Tuesday, March 14, 2006

New York Times and Tattoo Choices

I just finished my interview with Cindy Chang of New York Times last night. I thought it went pretty well.

We discussed about the phenomenon of tattoos/body modifications and how Western companies trying to break into the Chinese market with mistranslated slogans. My friend Jeremy Goldkorn’s Danwei.org and Andy Chuang’s Goodcharacters.com both have a few examples.

Cindy would also like to hear more from Hanzi Smatter’s readers’ perspective. If you would like to voice your opinion, please let me know via email , and I will forward Cindy your contact information.

Soon after my interview, I got this email this morning from Valen Farcas.

gmail - tattoo choices

Farcas is “bothered” by the fact that many of my entries are too sarcastic and I should “think a little self-restrain would do a great deal instead of a minute and a half of laughter.”

He/she is also unhappy about my “obsession with trying to make YOUR native language so exotic and exciting by denying people of its uses with the explanation that it has nothing to do with their culture and nature, so what?”

I truly enjoy and welcome comments like this since I believe strongly in “check-and-balance”. But if Farcas really want to call me an “elitist”, why bother with sugarcoating it with “your [awesome] blog”?

T-shirts Giveaway sponsored by Hanzismatter and Jlist.com


  1. Hi Tian. What I find interesting is the anger generated by the misuse of the tattoos in many of your correspondents. English speakers almost universally have a very indulgent attitude to misuse of their language by foreigners. You are much likely to get a chuckle than fury at misuse of the language. Interesting to think of why. For example, if your site was about bad English tattoos on asians, no one would be angry about it, just amused or bemused. Interesting to hear you comment.

  2. Valen Farcas- if the blog was so good, then it wouldn't need to be changed. If you are upset with it, no longer read it. Well, if Tian had set up his television incorrectly, I'd laugh just as hard as if I read that someone tattooed "feces" on their leg. The idea is that if you are going to get something written in Chinese, that is fine, just make sure that you are doing it correctly. It isn't exotic or elite so much as it is being careful not to hook your audio pulgs into your video socket.

    Keep making morons look stupid, Tian.

  3. I think that person is missing the point of this blog. i do not think you have a bad tone. I think you do a great job of making people aware that just because someone in a tattoo shop says "yah! that character there...sure that means 'love', SURE!" doesn't mean that it does. All you do is showcase how gullible some people can be, and that maybe one should think twice before gettng a tattoo in a different language.

    Don't worry about people like this email-er...they're not too bright.

  4. Personally,Valen stumbles on his own awesomly stupid rhetoric. It is not the elitist exoticsm of Hanzi (or in his deft intelligence Hanzy), in fact in this instance Hanzi's are made tangible to a Western audience to remind them the fact their tatoos are not just a commodity but are a language more widely spoken than English. All Valen accomplishes is proving Western centric standpoint.

  5. I'm not Valen Farcas, but to answer your last question, I think it may well be that he genuinely feels that way - that the statement that he thinks your blog is awesome is not, in fact, a sugar-coated lie.

    I actually feel like he does, sometimes; your scathing comments are usually quite funny, but on *some* occasions, they do come across as being (IMO) overly and unnecessarily abrasive. But I certainly don't expect you to change your style because of my opinion, of course; I merely want to point out that it is in fact possible to disagree on some thing without disagreeing on all things. ^_~

    As for Valen Farcas' email again, I'm not entirely sure what to make of it - whether to believe that he really thinks your blog is aweseome, or whether he just wrote that in order to get you to listen to the rest without deleting the email immediately. But I think it wouldn't be entirely unreasonable to give him the benefit of doubt.

    But of course, that's just me. :)

  6. Hi Tian! I believe whoever sent you that e-mail is lacking a sense of humour. Perhaps we should direct the said person to Engrish.com and let him/her laugh about all those English mistakes that the Asians made.

    I just want to echo everyone says here, that Asian languages are not exotic. They are only exotic because of some people's refusal to learn about them.

    I would also suggest that Valen would not do anything "for the heck of it". I find that if one does so, one would only leave all those dirty works for others to clean up, and it's not nice and polite (imagine, how many young girls got pregnant because they and their boys had sex "for the heck of it"?).

    One starts learning new knowledge by admitting one's ignorance. Otherwise, ignorant people should be willing to be laughed at. I'm sorry, but I do see that this is how the World works.

    BTW, Valen, feel free to laugh at those photos on Engrish.com. I'll not be offended.

  7. i guess this comment is quite pointless after all the others saying the same thing, but for what its worth, don't change a thing :D

  8. What most people don’t know is Steven Caires (the man behind Engrish.com) and I often exchange emails and photographs. Especially since both of our sites have links to each other.

    My other site “What Tian Has Learned” has several Engrish photos that I took.

    I have also exchange photos and comments with Jon Rahoi. If you think Engrish.com is funny, you really should check out Rahoi.com.

    Obviously I am not a stiff that is obsessed about just pointing out the errors of Chinese characters.

    I simply enjoy the humor from both perspectives.

  9. To Valen's accusation that it's unfair of you to point out the most amusing/offensive/naughty interpretation of a word or phrase: It's a natural human tendency. If Valen's neighbour introduced his wife as "Throw Up Jones", I doubt he'd think, "Hm, perhaps she likes to toss the baseball into the air." Of course not. He's going to jump straight to wondering whether she causes nausea or is just a victim of it.

    That Valen doesn't recognize that the tendency to hear the worst meaning would be the same for a native Chinese speaker as for a speaker of any other language only goes to reinforce your message that most Westerners for some reason view Chinese as sort of a cute pseudo-language made up of pretty sounds and symbols arranged in any arbitrary order, rather than a real live language with rules of grammar and usage, and spoken by over a billion people worldwide.

    I applaud your efforts, and look forward to each new update.

  10. Come on Tian ... show some "compation".

    hehehe ...

    Sure, you can be harsh now and then, but frankly, sometimes that's what it takes to get people to wake up before tattooing something on themselves they're going to regret.

    As for "Engrish" signs, you've seen Signs of the Times, haven't you?

  11. I was under the assumption that while this website provides credible translations of Japanese and Chinese characters, it is first and foremost a humor-based weblog, like how The Daily Show is a comedy show that also happens to provide some credible news reports. Any criticism that Hanzi Smatter is not serious about its topic betrays the critic's assumption that the site is supposed to be taken seriously in the first place.

    Also, I've learned to ignore any e-mail where the writer uses the abbreviation "IMHO."

  12. I want to point out that it is people who tattoo themselves with characters they don't understand who are the ones making the Chinese language "so exotic and exciting", and you are just doing them a service by pointing out the errors of their ways.

  13. Tian,

    I love your blog and pass it along to anyone who tells me that they are considering "a cool Japanese character tattoo".
    Like devin said, this is a humor blog and like matt said, its human nature to point out what is wrong with a word or phrase. I had a huge laugh at "compationet", for example.
    (No wonder how someone doesn't care about the misuse of another language, they don't care about the misuse of their own!)
    I think Valen justs needs to realize that your objective isn't to teach us your ever-so-special and exotic language, and stop being sensitive. I have a feeling that they are upset because she/he has a hanzi tattoo that they got "just for the heck of it".

  14. I can't help thinking that Valen read your site and assumed that the reader comments, which are often over the top, were YOUR comments, Tian. You always start by giving your "subjects" the benefit of the doubt by trying to determine what they intended to say with their tattoos. You've never come across as "elitist" to me.

  15. I just found this site through LJ and love it so far! keep up the good work :)

    People really should do some research before putting something permanent on their bodies. These kind of mistakes are funny, especially when the owner are all proud about having something "foreign" or "exotic" when they really have no clue.

    Maybe part of this attitude of mine came from personal experience. I was really sick of people telling me to "say something! anything!" in Chinese/Japanese/whatever the hell they thought I speak, or say "oh, so you're from Japan?" when I tell them I came from Hong Kong. I admire folks who are genuinely interested in foreign cultures, but most people I've encountered just wants to look/sound cool.

  16. Did you write him back and point out that his letter is full of spelling and grammar errors?

  17. I agree with Valen Farcas that Tian sometimes goes out of his way to point out that a character might be wrong (I remember the ke4 on the clothes of the boxer, who was laughed at at this site but actually got it right). I would appreciate it if Tian would do this less, it would make me like this site more.

  18. I tend to agree with Farcas a bit. I, too, really like this site, and have been visiting it for a while now. I enjoy it because I like to see the dumbasses that put words on their skin, but don't know what they mean. At the same time, I feel that Tian is often quite harsh and has a very condescending tone in his writing. Occasionally he'll be amusing, but for the most part, his writing has a very sharp bite to it, with little humor. Of course, this is just my opinion, and he must be doing something right since I still visit this site.

  19. Considering that, in your explanations, you usually give several of the most common uses of a word, I don't see how this Valen person gets off accusing you of "leading the reader to the worst possible translation."

    Plus, I wonder just how much "Valen" really has looked at this site, given that they couldn't even spell "Hanzi" correctly and it's RIGHT IN THE FRICKING TITLE!

  20. I have never understood the psychology of people who write to tell the author of a site to say, "I know better than you what you should be writing on your web site. If you just listen to my advice, and write what I tell you to, your site will be so much better than it is now."

    I used to receive a lot of email like that, back in the day. It was one of the things that ultimately ruined it for me.

  21. When I first started studying Chinese, my professor warned us that at some point in using the language, we would make some silly mistake and find native speakers laughing at it. Don't worry about it, she explained. Even native speakers will sometimes use the wrong tone, combine words that end up having a different possible meaning, or miswrite a character. If you're not willing to risk making a mistake, you'll never learn to speak the language properly.

    And I think that's why I like Hanzismatter. After seeing the latest example of a bad Hanzi tat, I'm much less concerned about saying something unfortunate when speaking Chinese.

    What snipermyass (I like that name better than Valen) doesn't seem to understand is that those of us who have spent years studying the language know we will make mistakes, while people who have made little to no effort to understand the language feel confident in having those mistakes forever etched into their skin!

    If that's not worthy of some ridicule, then I don't know what is.

  22. Although I personally have not up till now had any objections to the "harshness" of this site, I can kind of see where the complaints come from, now that I think about it. In the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the author at one point talks about how even when a person is obviously wrong about something and it can even be proven so, it really is nicer to not call them on it -- and even if you must, to do it as nicely and sympathetically as possible. Really, imagine you spent time planning out just the right tattoo to have inked on for the rest of your life; you legitimately thought it said, in Chinese, "Love and Hate" and now, you are not only finding it's actually "Kung-Pow Chicken" written backwards, but everyone is pointing at laughing at you for it. Ah, have you not suffered enough?

    But, that said, I know the humor is one of the reasons I keep coming back to this site, and as John Voorhause said, "Comedy is Truth and Pain." Specifically, it is the truth or fact of a matter or situation, and the pain it causes one of the characters. Thus, hearing about these people who get completely the wrong thing tattooed on them is funny to the outsider, even though one with a strong sense of empathy might be disturbed by it.

  23. I think that Valen needs to read some Edward Said "Orientalism".

    It's an interesting theory about how the west creates this "otherness" about the east. (The Orient in fact encompasses everything from the Middle East, to Asia to Russia) We are somehow seen as separate, eccentric, silently different, sensual, and passive.

    In fact, I recommend this book to anyone. Here is a link to a brief introduction to the book http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Orientalism.html

    But yeah, I agree with most comments here. I mean, Valen doesn't even respect language enough to learn how to use it properly. Grammatical and spelling errors abound in that e-mail.

    Futhermore, please correct me if I am wrong, I think that the point of this website is to draw attention to WHY these people want to get tattoos of different languages they have little to no comprehension of. There is somethiing fundementally messed up in this way of thinking. Is it because they want to be exotic, cool, mysterious, elitist?
    These are the consequences that you face... deal with it.

  24. Tian, continue to share & educate others, in a funny way!

    Poor Valen.

    Seems that he identifies too closely with this particular commentary. Can't seem to get a chuckle out of the mishaps of someone with whom he might identify.

    Unfortunately, he doesn't see the larger humor in the idea that people (rich and poor), in attempt to be cool and trendy, inadvertantly screw up.

    And, in this case, the screw up is on a global scale!

    Pretty soon, Valen may need to join the global community - and become sensitive to cultural differences. Does he know that certain common American hand gestures can be incredible insults in another country?

    I regularly work & communicate with people all over the globe. My mornings are filled with discussions from people in Europe & South America, evenings Asia-Pac (Australia, Japan, China...etc!)

    The one thing that I have realized most, is that the world is an amazing and wonderful place. There are histories that go back for hundreds/thousands of years, of which I have no intimate knowledge.

    Its an amazing adventure to meet & share with someone whose experiences differ from your own.

    And, we are, actually, very much the same...we all have similar core values and desires for our families, our friends, our countries. That we all are proud of our heritage, and we should all appreciate that each culture has gifts from which the others would benefit.

  25. After I've had my chuckles here I usually head over to http://www.engrish.com/ and laugh at the other side. There's my “check-and-balance” ;)

    Keep up the great work!

  26. Harsh? OK...I'm faily new to Hanzi Smatter, but I follow Tian's other blog fairly regularly and I wouldn't, frankly, call either of them "harsh." Witty? Yup. Biting? Uh, huh. Dry? Yessiree. All of these being, in my opinion, very positive qualities. He isn't here to "win friends and influence people." He's here to give his observations and he does it in a highly entertaining fashion.

    Now, Dorothy Parker? That bitch was harsh.

  27. I've just discovered this blog, I find it very entertaining but I also find some of the the comments unnecessarily agressive and spiteful ("Why so stupid westerners have to abuse such a beautiful language?", "I suggest Prince Mu-Chao have the Chinese characters for "Pretentious freak who suffers from entitlement syndrome" tattooed on his furry white ass." and many others)
    For the record, I don't have a kanji tattoo, never considered having one and find it a very bad idea to have something tattoed that you can't understand yourself; but I don't feel that such demeaning self-satisfied comments are necessary. I guess every one of us once made mistakes in his life, and having some meaningless gibberish tattoed is not the worst mistake you can do when you're young, impulsive and looking for your own identity.

  28. Yeah, I agree the language can be toned down a little - being polite and friendly has never harmed anyone - but I don't see anything wrong with giving tattoos the worst translations we can think of. It's what we do in real life, right? We always jump at the slightest subtleties that makes something ridiculous. Think about it - if someone asks you if you have any balls, chances are you won't think they're asking you for a football. Same in Chinese and Japanese. In any case, pointing out how stupid Asian tattoos can be will hopefully deter Westerners from sticking characters on their arms without checking them first.

  29. Whatever. I think its hilarious to point out these mistakes since westerners are more than willing to point out the misuse of English in Asia (aka the Engrish website that sometimes I think is racist...sometimes I think...man, that's actually a cool sounding phrase...that or I've been living in Japan toooooo long =P). Needless to say, at least in Japan they teach English in school and to be honest, I'm really flippin lazy about staying on key studying my Japanese, but I've met plenty of Japanese who speak/understand enough English to have a conversation with me...but in the States, I betcha there isn't as many people with a smattering of Japanese to carry on a conversation with a Japanese tourist or visitor. I know I'm sorta Japan-centric here on this. I guess laoban has never seen the Engrish website; there are times when I don't find it funny at all and bordering on racist. And I am a white male. So for a language that is technically older than any other spoken on this planet right now-I'm not 100% sure if the Chinese language is the same as it was during the Qin dynasty (Japanese is def' different from the Heian era)-I'm pretty sure anyone who is Chinese has a right to be insulted by the ignorance of people when it comes to their language. Hell, if the French get pissed about the bastardization of French....