Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tattoo of Death

The American fad of getting Chinese characters tattoos can be embarassing if you can read a few characters, like when someone thinks they have the character for "love" tattooed on their bicep, but they actually have the character for "water".

Tonight I saw a woman at the grocery store with two characters tattooed on her forearms. She was checking me out. By which I mean she was ringing up my groceries. Anyway, I was watching her arms and realized that on her left arm was the character for love and on the right the character for death.

I wondered if she knew what they meant. Here is the tricky part. I didn't want to say, "Hey, look, death is tattooed upon you!" What if she thought it was the character for happiness or contentment? That would be embarassing for her.

So I said, "Do you know what those characters mean?" And she did. Apparently she purposely tattooed death upon herself. "I can't read it," she said, "But the guy who tattooed me can." Sure he can, sweetheart, sure he can. Ai think she is being si-lly.

This got me to thinking, though, what a huge joke this must be to people who can actually read the characters. It's probably as funny as when I buy notebooks in China with little English slogans on them: "We and you bubble friends for always, hugs and love!"

Then I got to thinking: If I was a tattoo artist, whenever someone really drunk came in and wanted to get a tattoo of Chinese characters or kanji or things like that, I would tell them, "Oh, here is how you write 'love'" and then I would tattoo something else. I would tattoo on them the words "drunkard" or "Pity this poor child, she doesn't know what she's doing" or "foreigner." I would tattoo, "Made in God's Image." I would write "ma tai". I would label whatever body part they were tattooing with the appropriate Chinese word. I would write, "Made in China."

I guess I would probably have to move my shop every couple of years, though, because when people came in they might say that I had given them the wrong tattoo. I would have two retorts ready:

1) You were drunk! I know it says, "feng pi" but that's what you asked for.

2) Hey, who reads Chinese around here? You or me?

If that didn't work I could always run, or offer them a free tattoo of an eagle clutching some lightning and a flaming skull.

On an unrelated note, have you ever noticed how being jet-lagged makes you feel like your thoughts are more profound and worthwhile than usual? It makes you feel like you should write it all down, get it all out before the magic goes away. But then later you want to apologize to everyone for the strange and witless wanderings of your mind.

Also, if people asked for a tattoo of an alligator, I would secretly give them a crocodile.


  1. Anonymous5:36 AM

    (Followed the link from CM2007here...) LOL! Great post!

    As someone who reads Chinese (I'm Taiwanese), this post was especially entertaining.

    I personally have seen some Americans wearing T-shirts with "Lau wai lai le" (Here the foreigner comes) on the front and "Lau wai zou le" (Here the foreigner goes) on the back. Ingenious!

  2. in east asia there was a store that sold a body wash that said, "disinfects. moisturizes skin. removes horniness." the students bought out the entire stock. we asked agnes later what it originally said and she said it was like removes dead skin.

  3. Anonymous7:14 AM

    Yeah, it makes me laugh when people go around with Chinese characters on t-shirts, skateboards, etc. The other day I was standing in line at the campus dining center and someone had a skateboard with Japanese hiragana across the front. It was like someone had written "agubhsg" on it. Made no sense.

    The Chinese character for love ("Ai") is the first part of my name, by the way.