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Super-sized Americans Abroad

It is a well-known fact that world obesity levels are highest in the US, lending to the validity of the stereotype "overfed American." In foreign countries, one can often guess which tourists are Americans just from their girth. Overweight and tall Americans quickly find that the infrastructure in foreign countries for handling larger visitors is often absent. Chairs, for example, are often too small. This causes problems not just in offices and public spaces, but in restaurants, theaters, and of course, on the airplanes that carry super-sized Americans to their international destinations. Airlines try to accommodate bigger travelers with seat-belt extenders and other enhancements, but it never seems to be enough.

Public places aren't the only trouble spots

Foreign cars also tend to be smaller. Except in oil-producing nations, the cost of gasoline is high, making pint-size cars more economical. Furthermore, the small streets in old European cities can be impassible in large cars. This is also true in some Asian cities. Japanese cars routinely come with mechanisms to retract outside mirrors so cars can squeeze down narrow streets.

Perhaps the only heavyset person to report any benefits while overseas was Don Taylor, the owner of a US medical instrument company. Doing business in China involves attending banquets, and the Chinese are not adverse to taking advantage of guests by getting them inebriated. Weighing over a hundred pounds more than the average Chinese man, Taylor reported that his size helped him outdrink his Chinese business colleagues, an achievement that garnered him much respect. Taylor does advise staying only in international hotels, which are accustomed to American-sized guests.

Don't lose your shoes

Even if your clothes are made in an Asian country, don't count on being able to buy them there. Your plus-sized pants may say "Made in Malaysia," but that's usually all that means.

While many travelers have been substantially inconvenienced by the loss of their luggage on an extended trip, this can be a disaster for larger Americans abroad, especially if their physique doesn't match that of the locals. Replacing lost clothing can be impossible. This is true even in industrialized societies such as Japan. Japanese expert and author Rex Shelly advises non-Asian US citizens to bring all the clothes they need. "Even if you find a size that fits you, the sleeves may be shorter and the hips narrower than the same Caucasian size," Shelly said. This problem also applies to underwear, shoes, socks and hosiery.

Safety is also a concern

Americans tend to be recognizable wherever they go. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent threats to Americans abroad, being so noticeable isn't necessarily a good thing anymore. The US State Department warned US citizens traveling in foreign countries to be cautious—very cautious. Some American travelers have managed to blend in by dressing like the local population and avoiding obvious clues to their origins (such as not wearing T-shirts or jackets emblazoned with the name of US sport teams or universities). Successful chameleons have also dropped other American traits, including eating in public (except while seated at an outdoor cafe), keeping their voices quiet, and avoiding loud, boisterous behavior. Skilled travelers even have adjusted their non-verbal behavior by standing the same distance apart from each other as the locals do. US writer and traveler Stacy D'Erasmo observed that Americans, "seem to displace many more cubic feet of air than anyone else around us or that we need. We're used to taking up room."

John Burnett, a correspondent for National Public Radio, knows what it's like not to fit in. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, his height makes him stand out in his native Texas, and even more so abroad. Recently, he found himself amidst an anti-American demonstration in Pakistan. He towered a good foot above the shouting crowd that was protesting the US bombing in neighboring Afghanistan. There was just no way to blend in. Thankfully nothing happened to Burnett, but that is a risk many Americans shouldn't take right now.

Aside from losing weight, there's not much that big Americans can do to blend in, except wait. Paradoxically, although famine is still omnipresent in many nations, obesity is increasing throughout the developing world. In Brazil, the sales of appetite suppressants are skyrocketing as Brazilians try to stay slim. And in the People's Republic of China, where many adults remember years of famine, Chinese children are becoming obese. The blame for this is placed on the import of Western eating habits and parents who, under China's "one child per couple" policy, indulge every whim of their sole offspring.

When the rest of the world's populace looks more like that of the United States, perhaps accommodations will be made. Until then, super-sized Americans will have to resign themselves to being super-uncomfortable whenever they venture overseas.

Terri Morrison is a popular speaker, author, and president of Getting Through Customs, the leading Web-based training and software firm for international business travelers. Contact Terri directly at TerriMorrison@getcustoms.com. For information on Getting Through Customs' books, database, and seminars, visit www.getcustoms.com, call 610-725-1040 or fax: 1-800-529-8167.

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