The differences in the human body between cultures are very subtle, but these small differences can mean a lot when it comes to clothing or other personal apparel, such as eyeglasses.
I generally advise travelers to not worry too much about packing before going abroad, as in these days of globalization you can pretty much get whatever you need in any country. They sell clothes all over the world, so don’t bother trying to pack an entire wardrobe into your rucksack. But there is a big exception to this rule:
When going to live or travel long term in areas of the world where the people tend to be built differently than you, stock up on clothes, footwear, and other apparel before departure. The reason for this is simple: It may otherwise prove difficult, or even impossible, to find anything that fits your body.
I’m a 5′ 8″ Caucasian male in China. I’m not tall here in the least, there are plenty of men with a great height advantage over me, but I have a 42″ chest and 15″ biceps. In point, it’s impossible for me to find shirts that fit. Even XL is far too snug. While it may be cool to wear tight t-shirts that show bulging muscles, I just look like an ass when trying to squeeze my upper body into formal wear that is clearly too small. I’ve been looking for a hip looking suit jacket to wear while interviewing people for weeks here in China, and I think I’ve finally given up.
The sad fact of the matter here is that the clothes that fit my chest and arms hang down way too far over my wrist and waist. So I have the choice of looking like Charlie Chaplin or like I’m about to do the “fat man in a little coat” dance. Both options suck. I’m built too differently than the average Chinese male to shop in China, I just don’t match the body type that clothing here is made for.
Though I have to admit that Western women often have a far more difficult time than me clothes shopping in East Asia. I’ve even gone into clothing stores with Western girls here in China to have the sales clerks barring our entrance yelling “too big, too big,” while pointing to my friend.
It’s my impression that few woman want to be called “too big.” Anywhere. Ever. So I’ve know many Western women — even relatively petite or otherwise thin or average sized ones — who have just given up on clothes shopping when in East Asia, a region of the world where the women tend to have so slight a body frame that they look like they will crumble on impact.
But one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with the incongruities between the body types of Westerners and East Asians occured while shopping for a pair of eyeglasses for my wife in China. To put it bluntly, Chinese people tend to have rather wide faces when compared with Caucasians. I’ve never really noticed the extent of this before until my wife began trying on eyeglasses. It was almost hilarious as she put on frame after frame that completely stuck out beyond the boundaries of her face. While these glasses look good on Chinese people, when placed on my Jewish wife they looked like something out of a comedy spoof — which is to say, totally ridiculous.
So before going off to live in another country, look at how the people there are built, look at their face shapes, their body structures — do they tend to be tall, short, thin, fat, broadly or slightly built, wide or thin faced — and then look at yourself:
Do you look like these people?
If not, then reprovisioning your clothing and apparel in these countries may prove to be a challenge. So go prepared.