I feel like I have wanted to clarify this puzzle for a long time! Finally, I get a chance today!
When Chinese people say "你胖了! (Nǐ pàng le)", don't take this as an insult!
You need to learn Chinese grammar well because believe it or not, lots of Chinese cultural messages that you feel confused by, are hidden in the structures.
你胖了! (Nǐ pàng le!), is a typical example.
How many times you've heard Chinese people shouting "你胖了" at your face? You have to respond with a smile but with a thousand of question marks in your mind " F**k, did he/she just insult me by calling me fat???"
When Chinese people say "你胖了! ", what are they exactly talking about?
Is 你胖了 the same as 你很胖 (Nǐ hěn pàng) which is literally translated as "you're fat"？
No! Pay attention to the function of "了 le". Do you remember the HSK3 grammar - "了" at the end of the sentence indicating "change"?
"你胖了" doesn't simply mean "You're fat". Instead, it means "You've gained some weight compared to the past".
By using "了" at the end of the sentence, Chinese people want to show that they've noticed the change of your appearance and therefore can convey their concern and care to you while continuing the catch-up conversation.
In fact, Chinese people don't only talk about "胖 pàng", they also talk about "瘦 shòu (thin)", "黑 hēi (tanned)", "高 gāo (tall)" etc. to start the conversation with the topic of appearance changes. For instance:
zuìjìngōngzuò tǐnglèi de ba？Wǒkàn nǐ dōushòu le！
Busy with work lately? I see you have become thinner！
Qù nǎr wán le？Hēile yí dàquān！
Where have you been？You got very tanned!
People are more sensitive nowadays as "胖pàng (fat)" isn't very positive to describe. But throw "你胖了 Nǐ pang le" back to the past when people were struggling to have enough food, being fatter actually symbolizes having a plentiful and relaxing life.
Even though modern people have different perspectives towards "胖 pàng", the connection between "胖 pàng" and "good life" lives on. Therefore, Chinese people never take "gaining weight" very critically. On the contrary, it's a way to show care as well as give a subtle complement.
So, how to answer "你胖了" from your Chinese friend? Smile? Absolutely! Apart from the smile, you should continue the conversation naturally, explaining what you've been up to and ask about your friend's recent life, maybe also begin with:
Wǒ kàn nǐ yě pàng le?
I see you also have gained some weight?
Here are more examples for talking about "你胖了"：
A: It seems you've gained a bit of weight! How are you doing recently？
See? Learning grammar well can help you solve the cultural puzzle, right? We'll explore more of your "cultural shock" in terms of language perspective in the future.
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