When T-Shirts Say Odd Things: Southeast Asia

While traveling, evidence of globalization (or “Americanization”) is blatantly apparent, and the prevalence of U.S. popular culture is everywhere. It’s a strange feeling to know that your T.V. shows, musicians and celebrities are popular and widely distributed. Even in remote locations young girls know who Justin Bieber is. On Halloween, my sister and I were sitting in a cafe in Vientiane, Laos. One Top 40s hit after another played over the speakers, and there were obnoxious spider webs and witch posters on the walls. All I was craving was to feel some ounce of local culture. It seemed to be much  more of challenge to hear local music, and much easier to feel just like we were back in the states.

(An interesting read: on her blog Sunshine and Siestas, Seville-based blogger Cat describes watching her adopted city transform before her eyes. In her article “When Living Abroad Starts To Feel Like Living In America,” she says she’s “seeking the Spain I fell in love with when I studied abroad in Valladolid and the Seville that existed in 2007.” Although traveling abroad is completely different than living abroad, I relate what she’s feeling. Reading her article reminds me of how I felt in many parts of Southeast Asia: can I just escape the U.S.? Western culture? In my case, I traveled to experience new and exciting things, not fall into a trap of popular culture that was never “my culture” in the U.S. to begin with!)

With the invasion of popular  U.S. music and T.V. shows comes the mass diffusion popular phrases (think: especially bad words and drugs). While teaching English in Ibiza, I paid particular attention to my students’ wardrobe choices (see this post for especially inappropriate phrases). If it wasn’t cats, weed, or naked girls, my students enjoyed hashtags and sassy phrases (“I don’t need a man”).

Like Spain, my travels throughout the rest of Europe showed me that English phrases on T-shirts were in abundance. From Italy to Istanbul every now and then I would cackle with delight at an oddly-placed utterance or incorrectly written English. On a bus in Santorini, Greece, I once saw a man wearing a cotton T-shirt with bold, black letters that spelled “AGGRESSIVE.” A bit too brash, are we?

Asia was no exception. Linguistic invasions were everywhere to be seen. Part of what makes the use of my native tongue in popular fashion so entertaining for me is when it feels out of place. By that I don’t mean “it’s out of place for a Thai woman to have an English phrase on her shirt.” No, that’s not what I’m referring to (unfortunately. I wish I saw less U.S. culture and more Thai culture!).

What I mean is, taking a  common phrase and placing it a T-shirt in a way that is inauthentic to the U.S. Taking a popular phrase, and using it in a way that native speakers never would. Let me give you an example (besides “AGGRESSIVE.”). I have often heard non-native speakers overuse the phrase “that’s it.” (Let me preface this rant by repeating, I am not shaming language learners. As an ESL teacher and language learner myself I admire peoples’ strength and resilience in the language learning process. That doesn’t mean I still don’t find it funny.) 

How would we use the phrase “that’s it”? Maybe your friend asks you to recall the name of your doctor. You can’t remember, so you tell her, “can you read of a list of them from google?” As she’s reading, she says one name that resonates. What do you say? “That’s it!” Or, in another circumstance, you might reply “that’s it” to a waiter who is taking your order and asks if you want anything else.

I overheard and spoke with people who used “that’s it” as frequently and as carelessly as one might say “yeah.” For instance, I asked, “Are you going to the store today?” One person responded, “that’s it.” The next day I spoke with a French-Canadian on the beach in Thailand and I commented, “I really loved the music at Blanco last night.” He remarked, “That’s it.” (Did he want me to stop the conversation? Was that really it?)

Imagine “that’s it” on a T-shirt. This is what I mean when I say it’s a strange sensation to see an English phrase utilized in a different way than how native speakers might use it. I imagine it’s just as weird for French people to visit middle America and see rural communities donning graphic tees that say things like “Moi Je Joue” and “C’est la vie!”

Unlike Ibiza, I wasn’t as brave in documenting the English phrases I saw in Southeast Asia. Instead of taking photos, I wrote them down. If I remembered, I took notes on the time, location, and circumstance. Because I didn’t meet the people who wore these T-shirts, I have many questions. I wish I could have asked them some. Did they speak English? Did they chose the shirt because it had an English phrase on it? Do they like English? Do they also wear T-shirts with Thai, Lao, Khmer, or Vietnamese phrases on them? Do they think it’s cool?

Below are the phrases on T-shirts that I saw. I have in parenthesis the location and any details I could quickly take notes on. I have in bold the most entertaining or confusing ones. How they are reprinted below is exactly how they appeared.

  • Oops (Bangkok)
  • Sunday (Bangkok)
  • Hi (Bangkok)
  • Welcome to the jungle (Hue)
  • About you (Hue)
  • Young and dangerous (Ho Chi Minh)
  • Bone me like you own me (Phnom Penh)
  • If you met my family you would understand (Phnom Penh)
  • Do you want my heart (Phnom Penh)
  • I’m not a victim Id rather be a stalker (Phnom Penh)
  • Friend everybody like me (Phnom Penh)
  • Here 2 party (2 standing wolves looking like skinny pandas pointing to each other. Worn by an old woman seen in Cambodia)
  • Recycle or will eat your pants (Luang Prabang, young girl)
  • “No drama” (middle-aged man Luang Prabang)
  • Fickle (middle-aged woman in Vang Vieng)
  • No thanks or sorry (Asian tourist in Vang Vieng)
  • Dont look Back  (written backwards. Vientiane man on motorbike)
  • Love ‘em and leave ‘em (young woman in Vientiane)
  • Fundamental academy of coffee and tea (mid-thirties man at restaurant in halal district of Chiang Mai near the mosque)
  • I’m naughty (young Asian tourist in Chiang Mai)
  • I’m free (Sunday night market Chiang Mai, young girl)
  • What’s your message (Sunday night market Chiang Mai, young girl)
  • Project rebel (steet in chiang Mai, woman in her 30s)
  • Grumpy cat (older Asian tourist in Pai)
  • Affection what a terrible emotion to give (young girl on flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket)
  • “Today is the day” (middle-aged woman in Ko Phi Phi)
  • Summer remedial reading 2011 (man on Ko Lanta )
  • Cheap gang (middle aged man phi phi )

I’m in favor of starting of movement of balancing the scales. If English, in all it’s forms – musical, fashion, entertainment -, has to overrun other cultures, I vote for us to change the scene stateside. Who is in favor of finding awkward or incorrect phrases in Turkish or Swahili and distributing them? Me! Who else? I’ll be expecting your message.

It’s about time other languages got their fair share of credit. And it’s our time to write something incorrectly. My only hope is that a Turkish tourist will visit the U.S., see our new fashion statement, and go home to write about “how stupid the Americans really are.” Dreaming big here.

Top photo: A decoration I saw in Pai, Thailand. Doesn’t make sense, but A for effort and A++ for spreading love and appreciation!

 

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