Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The t-shirts of all-around opening up

Sometime in 2003 or 2004, I forget when exactly, I was in Nanjing, and on the side of the bus was a sign that said:
Nanjing: The city of all-around opening up
which is an announcement to the Nanjingites that their city was ready to be part of the world-at-large, to welcome foreigners -- investors, tourists -- to their great city, the capital of nine dynasties, and the capital of the Chinese Republic under Dr. Sun Yat Sen. And open up they did. I first came to Nanjing in the late 90s and back then, foreigners were a novelty. I was mistaken for a Japanese, a European, and a Sri Lankan, the latter by a taxi driver who kept looking at me (I was at the back seat, of course) while driving, speaking in Chinese to my colleague from Taipei (that's how I know he mistook me for a Sri Lankan -- my colleague told me). About a year later, I came back to Nanjing with colleagues from Europe and the US, and the Nanjingites, whenever we go out together, had a field day. They stared, aghast, at the novelty of several blonde people. "I dont think I'll ever get used to this," said a colleague from Belgium, as kids were following him and adults stared at him wherever he went. And he looked normal. Imagine the stares for another colleague with blonde hair with blood red streaks. Eating at posh hotels wasnt a problem; they spoke English there. But outside, even at McDonalds or KFC, all youll get from the crew were blank stares when you tried to order (they didnt discover queueing then). Fortunately they had pictures. In restaurants, we just pointed to the food ordered at the other tables if the menu didnt have pictures.

Soon after that, Nanjing undertook what looked to me like a contruction boom on a massive scale. This was after Beijing won their bid to host the 2008 Olympics. And with this construction boom, Nanjing became the city of all-around opening up. We started seeing foreigners everywhere, from all races, probably from western companies that set up shop there. Gradually, the Nanjingites got used to them and soon they wouldnt even merit a curious glance, let alone a stare. The crew at McDonald's and KFC spoke English; not perfect, but passable and understandable.* College educated Nanjingites understood English, if spoken slowly or written down, even if they had difficulty speaking it.

As their opening up the outside world proceeded apace, English became common in ads, song lyrics, magazine articles (even just a phrase), store signs, but mostly on t-shirts. This last one provided me with endless entertainment as I took to t-shirt reading to pass the time. They had the most creative t-shirt signs Ive ever seen and it was a puzzle figuring out what some of them meant. One day, in the office, a female colleague wore a pink sweater with a cartoon cat drawn on it and the sign 'Romantic Pussy' in big letters. Since then, I hunted down t-shirt signs in earnest, and wrote them down on a notebook whenever I can.

Aside from Romantic Pussy, I saw a t-shirt with the words 'Chunkily-penised boys' on it. What, is this a sign of the burgeoning sexual revolution among the young Chinese? The youth seemed sexually-active and uninhibited. Everywhere we looked, we saw couples engaged in activities that we Pinoys would practice in darkened movie theaters or bedrooms, but they do it in broad daylight, in parks, in fast-food stores, on buses, on the streets. Romantic pussies and chunkily-penised boys engaged in lip-lock and tonsil hockey. There's also this trend where boyfriend and girlfriend dress exactly alike, t-shirt-and-jeans, announcing to all their commitment to each other, through t-shirts with signs like 'I am her boyfriend' and 'I am his girlfriend'. Solo shirts also are full of romance and profession of love such as the enigmatic 'I love you. The Brane', which I assume says, I dont love you for your looks. It's your mind I find fascinating.

Other t-shirt have a patriotic bent. There's this intriguing T-shirt that said on the back, 'I love Tibet' a radical sign to be sure, inviting police questioning at least, until one sees the sign on the front that says 'I love China more than ever'. There is also a sign that says 'I love China up' which had me wondering what it meant. China up? Probably means that China is on the way up. Which it is.

Some have a mathematical bent: 'Fascinating. 100% divided by 100%', or 'Feel 100 to be different'. Others convey a positive attitude and a love of life, probably brought about by the economic boom: 'Good memory. Today, tomorrow, always', 'Io, why wouty?'. And lest we miss that Christianity has a strong foothold in China, we are reminded by this t-shirt that says 'Jesus of Mind'. Or this one that says, 'God save sweet love the rice ascend'. (God's love will provide for us even if the price of rice continues to rise?)

Others are just baffling. 'I have a goodness of a queen, sweating empathy, and a daughter', 'Sides, it stores to the thread de the air, the heat, retaining her than general', 'Party. Do you to me? Earth'. These had me puzzling over their meaning, but perhaps I was reading too much into them. And I just heeded the advice of another t-shirt that said 'The answer is fairly obvious so you shall really guess it'.

They just mean what they mean.

*Or they did. For some reason, McDonald's and KFC crews' English skills have deteriorated. I surmise that it's because the crew who spoke fluent English were assigned to Beijing temporarily for the Olympics. The Burger King crew's English meanwhile is impeccable.


grifter said...

come, let's join us!!

Zaphod B. said...

hay nako, these chinese must've used Shift F7 too much.

Zaphod B. said...

dear chinese people,

please stop indiscriminate use of thesauri

Zaphod B. said...

they should watch more american tv series, read superman comicbooks, and subscribe to reader's digest

Jego said...

You could make a very good living there teaching English to college students. Nanjing would be a good place.

grifter said...

@zaphod b.
i think they do two out of three (they probably never heard of reader's digest) but i don't think it makes a difference.

Zaphod B. said...

oh you mean they don't really read english.. characters? now i see it: those letters we use we take for granted, but to them it's a novelty, an exoticism.

jego: teaching esl-level language is horrendous. no, thanks. plus they are paying me in yuans?

Jego said...

Yes, youll be paid in yuan. Lots of it from what Ive heard.

dkny.ca said...

fah-neeh, jego! any pics?

grif, musta NY and CS? =)

Jego said...

Of the t-shirts? Sadly, no. If I had a lot of money, I wouldve bought some, but, well, pasukan na noon e. :-)

As for CS, ganun pa rin. But youll never guess who's back. I'll email you.