“Queen” Sized: Finding Plus-sized clothing outside the US

This post isn’t really a story of adventure, so much as a hopeful resource for other women like me. Trying to find things online that actually are useful is really hard. If you are a plus (or queen) sized lady with overseas shopping experiences, PLEASE feel free to leave a comment here to help me and others out. If you want to tell me or others like me to go on a diet/exercise regimen, or otherwise insult our bodies, please fuck off.

Yes, I know, Americans are fat. And while some developing nations (not naming names here, you know who you are) are giving us a run for our money in the obesity race, we’re still a nation of large. I’m not here to fat shame, or blame the horrible processed food diet (I think I did that in another post), or soapbox in any way about it. I’m just acknowledging it’s there so I can move on to the rest of today’s blog.

The Plus Sized Shopping Experience

I’m “average” size in America (not by magazine/hollywood standards, but by actual statistics). This means I’m fat in most other countries in the world. And while the US has a growing plus sized fashion market, shopping abroad for many of us can seem like the quest for the Holy Grail.

Living in China (remember I’m not naming names?, well….) I read a lot about how it was quickly increasing in obesity, and I could find clothes that fit, but it was an ordeal, and often involved Wal-Mart. Saudi Arabia (another unnamed name) is full of full figured ladies, but because of the abaya requirement, the clothing options for plus sizes was somewhat limited. I tried to find a pair of jeans there, but everything cute was just about 1 size too small, or it was a huge elastic waisted tent.

Japan was not a place I expected to find anything, but after seeing quite a few larger (my size or bigger) Japanese ladies around town who happened to be dressed quite snappily, I gained some hope. There was a used clothing store across from my share house, and I love thrift store shopping, so I went to check it out. It’s so dang humid here that I really wanted some lighter weight tops that were a little more flattering. To my amazement, I found several in the bargain rack. I have no idea if they were actually intended for large women or if the Japanese tendency to wear clothes that make them look like children playing dress-up just worked in my favor.

Then, after my jeans from the US finally gave out, I realized I really needed to get new bottoms if I wanted to go exploring in the heat. I love my skirts, but, let’s face it, at 90% humidity, everyone gets some degree of chub-rub. I was fairly open to options: leggings, gym shorts, or real pants. But after a whole day of searching, I realized that even the men’s XL was still too tight a fit to be comfy. After more searching online for advice from other expats, I headed back out to a larger mall, to try again at the limited number of stores that *might* have something my size. Eventually, I found some things, but it meant exploring maternity and men’s departments because nothing in the women’s clothes came close.

How to Cope with Being Plus-sized Abroad?

So what’s a girl to do? I have some good news and some bad. There are some tricks that can make your clothing experience better (good news), but you’ll never be able to get exactly what you wear in the US (bad news). Here’s what I’ve learned after 2 years and 4 countries worth of clothes shopping overseas.

1) Adapt your style. In the US you may love wearing skinny jeans and printed t-shirts, or snappy pant-suits, or any number of other styles that you’ve made your own over time. But since you are unlikely to be able to find those exact things in your new country, be willing to change. In Saudi, I couldn’t find jeans for love nor money, but I found about a million beautiful skirts that fit me and looked great. I never wore skirts that often before, but it was there, pretty and cheap. In Japan, the shirts I found were all fluffy, billowy, lacy things, very feminine and “cute”. Again, not my previous style, but they fit well and flatter my shape while keeping me cooler in the Japanese summer.

2) Look around you and ask. Look for other ladies your size/shape, what are they wearing? Do you like it? Ask them where they got it. Make it a compliment. “Oh, what a great dress, where did you buy that?” Consider that another essential phrase to learn in your new country’s language along with “Where’s the bathroom?” and “Another beer please.” Locals often know of smaller hidden stores that cater to special / niche markets that might not show up on a Google search. Heck, if you’re a teacher like me, you can make it a class assignment option and get plenty of feedback.

4) Pack the essentials. Before you leave your home country, or any time you go home for vacation, know what you have the hardest time finding in your size and stock up. I brought extra brand-new bra’s that I knew I wouldn’t even need for 6 months, because I didn’t want to try to bra shop in Saudi. Other hard to find items include undies, panty hose/stockings, and jeans. People often stock up in their luggage on medications and toiletries, but really, unless it’s a weird prescription or super special local brand, you can find these things even more readily in pharmacies and convenience stores abroad than you can in the US, so ditch the things that are easy to replace and make some suitcase space for the clothes you know you’ll want.

5) Shop the local thrift stores. Also called used clothing or second hand shops, places where the local population has donated a wide variety of brands, styles and sizes. In both Prague and Japan, these shops yielded great finds. A pair of jeans in Prague (though too warm for the summer, I picked them up against the eventual fall weather), and several summer weight blouses in Japan. Yes, it takes time to sort through everything, but it can be fun, and if you do find something that fits, you can check the label and maybe find the local shop that sold it the first time.

6) Foreign brands are a reliable standby. I no longer shop at H&M despite their range of plus size clothing because I object to their unethical business practices of using overworked and under-payed women in unsafe conditions. Other places like the dreaded Wal-Mart (yeah, I hate them), or UK brand box stores like Tesco. I hate box stores, but unless you can afford a local tailor, they are your safest bet for clothes abroad. The regular sizes go up to US 12, but often times different styles fit differently, so you can generally find something up to about an 18. In China it was Wal-Mart, in Japan it was Uniqlo, and in Prague, it was Tesco that saved my wardrobe essentials. I love shopping local, but when you simply can’t find what you need, these places can be a good solid backup.

7) Don’t be afraid to stray to other departments. As I mentioned earlier, my pants success in Japan was attributed to maternity and men’s wear. It’s a little embarrassing at first to take some of these items to a fitting room, but not half as painful as my thighs after an afternoon of walking around in a skirt here, and definitely not worth missing out on the adventures. Sure, people may look at you a little funny, but chances are you’re already being looked at funny just for being a foreigner so don’t let it bug you. Find the clothes that fit no matter where the store has put them.

Two Festivals in Japan

Recently I had the opportunity to attend two very different festivals here in Japan. On Saturday, there was a small local lantern/ancestor festival in my neighborhood, and on Tuesday I went to the largest Hanabi (fireworks) festival in all of Kanagawa prefecture. Both events had plenty to offer in their own right, but being able to compare them so close together was especially cool. Also, I figured out how to embed videos today, so you get so see and hear some of the sights, too!

Aoba-ku Matsuri 20150801_185608 My neighborhood here is Aobadai (or Aoba-ku) and matsuri is the Japanese word for festival. The manager of the share house that I live in also does lots of event planning, so there’s usually some posters up in the common room about whatever is going on locally. I won’t claim to be fluent in Japanese, but I do have a chronic reading addiction, which basically means that I’ll try to read anything I see that has letters in a language I’m familiar with. I got enough out of the poster to see it was a festival (probably put on my some local schools) and it was in my area, so I asked for more details, since the location was given as “second park” and I couldn’t find that on Google Maps, even using the Japanese.

However, I have the coolest Japanese hosts, so they arranged for all of us here to go together Saturday evening. 20150801_181747We walked up about a block and left another two or so (maybe 5 minutes?) and came across a tiny little park all decked out in fair tents and lanterns. There was a lovely entrance gate with paper flowers and many messages (prayers?) written in Japanese. The park itself was fairly small. I think we could have walked the whole thing in 3 minutes if it wasn’t so full of people, but everyone there was really enjoying themselves. There was also a tower set up in the center where a taiko drum was being played live to accompany the recorded traditional music.

There were stands for juice and beer, as well as traditional festival foods like yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, candy floss, and shaved ice. The lines were very long, but our hosts took turns standing in line to bring delicious goodies back to us so we could share a little bit of everything. I tried in my faltering Japanese to explain my childhood memories of the yakitori stands I had enjoyed when living at Yokosuka with my family.

Sometimes those of us who have chosen the life of travel and adventure just stop in wonder that what we are experiencing is real, and for me that moment on Saturday was standing in the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer, listening to the mingled sounds of cicadas, traditional music, and chattering attendees, holding a beer in one hand and a yakitori stick in the other, completely unable to stop grinning like an idiot.

20150801_182411We wandered around, taking pictures and (for me at least) making delighted squee sounds at the adorable little girls running around in traditional yukata (like a kimono, but lightweight for summer). I saw some kids gathered around kiddie pools of water with floating balloons. The game was a kind of fishing with a hook on a string and the object was to loop a balloon without popping it on the hook. I think the balloons were pretty tough though, because I also saw kids who had won them bouncing them on the elastic bands fairly hard and they didn’t break. There was also a local celebrity, an older lady who serenaded us with some traditional Japanese songs that we were told brought the ancestors down from heaven to celebrate with us.

At some point, some of the ladies doing traditional dancing around the taiko tower dragged us into the dance area and helped us learn the dance. 11823928_923624031042646_1655739058_nThey were so excited to have the gaijin (foreigners) dancing with them, that even though our steps were awkward and unsure, they showered us with praise when the song ended. One of them had a daughter who had studied in Canada and spoke English well, so she called her daughter up and had a couple of the group talk to her on the phone.

20150801_181445She was so excited that she wouldn’t slow down, so I couldn’t catch every thing that she said in Japanese, but when she started talking about the taiko drum, she asked one of the Brits if he knew how to play. I sort of had to translate for both of them, but the conversation basically went that no, he didn’t know how, but would love to learn. Later on, as we were getting ready to leave, she ran up to us, waving frantically and saying “taiko OK”. So it was that he got to ascend the tower and have a brief taiko lesson, playing along to the music as the dancing started up again. I have to say I was a little jealous, but mostly I felt happy that I was able to help facilitate this experience for someone who so clearly enjoyed it and would not have been able to navigate the language on his own.

Finally, as the festival was winding down, we headed toward the exit and I noticed a group of children staring intently at something on a tree so I went closer to investigate. 20150801_210423There on the tree, hanging off a small twig was a cicada emerging from it’s larval shell and drying it’s wings in the warm night air. I was no less enchanted than the children, and took my turn to get up close for some photos before backing up to let the shorter people have the view. The cicada are as much a part of Japanese summers as yukata, lanterns and fireworks, so I felt very lucky to be able to see this one emerging under the spotlight of a nearby paper lantern.

Kanagawa Hanabi

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This was the 30th annual Kanagawa Shimbun Fireworks Festival, held in the Minato Mirai harbor. It is said to be the largest fireworks festival in the region, and since Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan (next to Tokyo) that’s saying something. “15,000 bursts of fireworks, the largest of which will be 480 meters in diameter” according to the website. So, you can imagine I was excited to learn it was less than an hour by train from my home, and free to attend! (“premium seating extra”)

20150804_182930Now, going anywhere abroad without a native guide means I automatically double the amount of time I think it should take to get there. That day I learned that for festival days, it should really be more like triple. The fireworks were set to start at 7pm, so I left home around 5, thinking this would give me enough time to get to the nearest train stop and make my way to a nice viewing area. I expected it to be really crowded, but fireworks are up, so it’s hard for people to obscure your view. I also didn’t eat much before I left because I figured there would be lots of yummy festival food once I arrived.

20150804_184459_Richtone(HDR)The train ride out started smoothly enough. I noticed more and more people in yukata boarding the train heading the same way. And then just as I was thinking if I got lost I could always follow them, a whole bunch of them got off at a totally different stop than I was expecting. It’s possible they knew something that I and Google Maps did not, because when I got to my last transfer station, the train to the stop I wanted was closed! After about 10 minutes of standing in the underground, dripping with sweat, I gave up on the idea that it would be open and went back to find another route to my destination.

20150804_183945_Richtone(HDR)I made it eventually, only about 15 extra minutes, and emerged from the train station to HUGE crowds of people being herded politely by squads of police officers with glowing red batons. They herded us up an escalator and into a huge shopping mall (which was insanely obsessed with Pikachu), then through a public square and onto a skybridge and through a carnival, and over a regular bridge, 20150804_185350and… it was a really long walk, and although I enjoyed the sights, including the famous ferris wheel, I began to be concerned that I would not make it to the waterfront before the fireworks started. Additionally, there were no food stands, just the regular restaurants in the area (all of which had huge lines).

The fireworks started while we were on one of the bridges, and I personally would have been happy to stop there and watch, but the police kept shuffling the crowd along. I told myself that it was a great part of Japanese life that I was experiencing this event as part of a huge crowd. I’m still not sure if I buy that completely, but there was a nice breeze coming off the water, and everyone was very excited to applaud the fireworks, so it was hard to be unhappy.

The show would go on for about 5-10 minutes, then stop again for as long, so we had some time to keep marching toward our destination without missing too much. There was a short time where the harbor was blocked by tall buildings and I couldn’t see the fireworks at all, but I could hear them and feel them. It was a very curious sensation, being out on the streets with huge crowds of people and police cars everywhere managing the crowds while having the sensation of being in a bomb zone.

20150804_191013_LLSFinally we rounded a corner and had a clearer view of the sky over the water. And there we stopped. I was pretty confused because it was just a street full of people, many of whom were sitting on mats on the pavement, enjoying the picnics they’d brought. But everyone seemed happy enough, and the crowd had really strong reactions to each fresh burst of color. There were lots of phones held aloft to try to capture the spectacle, mine among them, although my camera work may have been a little shaky, since I held the phone up really high and watched the fireworks under it rather than on the screen.

I noticed that some people were gradually edging forward in the crowd, so on the next break in the show I slid along behind one such group, using their crowd busting to my advantage. 20150804_192753_2I gradually made it closer and closer, pausing whenever the fireworks started again to watch and enjoy. I finally emerged on another street that was far less occupied. It was the street that lined the waterfront park. And yet, not only was there a chain link fence set up to keep “non-priority” folks from sitting on the grass, they had put tarp up to keep us from even looking through the fence.

20150804_194119_2Even so, at periodic breaks in the trees, small clusters of people gathered to peek through the cracks in the tarp or watch the fireworks that could be seen over the fence. I kept wandering down the mostly empty street until it looped back around toward the carnival, and finally settled down at the gates to the park. I asked one of the staff about entrance tickets, because it would have been nice to see the show on the water as well as the one from the air, but it turned out you had to get the tickets in advance. Ah well. I still managed to see a bit (and catch some of the music) of what was happening on the lake through the gates, but I couldn’t get any decent pictures.

So, the crowds were huge, there were no food stands (although a couple enterprising folks had set up buckets of ice to sell cold drinks out of) and there were really no events aside from the fireworks. As far as festivals go, I think I preferred the smaller local one. BUT,

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The fireworks were probably some of the most impressive I have ever seen (and I’ve been to the 4th of July on USAF bases, so that’s saying something). I admit fully that my poor little phone just does not do them justice, so after you check out my Facebook page for my own pics, do yourself the favor of an image search and see what the pros have captured. It wasn’t just the sheer quantity (part of the finale actually filled the whole sky with light), but the epic size of the fiery blooms in the air. It’s so hard to portray perspective in photos, especially at night, and I know I sound like a broken record of “you have to see this for yourself” but as beautiful as the pictures are, there is no substitute for the real thing.

This video is only about 5 minutes long, and the whole show lasted over an hour. The finale is really something, so don’t skip the end!

Despite the fact that I sweated about 2 liters out, didn’t get to eat anything, and spent hours and hours crammed in trains, lines or subways to get there and back, I do not regret it for one second. The two festivals could not have been more different, and going to one was certainly not a substitute for the other. It just goes to show that big or small, every corner of the world has something to offer.

Where have you been? 2 months of blog silence

I realize that I haven’t really updated anyone in a couple of months. My life got a little crazy, but here’s some of what’s been going on.

I left Saudi in mid-May and went to Europe for three weeks with the expectation of a nice secure job awaiting me in Japan. Europe was great. I got to hang out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a long time and to see really cool stuff. It was a great vacation, even if it was accompanied by a cold. During my time of resocialization, I started to emerge from the fog of isolation that had covered my mind during my time in Saudi. To be clear, I don’t blame the country or culture for this, I think it could happen to me nearly anywhere. However, being cut off from friendly socialization for that long drove me more than a little bonkers, and although I knew when I made my decision to leave that it was a problem, it wasn’t until I was back among friends that I started to realize how big of a problem it had been. Take away lesson, make sure I’m in a social setting from now on.

20150521_150241France was epic, I managed to blog a little about that before radio silence kicked in. In 5 days and 3 towns I fell in love with it and am now looking at various options for how to live there for 6mo-1year in the reasonably near future.

Prague is also pretty kick ass. It was nice to be able to just hang out with one of my besties, the beer was amazingly cheap and the clubs were super fun. The weather was awesome and there were festivals just about every other day celebrating something. It was really tempting to just stay there, it would have been a little tricky to get all my visa paperwork done, but there appeared to be plenty of jobs and it was *cheap* to live there. The main thing that sent me moving on was the thought of this nice job waiting for me in Japan.

I’d really tried to do my research and be picky. I turned down jobs in rural areas because I knew I needed to be in urban (social) areas to be ok, and I turned down jobs at pre-schools because I didn’t want to work with tiny tots all day. (more on that later, but my hats off and all respect to early learner teachers). I asked loads of questions and discussed the conditions that were causing me to leave my position in Saudi. I really thought I’d landed at a happy place. I was excited to go and start a new job.

Things started going a little weird when I tried to get more detailed info about my arrival in Japan. Since the nearest airport to Yokohama is in Tokyo, it’s not a short cab ride away. Every other school I’ve worked for (and to be fair that’s only been 3 others) has sent someone to the airport to collect me. These folks tell me I have to get myself from the Tokyo airport to the train station that is nearest the residence. This turns out to involve a 2 hour bus ride and a transfer from the bus to the train line. Additionally, arriving with NO phone (still don’t have a Japanese SIM, btw) I had to call the house manager (not affiliated with the school) who would then meet me at the train station to show me to the house (and collect my rent money).

I’ve done enough travelling that I was able to sort it all out, including getting my luggage delivered to the school so that I didn’t have to try to haul 2 large suitcases and my carry on bags across all that public transportation. But it wasn’t a good omen. As it turns out I was not able to accept the job for a variety of reasons I won’t go into in public, but we are parting amicably.

20150709_145612Other than that, Japan is pretty cool. The weather is down right miserable this time of year, hot and humid. Stepping outside means you need a shower. So I haven’t done much exploring outside the neighborhood. I did make it down to Chinatown in Yokohama, the largest one in Asia, and although I got rained out after a few hours, the weather that day was pretty nice. Most of the rest of the time I think about going out until I open the door and feel the non-airconditioned air. So I’m really hoping that I can stick around through the fall at least and get a chance to see things without melting.

My house is a sweet set-up. It’s called a share house, so it’s like dorms for adults. We get bedrooms that are private, but the bathrooms, showers, kitchen and living room are all shared spaces. I hear that not all the share houses around here are so nice, but we 20150606_150634have a kitchen that looks like the set of a cooking show, and a cleaner that comes in and does a base coat cleaning 5x a week. I have to clean my own room and wash my own dishes, but the rest is taken care of. On top of that, the people who live here are really fun and friendly. I’ve stayed up having great conversations, parties, drinking and even gone out to karaoke a couple of times. Just for eg, last night I made some comment about a post from Facebook about the discussion of economy in the US Presidential race and ended up having a 2 hour conversation with a German, Norwegian, Canadian and Saudi.

I keep thinking that I should be more worried/depressed/anxious about things, after all, I’m about to leave my job without a new one. It’s too hot to do anything so I end up laying around at home binge watching netflix until it’s time to go down to the kitchen to cook and hang out with folks. I think I should feel bad for not taking advantage of being in Japan to go visit temples or beaches or hot springs. But I’m really not. I’m not tripping skipping euphoric happy or anything, but even when I lift up the carpet and peek behind the dresser in my head I can’t seem to find any heart stabbing sadness or spine freezing anxiety waiting to jump out at me. After the near crippling anxiety and depression I was going through the last few months in Saudi, it’s still a little hard to believe.

I’ll start job hunting again once the visa is in (my house is cheap so even part time work will be enough), and I’ll try to find some fun places to go that have AC until the weather turns cooler, but for the most part, I’m coming to terms with the fact that what I need right now may not be a whirlwind adventure, but instead it may be to have a slow lazy summer of watching too much TV, staying up too late, drinking too much and just hanging out with cool people in the kitchen. That being said, blog posts may be fewer and they’ll almost certainly be more about things I’m thinking or feeling rather than about things I’m doing. But that’s OK. Not every part of an adventure is external, trekking to new places and seeing new things outside of ourselves. Sometimes we need to trek inside and sometimes we need to visit the familiar.

To be sure, the tone of my adventure has changed in the last couple months, but that’s part of why my mission isn’t just “teacher & adventurer”, I’m also a learner and a seeker. Thanks for sharing it with me, and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapters unfold.

🙂