Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’m tall.
5’10”, in fact. Possibly 5’9 3/4” if we’re being really exact, but, honestly, no one cares about that quarter inch.
In the United States of America, 5’10” is tall for a woman, but not that tall. For comparison, Taylor Swift and Mandy Moore are also 5’10”. Michelle Obama and Melania Trump are both taller than me at 5’11”. So, I’m on the tall end of things, but it’s not like anyone from the WNBA has come knocking. I buy clothes and shoes off the rack, and I don’t get stopped on the street for photos because of my height. (I do get stopped in the grocery store by elderly women who ask me if I don’t mind grabbing that bottle of Eye-talian dressing from the top shelf, sweetie. Happy to help, ma’am.)
But you can imagine things are quite different when you’re talking about a 5’10” woman in China, one of the shorter countries on the planet.
And you can also imagine things get even more differenter when that 5’10” woman is not just in China, but in Guangxi Province, which has the distinction of having the shortest population in all of China. Average height for men is 5’6”, and average for women is 5’2.8”. Average, folks. Which means there are plenty of women who are shorter than that. So you can bet a woman eight inches taller than average is going to get a lot of looks, stares, requests for photos, and, the inevitable question, “How tall are you?”
Very early on, I got asked this question and realized something important: I didn’t know how tall I was.
At least, not in meters, which is what counts in most places.
Contrary to popular belief, we Americans do use the metric system for stuff, like, um… bottles of soda. (Seriously, it’s in liters, not quarts.) And, um… SCIENCE stuff. But human height is firmly in the Imperial system, which means I only knew I was 5’10”.
So, the first time someone asked how tall I was, I floundered.
“Well, I’m not sure.” *Person looks at me all suspish bc how do you not know your own height???* “In America, we don’t say ‘meter,’” I tried to explain. (Let’s remember it was early on, so my Chinese was also super basic.)
“Well, you’re really tall,” the stranger observed, eager to get the facts so he could brag about this uber-tall white woman he had had the good fortune to stand next to. “You must be, like, two meters tall! Are you two meters?”
This required me to go way back to my elementary school metric system lessons. We’d learned that 1 meter is approximately the same as 1 yard. 1 yard = 3 feet, which means 2 yards = 6 feet, which means 2 meters is about 6 feet. Being on the spot and without the help of a smart phone (Geez, how come all my stories now have to have explanations about how things worked in the olden days? #gettingold), that was the extent of my quick and dirty mental calculations. I was only two inches shy of two yards, which meant I was somewhere around two meters tall. Good enough.
“Um, yeah. Sure. About two meters. Chabuduo,” I told the guy.
“No way! You’re two meters tall? That’s sooooo tall!” he said, giddy with excitement for having actually talked with someone who had reached such a stunning height.
I smiled and tried to end the conversation quickly to get back to my grocery shopping.
I forgot about it until the next time I got asked. I jumped to the answer I had given the first guy. “Almost two meters. Chabuduo.” And then forgot about it until the next time, and the next time. I kept getting asked and kept forgetting to actually look up the conversion, so I kept giving inquiring minds the answer, “Almost two meters. Chabuduo.”
At this point, those of you who know the metric system for height are probably having a nice laugh. (Well, provided you also know how tall 5’10” actually is.) Let me bring the rest of you along.
Eventually, I remembered to look up the conversion. Let’s take a look at how good my estimate was, shall we?
It turns out that 5’10” = 177.8 cm. That’s close to 2 meters, in the same sense that $997,652 is close to a million dollars. If precision doesn’t matter, and you can just round up, you’re golden.
But for human height, every centimeter/inch counts, as illustrated by the reverse calculation of what I had been going around telling people.
2 m = 200 cm = 6’ 7.8”
I’d been declaring to everyone who asked that I was nearly 6’8”. In actual fact, I couldn’t get to that height even in the highest of heels. I’m tall, but I’m not that tall.
You might be wondering, as I was, why no one stopped me and said, “There’s no way you’re two meters tall.” Well, there’s a chance they did and I just couldn’t understand them. Or maybe two meters was so far away from their own height that when they strained their necks to look waaaaaayyyy up at me, 2m/6’7.8” actually seemed plausible.
Like, if word gets out that you’re a millionaire, and when I ask you about it, you tell me you “only” have $997,652 in your bank account, and then you want to quibble that you’re not technically a millionaire, I’ll be like,
Skip the line.
O Holy Night, the Disco Ball is Shining!
April 26, 2018 at 6:50 pm
That’s so funny. I, too, am finally getting my head around the metric system (especially when it comes to driving distances and speed, because it turns out a mile is not “chabuduo” 2 km, but much less than that when you’re adding up significant distances or speeds). I FINALLY know my own height in cm now. I think I won’t forget… I just read it on my latest visa medical check and forced myself to commit it to memory. My children are only learning metric in math, which is just so much easier. I hope they’ll be able to figure it all out if they ever go back to America. Your post just reminded me of all the things I said or did or assumed when I was new in China and Chinese language that make me cringe when I look back on them. And I’m probably still doing things that will make me blush some day in the future.
April 27, 2018 at 2:53 pm
Those are good ones. Getting used to the weather forecast in Celsius also took a bit for me. I’ve got it now, but only for temperatures that were common in Guangxi and Kunming. If it’s much colder, or much hotter, I’m not as fluent. It’s good that you finally know your own height! 😉 I think we all rack up quite a list of faux pas. It comes with the territory!
April 26, 2018 at 8:53 pm
This is amazing. I’m also between 5’9 and 5’10, so almost 2 meters (or, you know, 177cm. Cha bu duo). I lived in NE China first, then central, so I was taller than a lot of people, but more like the height of or slightly taller than the average man – not quite as dramatic as the full Guangxi experience. Still tall enough to be informed by strangers that I was tall though.
April 27, 2018 at 2:48 pm
Thanks, Heather! Yeah, even in those “tall” provinces, I’m sure you still stick out. Nice that the strangers are kind enough to point it out to you, or else you’d never notice, I’m sure. 😉
April 28, 2018 at 6:03 am
Laughing my guts out! I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if I’m 2m tall (I’m *only* 6’0″)…I’ve always felt that those last 8 inches would’ve made a pretty significant difference in my nonexistent athletic career! But as you said…maybe when you’re looking up from 5’2″, six-foot and six-foot-eight really are chabuduo! Maybe I’ll just start owning it, “why yes, I AM 2m tall- how did you guess?!”
April 28, 2018 at 5:17 pm
I think that’s a good plan, Robb. And then charge Y20 for a photo together. Ha! 😉 But I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who has people asking if I’m 2m when I’m nowhere near that height.
April 28, 2018 at 8:29 am
As a 182 cm guy I totally relate. By the way some people use their height as an edge, like this girl travelling China:
April 28, 2018 at 5:08 pm
How cool that she’s in Guangxi! Thanks so much for sharing that. Crazy part is that not even that girl is 2m tall. 🙂