I was in a kickboxing class at my gym a while ago when I noticed something interesting. Between following the punch-kick-squat-jump-kick-kick-punch-uppercut combo that my insane instructor was blasting through, my eyes fell on a woman in front of me.
She was older than me – maybe late thirties – and was in good enough shape that it gave her a younger appearance. Her brown hair was tied into a ponytail and she was powering through the combo making small ‘tsch! tsch! tsch!’ noises every time she punched and kicked the air.
On her shoulder, however, was a tattoo that read ‘男’. I was excited to be able to understand the kanji and after class, I strode up to her and made conversation.
“I like your tattoo!” I said as cheerfully as I could after a 50-minute intense cardio class. “Do you have a son?”
“Huh?” she responded with a voice reminiscent of a Kardashian. “A star?”
“No, a son.”
“A son. Do you have a male child?”
“Oh,” she said, obviously confused. “No, why?”
This was not going how I expected it would. I was in too deep now.
“Ah, well I like your tattoo.” I repeated. “I lived in Japan for three years so I was happy that I recognized it. It means boy, right?”
I knew what it meant.
“Ohhhh thanks,” she said with that fake laugh that people do when they’re nervous or caught off guard. “Umm, the tattoo artist told me that it was my husband’s name.”
“Ohhhh,” I said. This was indeed awkward.
“His name is Roy.” she continued.
“Well…it means….’boy’?” I offered lamely. “So that’s kind of close? I mean…the same sound?”
Where was the ABORT CONVERSATION button?
“Well, whenever I’m mad at him, I just tell people that it means something else,” the woman told me with a devilish smirk. “That’s why you get a tattoo in a different language, right?”
Wrong. Completely wrong.
“Yeah…haha,” I gave a small, cordial laugh. “I guess it is.”
I disengaged as quickly as I could and left the gym out of a different exit. My mind was boggled. How, I thought, could someone just have a kanji tattoo on their body without knowing what it meant?
I had made this point in Japan to my students by showing them pictures of incorrect kanji tattoos and nonsensical Japanese on T-shirts. They thought it was hilarious until I pointed out that the Japanese do the same thing with their clothing etc.
“English is cool,” I told them. “But if you’re going to wear it, you need to make sure that what you understand what you’re wearing.”
I think this also relates to people anywhere – do your research about things. Especially if you’re going to get a tattoo!
‘Boy Roy’ woman obviously just chose hers off of a wall and believed whatever the tattoo artist told her. I’m sure there are tattoo artists out there who have a functional knowledge of Japanese and Chinese characters. I would still do my own research before deciding on inking a word or phrase in a different language on my body.
Recently, I saw a woman in my Zumba class with the character ‘勇’ on her shoulder. Instead of saying anything to her, I simply kept my mouth shut and shook my butt with her and the rest of the class. It worked best for everyone that way.