In the early 1990s, Dr. Sing Lee began to see mental illnesses behave the way they’re not supposed to.
A practicing psychiatrist and researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Lee was studying anorexia in China – where it displayed virtually none of the symptoms of the disease in the West. His patients didn’t diet, or fear becoming fat: instead, they said their stomachs felt constantly bloated.
Then, in 1994, an anorexic teenage girl collapsed and died on a Hong Kong street. The death caught big media attention, and the Chinese language newspapers and TV covered it. They went to western experts to describe the illness, and naturally those experts quoted from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, now in its fourth edition): they said anorexia involves deliberate dieting and fear of obesity.
Almost immediately, people around Hong Kong began exhibiting those symptoms – symptoms that had never before existed in a Chinese country – instead of the symptoms of anorexia that Dr. Lee had previously seen. Those symptoms had been indigenous to the culture, but not as well known – and almost overnight they disappeared to be replaced by the same “mental illness” made famous by American teenagers and celebrities.
By the late 1990s, three in ten women in Hong Kong reported symptoms of an American style eating disorder.