Thursday, October 30, 2008

Almost Bay Along It, We'll be Out of the Earth Special

From time to time there will be a fad here in the United States of America to plaster characters from Asian languages all over our leisure clothing. By tradition, the wearer will neither know nor care what the characters mean; the point is only that they look exotic and more or less stylin' upon one's chest or thigh. A few of us will fret about the intellectual vacuity of this sartorial choice, but nobody cares what we think.

Well, it goes both ways. All over the world, people express their contempt for the Anglo-American cultural hegemony by sporting T-shirts on which our beloved mother tongue is contorted into strange and surreal forms. These shirts embody a postmodernist's contempt of the simplistic notion that language can convey precise "meaning." The sole message they bear is rather that coherence is an illusion -- that concepts and states of mind can at most only be extracted from the medium of written language in the form of vague gestures and allusions. Or, as the shirt of a young Russian gentleman I met recently had it,

Almost bay along it
We'll be out of the Earth special

Occasional L&TM5K Commenter Heatherbee has of late been sojourning in the countries of Asia, and took time out from studying traditional Korean drumming techniques to investigate the T-shirt phenomenon. Here, brought to you with the kind help of her mother, is a sampling of her collection.



















In conclusion, if you only remember one piece of T-shirt wisdom, it might well be this one:

Brighten the corner where you are
Water is Life
Every Drops of Water are Value

17 comments:

Rebel said...

Wow! I've noticed the phenomenon here too... but this trumps *everything*!

in medias res said...

My brother is a wonderful storyteller, but one of my favorites he has recounted was of an experience he had in an OSU cafeteria. A Chinese exchange student was chatting at his table, when she suddenly started laughing, and continued doing so until she cried. My brother asked her what was the matter, and she asked "Did you see that white guy walk by? The one with the Chinese tattoo on his arm? It means 'toilet'!"

I hope she was wearing one of these t-shirts when it happened. It would be too perfect.

fingerstothebone said...

My sister sent this to me a few days ago:

http://www.boingboing.net/2008/07/15/chinese-restaurant-c.html

And it even works intra-Asia too. I've often wondered if the Tang Dynasty monks played a joke on the Japanese scholars sent to China to learn and bring home Kanji characters.

andrea said...

I laughed out loud :)

Sandy said...

Reminds me of this:
http://www.engrish.com/

Sandy

Ben said...

Nice analysis, M2K. I've always wondered about this phenomenon, and you explained it nicely. I agree with sandy--your post today was like a trip to engrish.com.

margaret said...

I, too, loved the Chinglish that I observed on fashions in Beijing. My friend who taught in Taiwan for a while looked down one day to see a pencil box sitting on one of her student's desk emblazoned with SHITTY KITTY. She had to buy it off the kid.

Chance said...

A friend of mine in Taiwan saw a guy with a shirt that had the following words in the Calvin Klein font:

Cavalier Killer-diller

Elizabeth said...

You'll have to get Morgan to show you the Engrish stationery I brought back from Japan and finally gave to the kids (I was keeping it for myself and actually did use it now and again). I think one of them bore the evocative phrase "Eighteen foot wave swelling frantically!"

Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: Delight best competing with each other!

@In Media: Admiration... of Dischordant Elements, 1986-1997!

@Fingers: Awesome.

@Andrea: Yeah, me too.

@Sandy: Engrish.com is always a big hit in the ESL community. Depending on my mood, I sometimes feel like it's making too much fun, and sometimes I laugh and laugh until I'm about to pee my pants.

@Ben: My post was list a trip to Engrish.com.... and then you got to the pictures of the shirts!

@Mags: Can we get a visual on the "Shitty Kitty" box? That's a follow-up post if I've ever seen one....

@Chance: It's hard to go freely with singing even hum when there are people lurking around in their Cavalier Killer-diller shirts.

Anonymous said...

From a related genre, my favorite double CD of Chinese folk music, bought in Guangzhou, is titled in English as "Dishware a la Mode".

Related as well is the practice of Chinese students of English to take on an English name (this happens in classes for American Sign Language as well - my sign name involved the letter T and the sign for 'tie').

Sometimes they are in honor of a specific individual, though matching the gender of the recipient and honoree is entirely optional:

Keller (after Helen)
Armstrong (for Neil)

Other times they are a literal translation related their Chinese name, or not:

House
Yellow
North

The self-descriptive:

Lazy

And the best are ridiculous juxtapositions of gender and logic:

Daisy (a male fan of Fitzgerald)

as well as the indecipherable:

Ker

Phineas said...

media's story reminds me of a short lived sit com with an episode in which it was revealed that the tatoo on the strapping dark skinned character translated to "little bitch".

Sandy said...

I laugh pretty hard at engrish, then I sort of feel dirty afterwards.

Jennifer said...

How about, um, Welshlish? (This just came up on one of the other blogs I follow.)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/7702913.stm

Heatherbee said...

Thanks for putting these up, Michael! They were meant to go on my Korea blog long ago, but since that is now defunct as well as my Indonesia blog, I'm glad they found a cyber-home at last. Tune in next time for Indonesian English tees. For me at least, the ones I've just purchased take the art to new heights.

karmaSartre said...

I'd like to order the one with "Burnt" on the front and "French Toast" on the back. Extra large please.

Rebel said...

phineas - I saw that show... he got it changed to "Lemon Chicken" at the end. =P

There's a guy at work with a chineses tatoo on his leg and just the other day I was asking him "what does it mean?" and "are you sure that's what it means????" lol