Lost in translation: Does that Chinese tattoo mean what you think?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

BEIJING -- "Pig."

That was the word printed on her T-shirt in Chinese -- an enormous design taking up the entire front. "PIG."

"Do you know what your shirt says?" my dad called out to the stranger sitting at the picnic table across from us that summer years ago in Cape Cod.

She shook her head.

"It says you're a pig. That means you're going to get rich," he said smiling.

Whether it was the shock of the first sentence or the whimsy of the second, she stared for a minute before cracking up.

"Yes, really!" said my dad, who was born in China. "Pig very good."

Still, it was a strange moment. "Pig" may be very good, but you'd be hard-pressed to see a Chinese person announcing they were one with a word printed large. And, by the way, who would wear a T-shirt without knowing what it said?

The sometimes odd use -- or misuse -- of Chinese by Westerners is the focus of the riotous Web site www.hanzismatter.com by Tian Tang, a Chinese native now studying materials engineering at Arizona State University.

The site's specialty is tattoos that don't make sense. For example, there's one that sort of looks like the Chinese word for "bitter," except it's all wrong. The horizontal line on top doesn't cross two smaller vertical lines like it's supposed to, and there's an extra vertical line in the middle section.

The word -- pronounced "ku" -- means "bitter," "hardship" or "suffering," Tang explains. "The three exact emotions this guy is going through right now."

Ouch.

The "pig" lady got off easy.

Tang says it's all in good fun. He was inspired by www.engrish.com, a site that collects examples of English mangled by east Asians -- think: "I eat flied lice" -- jokes that in more politically correct times would draw howls of protest.

But Tang, 28, is from a young generation of Asians confident of their place in the world with no problem making fun of themselves.

"I'm a big fan," Tang says of the "engrish" site. "I thought it would be an interesting idea to show the public the reverse."

Tang moved to the United States in 1990 when he was 13 to join his father, who was doing linguistic research at Arizona State. He saw his first makes-no-sense-in-Chinese tattoo as soon as he stepped off the plane, at LAX.

"I think I was waiting for the bus going between terminals to the exit, and there's a young man -- probably in his early 20s -- with several random Chinese characters tattooed on his right bicep." It was barely readable nonsense, "like, strength, or power strength or something," he says.

"I thought it was kind of interesting at the time, but I didn't think much of it because I'd just arrived here after a 16-hour flight."

He saw more Chinese gibberish over the years -- not just on slacker tattoos but also on ads for Nike and McDonalds, and on Old Navy brand T-shirts.

A year ago, he started his site.

His point: These are actual words that billions of people on the planet can read, not just pretty designs.

"The goal of my Web site is not to ridicule people," Tang says. "Hopefully, people will start getting interested in Chinese language and history and culture through education rather than the blindness of fashion and instant gratification with tattoos."

Tang, now a U.S. citizen, says he "definitely" hopes to work in booming China someday. He's part of a newly globalized citizenry that feels just at home in Washington as Wuxi -- unlike my father, who came to America an uneasy refugee only to return 40 years later to a China that had changed beyond recognition.

Tang cites a cousin in San Jose, Calif., who works for an applied materials firm and "travels through Asia back and forth all the time."

Sounds like a ripe opportunity for yet more cultural dialogue -- not to mention double takes at the world's airports.

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