sense of guilt. That's usually what would happen to me back in Japan. Instead, I could hear a voice in my head shouting out at him, "Will you shut your mouth and just rent me your room?"

I now live in his building. He is a nice landlord and has never mentioned anything about my height since that day. His room has such a high ceiling that I sometimes feel as if I was a little girl.

Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39.  For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from "Ako's East Coast Blues."

The text is the property of the estate of Chikako Atsuta and is not to be reproduced without written permission.

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