This Form of Orient Express Doesn’t Seem to Make a Whole Lot of Sense
English is chic in the Orient. No, I don’t mean spoken English, but rather the written language. And no, I don’t mean that it is fashionable to write English. It is fashionable to wear English.
And, at least in Taiwan, written English is not wearing too well.
Consider these words, recently seen on the back of a handsome athletic jacket worn by a nice-looking college kid on the streets of Taiwan’s capital city:
“ Replay Pleasant Forever Immortal .”
This was not, as far as I could determine, the name of the student’s university. Nor was it the utterance of some mad expatriate avant-garde American poet.
It was, apparently, four words strung together willy-nilly by the Japanese manufacturer of the jacket, apparently for no other purpose than to be attractive.
And it would seem that this goal has been accomplished. Indeed, English words stitched on Japanese-imported clothes are as chic a fashion in Taiwan as partially shaved-head sculpture is in the West.
An innocent enough enterprise, you say? So what if the words don’t make sense? Most of the wearers won’t realize it anyway, right?
Yes, as far as non-English-speaking people are concerned. But what of the effect of such nonsequiturs on those burdened with full comprehension of this widely spoken Western tongue?
This important consideration is something that the Japanese clothing designers callously neglected to take into account.
There I was, wandering the streets with my Chinese friends, trying to enjoy the marvelous trappings of Chinese culture--the dizzyingly colorful street operas, street hawkers, fantastic temples and stupendous bustle--when all the while I was confronted with the most abstract and indecipherable amalgamations of English I have seen since James Joyce.
And there was no avoiding them. English words on the Chinese-character-choked streets of Taipei stand out like chopsticks in a Denny’s restaurant.
Consider this one, seen on the back of a sweatshirt worn by a very happy, innocent-looking teen-aged girl who was worshipping in the rustic environs of the ancient Lung Shan Temple:
“60’s American Nice Dreaming With Or Without Somebody.”
I tried to understand it. I couldn’t help it, it’s my nature. Put English words in front of me, and I automatically try to make sense of them. (It doesn’t always work--like when I try to read William F. Buckley.)
This random phrase was on the back of a little girl licking a delicately swirled ice cream cone:
“After a while you get to like so much about the tiger.”
True enough, I muttered to myself. A fine, beautiful, endangered animal.
Then there was this possibly related thought, printed in blood-red letters on the front of a sweatshirt worn by a man buying a large orange fish at a street market:
“Kitten: Not everybody can have it, but it is delicious.”
Some of the words seemed to have been lifted straight out of novels--pulp romances for teenagers, perhaps. I had an image of a burned-out Japanese seamstress leafing through a book by Danielle Steele and stitching up this passage:
“She trembled excitedly in anticipation at the thought of seeing him again. “
(This appeared, provocatively enough, on the back of a navy-blue jogging suit inhabited by a middle-aged businessman.)
Possibly the most wondrous display of all appeared on the front of a coat hanging on a rack in a place called “F.M. Station,” an expensive emporium catering to collegiate tastes in the heart of Taipei.
It contained the images of three smiling, dancing, mustachioed eggs (their names: “Mr. Daniel,” “Mr. Mauche,” “Mr. Kelvin”), along with the words “Drober Beating Egg Custom Grant Origin Factor. “
Of course, this type of thing is hardly confined to Asian countries. After all, people from all over the world do the same thing.
Status-conscious denizens of Los Angeles wear fancy T-shirts with the names of French ski resorts and German automobiles that they no doubt have difficulty translating and pronouncing.
Europeans buy American clothing that says things like “No Problem!” and “Gag Me With a Spoon!” and less, um, intelligible sentiments.
And then there was that Los Angeles trend a few years ago toward wearing torn T-shirts with Chinese characters printed on them. In particular, I recall a woman exiting a Mercedes-Benz on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills wearing the character for “pig.” True story.
But I’m a journalist, and I must report what I see.
During my 10-day stay in Taiwan, I was advised:
“Are you fed up? Now change!”
I was notified that “We are deeply proud but for what it can and throughout the effort of us all someday will be.” (A Dan Quayle speech excerpt?) I was also asked to “Sparkle for those who are sports maniac!”
I dined next to two young fellows whose jackets proclaimed them “Oriental Racer, The Hero or Heroes, " and a pot-bellied gentleman whose shirt stunningly identified him as “Peytonplaceforeman.” Another similar item of attire invoked the first line of John Lennon’s poignant song for his departed mother, “Julia,” which goes: “ Half of what I say is meaningless .”
I was inclining toward thinking that this particular phrase was unwittingly apropro when I noticed above it, quite inexplicably, the words “Sissy Boy. “
Oh, and I ran into “ The Most Exciting Hot-Shot Fighter " a couple of times, as well as a representative of the “No-Mark-World, " whose wrap informed me “I individual go my own way that’s why I wear no mark.” (Me, too!)
And I should not omit that I observed several people whose clothing suggested that they advocated “Individual Decency--Autumn & Winter.” (So be warned--stay away from these folks in spring and summer.)
I would be remiss if I did not report that possibly the most important message that I saw during my Taiwan trip was the following phrase, worn by a tough-looking middle-aged woman buying a large hunk of pork at an outdoor market:
“ The Solution To The Professional Football Enigma .”
I knew there had to be one somewhere.