Monday, April 4, 2016

My Life as a Teeshirt Literalist

The literalist's work never ends

For many years now I’ve thought the world would be a much better place if people were forced to take the slogans on their teeshirts seriously. Here in Asia, where English slogans on shirts and caps are often illogical or wildly inappropriate, this belief often entails added effort on my part. Some time I’ll tell you the story about the neighbor woman who sported a pink teeshirt reading “EAGER RESIDENT BEAVER”.

Yes, the challenges for teeshirt literalists like myself are many and varied. These local college boys, for instance, in their lame Adidas shirts with “IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING”--I’ve been compelled to coax them up to the roof of my building, 14th floor, to push them toward the edge and say: “OK then. See that 10th-floor roof across the street? Go.”

Sometimes they get around me and run back to the elevator. One kid I wouldn’t let leave until he either 1) proved that “impossible was nothing” by making the leap, or 2) gave me his shirt for proper disposal.

I moved to Taipei in 1996, where I work as a teacher. Back then I wasn’t yet a teeshirt literalist. Which is probably a good thing. In 1998 I remember teaching English to an 11-year-old girl who showed up to my class wearing a teeshirt that read “I play safe. Do you?”

It gets worse. The shirt was part of a promotion campaign for a new condom brand, and pasted onto the fabric next to the slogan, visible through a clear plastic panel, was an actual condom in its wrapper.

The girl’s mother brought her to class in this shirt at least three times. Did the woman not know what a condom was? And really: Who would produce shirts like this in a size small enough to fit a grade-school girl?

Luckily, as I say, that happened before I discovered my new calling: To compel people to live up to the slogans on their shirts. Had I been a committed literalist back in 1998, I’d have been faced with a serious moral dilemma. In the end I know I’d have betrayed my calling. There are some boundaries even a committed literalist can’t cross.

But even now, 2016, I’ve plenty on my plate that’s causing me headaches. What about the feeble old Chinese man I see down my lane every week inching along on his walker? He wears a black Malcolm X baseball cap. Do Chinese octogenarians really have anything to offer American blacks? I’m not sure, but we’re going to find out.

And then there’s Angela, the rosy-cheeked 19-year-old student of mine who is a starry-eyed fan of K-pop but sometimes wears a jean jacket with Che Guevara stenciled on the back. If I’m to stick to principles, Angela will have to be bundled onto a small truck and taken to the mountains of central Taiwan, where she’ll spend a few months learning to smoke cigars and organizing the indigenous tribes to rise up against the evils of capitalism. Central among such evils being, of course, K-pop.

I plan to deal with Angela later. I’m still making out the list of young people I know who wear Che shirts or carry Che-logo accessories. Today I’ve got a more pressing project. Because here in the subway car next to me is a tall woman with lovely long legs shouldering a parti-colored backpack that reads “LOVE NEVER GIVES UP”. I’ve seen her before, though without the new backpack.

If I remember right, this particular subway-rider usually gets off three stops before mine. Today I’ll exit with her, find out where she lives, set up a rough stalking schedule. Taipei women are quite friendly, so getting a Facebook link isn’t difficult, though it’s true this one is on the knockout side, and they tend to be more defensive. But a Facebook link will help me figure out her usual haunts, and then I’m set to go. Facebook really is a godsend for stalkers. It saves you so much time.

Yes, love never gives up. I will show her what that looks like.

In fact we all need to take language more seriously. Not just here in Asia either--this is even truer in the States. Were we to take language seriously, the benefits would rain down like manna. For one, if we forced slogans and ads to mean what they say, if we really pushed the issue and didn’t give in, capitalism itself would crumble before the decade was out. And a lousy decade it’s been if you ask me. And the next one looks to be even worse.

Write more later. Gotta go. It’s our stop.


Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. at, and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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