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Pentagrams on tower of babel

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2014-06-27 07:53

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While this particular shirt is seemingly a fluke, in that emblems hailing Lucifer are far from pervasive in China, she also wears attire printed with the Playboy Bunny, which is ubiquitous here.

Like many women in China, she sports the icon without any hunch of its pornographic origins and connotations. Westerners will generally think of porn when spotting the emblem of what is arguably the world's most famous nudie magazine, which is banned here. But people who have spent some time in China will start to forget the symbol's original meaning.

The unwitting wearing of the bunny by sometimes very conservative women struck me as hilariously surreal when I first arrived.

Now, it's so ordinary that I even wear a Playboy Bunny most days.

I recently bought what are otherwise perfect pants-so ideal, I bought two pairs. The only problem, which I didn't immediately realize, is the belt loop is affixed with an irremovable metal tag bearing the Playboy Bunny.

I wear them anyway. I've become numb to the implications.

However, I realize the bunny in a bowtie dangling from my waist may stand out to other foreigners, especially new arrivals. (Also, in the West, the symbol wouldn't typically be worn by men, and especially not on business casual attire.) And I've found such symbol misinterpretation works in reverse.

I never wear my "duck" shirt in public since several giggling Chinese friends pointed out to me the presentation of the fowl's image suggested a yazi ("duck")-that is, a male sex worker.

I'd unwittingly purchased a shirt adored with the Chinese equivalent of the male Playboy Bunny. I now only wear it at home and in the United States.

Globalization means many more Americans will be showing up in China wearing duck shirts. (Shirts featuring wildlife are popular in the US, especially among rural men.) And more outbound Chinese, especially women, will be wearing Playboy bunnies.

All without grasping what those symbols mean to host cultures.

Yet more Westerners are coming to recognize the distinction between the benevolent, water-dwelling and typically wingless Chinese dragon and the soaring, malevolent fired rakes of the West. There's even a movement in Chinese academia to replace the English word for dragon with the Chinese word, long.

But that may prove unnecessary. The interpretation is changing organically.

Perhaps the next story of the Tower of Babel globalization is constructing: rising above words to renovate symbolic language-a tier in which bunnies, ducks and dragons dwell in multiple countries with multiple identities better understood by everyone everywhere.

For more stories by expats in China, click here

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