T-shirts and Tattoos

One of my favorite things about China was the Chinglish.  “Oh yes, it is Chinese-English.  We know,”  Chinese teachers and students would often say when I explained to them that sayings such as “Happy Happy Everyday” and “Day Day Up” were not correct English.  But then, I would teach them that Chinglish was a more fun term to call these types of sayings.  For some reason, this was a more difficult concept for them to understand than I foresaw at the time.

I especially enjoyed Chinglish because it was everywhere:  on advertisements, on street signs, on brochures, and especially on t-shirts.  And this will bring me to my next observation/difference between China and America.


Chinese people love to wear shirts with English writing on them.  It’s hip!  It’s cool!  And no one knows what it means!  For example:  I doubt that the person in the airport knew what “THROW YOUR FISTS IN THE AIR AND GET READY TO FIGHT” was on the back of his shirt and meant, “let’s brawl!”  All he probably thought was, “Hey, the back of my shirt has English on it.  I’m so fly.  God, I’m so mysterious.”

The thing that really amazes me is:  with how often Chinese people are on the computer, and how easy it is to use language translators, why don’t more of them at least attempt to find out what their shirts say?  My friend Fu Rui (Color Wolf is his English name…this means horny pervert) had a shirt on at dinner the other night with some English writing.  I didn’t look too closely because most people had at least some English words on their shirts.  But then, it caught my eye, and I was shocked to read what it said:

Seeks Filthy Whore

His shirt said, “Seeks Filthy Whore!!!!!!”  And not just once.  It was written all over the back as well.  I did my best to translate the meaning to him with my limited Chinese (which was surprisingly easy since vulgar language is my strong point in the Chinese language…thanks, Chinese friends).  Fu Rui was very embarrassed by this as everyone laughed at him, but then everyone else frantically surveyed their own shirts fearing that they were also seeking something filthy.  Fu Rui then turned his shirt inside out, and later the next day, he informed me that he had trashed it.  I cried a little bit on the inside.


While Chinese people find it hip and cool to wear shirts with English writing on them, Americans don’t often come across shirts with Chinese writing.  Instead, Americans do something far dumber:  they get Chinese tattooed onto their bodies.  “It means wisdom,” someone might say about the random character sketched on their skin.  “It’s so beautiful!  Don’t you think?”  Actually no.  For most people, they have never even been to China or spoken a word of Chinese in their life.  So why get a tattoo of something that has no connection to you at all just because it looks pretty or cool?  All these people do is cause a stigma for these types of tattoos for people who could actually get them without be a huge poser.  Moreover, while these people believe that they know the meaning of what is carved onto their bodies, I have heard more than one story about people having not only grammar mistakes but completely wrong words.  For all they know, “one with god” could actually mean “seeks filthy whore.”

Here, we have a similarity between the two cultures.  We both like to wear writing from the other language.  However, Chinese people do it in a disposable manner.  They can rid themselves of the ridiculous shirts (seeing as they never…or rarely…get tattoos written in English) and Americans are scarred for the rest of their lives.

One thought on “T-shirts and Tattoos

  1. Great post. I saw a woman playing with her kids in a park in South America with a shirt on that announced: I #@!? ON THE FIRST DATE.

    And yes, I love how you point out we are even dumber since we get tattoos that we don’t understand. Rumor is that Brittany Spears got a Chinese character tattoo that was supposed to say “mysterious”, but it really meant “strange/confused”. On second thought, maybe her tattoo guy really did know what he was doing, since the real definition seems more appropriate…

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