My boyfriend is more than a decade older than me, a pasty white guy from the American Midwest, and shorter than me by a few inches. Guess which factor my Asian parents are most upset about.
I was born long. That’s the first thing my mother says when I ask her about my birth. “You were a long baby, like a sausage,” she says.
I went from long to tall very quickly. From kindergarten onward, I was the one standing tall in the center of every class photo. “Who’s the tallest kid here?” the photographer would ask, and every year, fingers pointed to me.
No one usurped my photo spot, especially not after I moved to Malaysia and attended an all-girls high school where I was “the really tall girl.” I wouldn’t be considered exceptionally tall in the West, but certainly in my small community. Asian standards lah.
I loved my height. It was the first thing people noticed about me, my distinguishing feature, my claim to fame in high school (especially after the taller girl graduated and went on to become a beauty queen/model). I loved literally looking down on my friends, and teasing the smaller ones for being minuscule.
My parents loved my height too. My tall dad was proud that his daughter took after him, while my tiny mother, the shortest of the family, was glad I had the height she had craved growing up.
However, my height worried them too. Would I find a nice boy tall enough for me? Someone about my dad’s height would look the best. Occasionally, relatives and friends would comment that I was “too tall for men here,” that I would have to “find an angmoh [a white foreigner].” My parents didn’t like those comments, but were slowly convinced that a nice tall angmoh wouldn’t be so bad. I looked forward to the day I met this love of my life, whatever race he was.
He turned out to be white, alright.
I just never expected him to be four inches shorter than me.
I guess this is what fate had in mind for me the minute I started making fun of short people at the age of five.
My parents are having a hard time accepting the height difference.
“It’s usually a tall white guy and a short Asian girl!” said my mother. “Or even a shorty Asian guy and a taller white girl! Why are you such an eccentric?”
Well, because I really care for my Shorter Man.
When I first met him and realized I was attracted to him, I hesitated for months because of our height difference. I worried about what people would think, although that didn’t stop me from spending time with him. Does he have Short Man Syndrome? I wondered. Was he interested in me for my height, interested in tall arm candy? Could I deal with the looks we would get in public? Then I realized he was a smart, confident, successful man who didn’t care about height, his or mine. The strength of his character eventually won my heart (key sappy music), and I was amazed that I had almost let height get in the way of a great relationship. We were settled, and that was that.
Or so I thought. My own prejudices were settled, but other voices grew louder.
I ran a poll two weeks ago asking my readers to vote on which would be the biggest obstacle to a relationship like mine: a big age gap, racial/cultural differences, or height difference (taller woman, shorter man). As predicted, most people chose age as the biggest obstacle, followed by race/culture, with height difference considered the least important. (Thanks all who voted and commented.)
For my family, though, the age and race/culture differences are important, but less appalling than height. Age is not a deal breaker. After all, my parents are 13 years apart. While I was growing up, I thought it was standard for everyone to have an old dad and a young mom (and I was really surprised when I realized that wasn’t the case). As for race/culture, I grew up as a wishy-washy third culture kid bouncing between East and West, and my Shorter Man is an Asianized white guy himself after years reporting from Asia. A few cousins have also set a precedent and married non-Asian foreigners, breaking family resistance to the idea.
However, no one in my family seems to have been with a taller woman or shorter man, and this aspect of my relationship blows their minds.
I asked my family, and my more skeptical friends, why they can’t accept a taller woman with a shorter man.
The most common response from women was that a shorter man made them feel less secure. “He won’t be able to protect you,” said my mother. “Protect me from what?” I asked. “Bad people. Burglars. Rapists,” she responded. I said that I’d be happy with a great alarm system and a bamboo stick to beat the bad guys up with.
“It’s a nice feeling to walk down the street and nestle your head in your boyfriend’s armpit,” said a friend who insists she will never date a shorter guy. “Why would I want to put my head near anyone’s smelly armpit?” I asked. She glared at me.
I can’t even escape from the height issue in books. I am currently reading Leslie T. Chang’s fabulous “Factory Girls,” and this passage jumped out at me:
Women in particular were obsessed with height… physical stature was a marker for quality—a promise that a man was healthy, stable, blessed. Although many women insisted on a man who was at least five feet seven inches, a handful would go as low as five feet five. No one wanted to date a man who was only five feet three inches tall.
Chang is writing about the preferences of female migrant workers who use dating agencies, but I feel that this applies to most women everywhere. “No women for me, according to that!” said my Shorter Man after I read that passage out loud.
It’s not just women who need to “feel secure,” since many men want partners shorter than themselves. “I’ll feel less like a man if my girlfriend is taller than me,” said my Chinese friend. Any girl he dates must be shorter than him in heels, so that he feels like her protector. “So you have no confidence in yourself unless you tower over your girl?” I asked. “No,” he admitted. “I have to really feel like the man. And that means being bigger than her.”
I hypothesize that the concept of “keeping face” is another important factor against taller woman-shorter man couples in Asia. “I want people to envy my daughter and her partner, not to think funny things about them,” said my dad. He also thinks it’s important to be impressed on sight. “I don’t want to take time and get to know him to be impressed; I want to be struck instantly. Short men can’t leave that instant impression.” I don’t care as much about first impressions. “The people who will know me through first impressions are not those who will stick around,” I argued. “In the long run, I don’t care what they think.”
Other adjectives that have been used to describe the taller woman-shorter man combination: Weird. Uncomfortable. Unnatural. Early on in my relationship, I spent an inordinate amount of time searching online for non-Hollywood couples who defied social conventions of who gets to be taller in a relationship. I found Jocelyn and Jun. Jeff and Erin. And countless anonymous others in online forums across the world who wanted reassurance that they were not wrong for loving the taller women and shorter men they loved.
In the end, we love who we love; you have your preferences, I have mine. If only everyone, family and friends and those in-between, would use their preferences to dictate only their own love lives.
Shorter Man insists that an appropriate ending to this post is one of his favorite, often misunderstood Randy Newman songs (YouTube video, accessible with a VPN):
Note: I decided not to include my actual height in this blog post, to avoid “Oh, that’s not tall at all” or “Yep, you’re a tall freak” kind of comments. The main issue here is that I’m the taller one in my relationship. Thanks for reading!