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.)