Here is a link to a fun website:
It explores the misuse of Chinese characters/Japanese Kanji by Westerners. (Perhaps we could be kind and say “misguided” use?) It’s a phenomenon for which any Westerner who has taken the time to learn characters has one or two good stories, given the explosion in popularity of Chinese tattoos in recent years.
My first experience with wacky Chinese tattoos (on an equally wacky but hopefully not too demented person) was in Taiwan, when I ran into a man with the character 惡 tattooed on his upper chest. By co-incidence, it was one of the few I knew. Upon first seeing it, I remember thinking it was quite Celtic looking and rather pretty looking. I wondered if this man had made the same mistake, and asked him if he knew what it meant. He said, “Yes, it means evil, and it’s on my heart because I have an evil heart.” Erm, okay…I backed up (I’m sure my face conveyed my shock) and that was the end of that conversation. I wonder what Mr. Evil Heart is doing today…
While on the beach just the other day I commented on the tattoo that another dog owner had prominently displayed on his bicep. “So you’re a tiger,” I ventured. The man looked rather nonplussed and said that he was, and the conversation didn’t go anywhere, which left me wondering if he thought he had tattooed some mystical symbol on his arm, one that only wise and learned stoics could decipher, rather than what it really was for the billion plus people who read Chinese or Japanese, i.e. the equivalent of spelling T-I-G-E-R in VERY BIG letters on your arm.
This reminded me of the time that my mother and father and I travelled to Hong Kong and my mother was transfixed by the beauty of the neon signs. “Aren’t they lovely?” she beamed. While I appreciated their colours, I was unable to appreciate them as aesthetic works of art only, since I kept getting distracted by their meanings, with decidedly unromantic words like “barber shop” (which generally means brothel) “sale”, and “fried chicken” jumping out at me. At that point, having a finely tuned sense of aesthetics, (thanks to my mother) I wished I didn’t know how to read them and could have appreciated them for their beauty alone.
By far the most stupid tattoo I’ve seen in a while (quite literally!) was a few months back, when I spied a girl in a bar with the phrase 愚蠢的女孩 tattooed down her back. I did a double take, and checked my dictionary as soon as I got home. Sure enough, it was indeed “stupid girl”. Why? I mean, really…why?? Perhaps she liked the song “Stupid Girl” by Garbage and thought it would be a neat “inside joke”. However an inside joke is by definition one that few get, and her chances of going under the radar with this ridiculous tattoo were slim to none in Vancouver, the most Chinese city in North America…
It’s probably good to have cases of Westerners misusing Chinese as it evens things up, given the propensity of Chinese/Japanese speakers to misuse English, but I would like to point out that the latter have an advantage over the former, as they generally display their English language gaffers on T-shirts!!