Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Case of The “Racist” T-Shirt

Sitting on the second floor of a bar in Khao San Road, I spotted the only one of the multitudes of cheap t-shirts in Bangkok that I had to have. From the second floor, it looked something like this:
When I got downstairs, I bought the shirt, after what I recall was an expert piece of bargaining (the trick is to be wasted on blue daiquiris and not care too much if you get the item in question). I also recall my wife rolling her eyes at the shirt (or maybe at my reaction to the shirt) somewhere in the process. Nevertheless, I felt quite pleased with my purchase as we headed back to the hotel.
However, the next morning I looked a bit closer at the shirt, and saw that the word balloon actually said this:


To my tolerant white person self, this rang a few alarm bells. ‘Ching chong’ – had I inadvertently bought a t-shirt that was offensive? How did I not realise the implications of the phrase the night before? Well, it was probably because I was loaded up on blue daiquiris … I thought it was just a cool t-shirt with gangsters playing Rock Paper Scissors. My smugness in relation to my well-bargained purchase started to fade a little.
Since then, whenever I have seen the t-shirt in my wardrobe it has bothered me a little. Could I wear this t-shirt in public? I thought perhaps I could wear it around the house at least, but that seemed a waste (of less than $10, but still … ). So on Monday, I resolved to find out what the phrase ‘ching chong chai’ actually meant. I typed the phrase in Google and came up with this:   

Seeing those second and third results didn’t exactly do a lot to ease my fears. The first result looked more promising – perhaps this would uncover the English translation of the phrase. If I knew the translation, then whenever people looked at my t-shirt and then at me skeptically I could say ‘I know what you’re thinking, but that phrase is actually Chinese for … [insert English translation here] So, uh, yeah … ’ However, the link offered no translation at all, and suggested that the phrase was just nonsense faux Chinese. This didn’t reassure me either.

Nevertheless, I decided to back my choice - I wore the t-shirt down to basketball that night, although on the way down I pondered whether I could get my handy wife to sew a patch over the offending word balloon for future outings. At basketball, I felt another pang of worry as I saw that the team that we were playing possibly had some members of Chinese descent.  And yes, the fact that I couldn’t tell if they were of Chinese descent or not didn’t make me feel any better.

P.S. That night, I mentioned my worries to my wife, who told me that ‘Ching Chong Chai’ was what you say before you choose rock, paper or scissors.


That made me feel better – it was an accepted phrase then. People (or some people at least) would know what it meant. Now I could wear the t-shirt without undue worry … (That is, as long as I conveniently ignored that the phrase still probably had a derogatory origin.)


@AFLFootyMaths said...

Cool looking shirt, in a Reservoir Dogs kind of way!
They also have a black, but I like the boldness of the yellow.

And in Japanese, you say 'Jan, Ken Poi' before you reveal your move.

Troy Wheatley said...

Yeah, it reminded me of Reservoir Dogs as well, particularly that scene near the end where they're all pointing their guns at each other.