Sunday, March 9, 2014

Rubbish travel T-shirts you need to stop buying

I'm not the fashion police. The fact that I just used the term 'fashion police' should give you an idea of how diligently I keep up with the latest trends generally. I never want to look like I'm trying to be fashionable, to the extent that I've always actively curated a blandly unfashionable wardrobe, avoiding branding and unnecessary designs wherever possible - until I started travelling that is, when location-branded T-shirts became the only form of souvenir I allowed myself.

Now I'm not travelling so much and spending more time shut up in a flat, all those exotic place names do seem less relevant, and I'm back to the frustrating annual exercise of tearing through pointlessly patterned products at overstocked malls to find five cheap T-shirts with differently coloured, blank facades that'll see me through the next few years. It's even more difficult to find those over here, where I was led to believe their kids make them, but needs must when my white 'Save the Sea Turtles' shirt gets beiger with every wash and my girlfriend orders me to throw it out.

Since we've been travelling again, my travel tees have felt relevant again and I've been nostalgically reacquainted with some old favourites - bewilderingly popular products sold by pushy vendors on the doorstep of sacred sites (or inside) and in every other shop down your Khao San Roads and Legian Streets. Practical holiday mementos are to be encouraged, but you people need to stop buying:

In The Tubing - Vang Vieng Laos

Image: SuzyMay

I saw a guy proudly/lazily wearing this recently in a different part of Asia, and it took me back to that crazy place where the illiterate singlet hangs off every third body like a proxy uniform. Just like those university fleeces snapped up by uniform-starved freshers, this is something you buy because you want to fit in.

I spent a few days in Vang Vieng to break up the journey between more worthwhile parts of Laos, but wasn't adventurous/drunk enough to get involved in the reckless river activities. This T-shirt accurately marks the divide between my type of timid traveller and the people in hostels I'm not really going to get along with.


Image: eBay (there's really a resale market?)

The ubiquity of 7-Eleven convenience stores in urban Thailand can be a source of amusement to first-time visitors, but buying a T-shirt of a corporate logo because it's one of the things you associate most with your visit makes me feel a little sad. The country does carry on past Khao San Road.

My uninformed guess is that the type of foreign visitors who associate 7-Eleven with Thailand probably don't come from America, the country that it's actually associated with. For me, that was the amusing part about seeing all those 7-Elevens in Thailand the first time: 'why are the Thai so taken with this American thing?' But then you do more travelling and notice that the similarly omnipresent Family Marts - Pepsi to the 7-Eleven's Coke - are Japanese. And that 7-Elevens exist in other Asian countries beyond Thailand too, if you'd bothered to go that far. Some much more prominently - in Taiwan they're practically a pillar of the community, doubling up as a post office and place to pay your bills.

7-Eleven is not a hallmark of Thailand. On the bright side, it's at least highly unlikely that any money from your purchase trickled back to the corporate fat cats, not that it would make much of a difference to the baths of baht they're enjoying thanks to all those alcohol and microwaved meal purchases you made because trying the real foreign food is a bit scary.

Alcohol and drug puns

Image: Weedist. No, they don't get a link

Puns are one of the lowest forms of wit, that's why you'd never catch me using them. But even lower on the scale are puns based around drinking and drugs, and when you choose to endorse and immortalise one of these terrible gags on a T-shirt, you're basically worse than Hitler (more on him later).

I haven't seen too many of these in Asia, to be fair, but remember seeing a lot of them on childhood holidays around the coast of the UK. I guess that either means they were more of a 90s fad or that the British sense of humour really isn't all it's renowned to be.

The two I remember most vividly, more than half a life later, were 'Drugs Bunny' - a red-eyed rabbit in a Rastafarian hat with dreadlocks and something shaped like a carrot in his mouth that wasn't a carrot, get it? - and a parody of the Teletubbies based around four drunk men. Want to have a crack at guessing what pun they came up with there? I'll give you a little time. They have the 'tele' and 'tubbies' parts to play with, keep in mind, and the entirety of the alcoholic lexicon at their disposal. Want to know what they came up with?

'Beer Tubbies.' Their individual names: 'Drinky Winky' (doesn't take a genius), 'Tipsy' (fine), 'Lager Laa' (okay, I quite like the desperation of that one) and 'Puke' (shit). Who would buy and wear this? Based on my enduring memory, and the genuine amusement it gave me when I was about 11, not its target audience.

Places you haven't even been

This one annoys me, and it's something I see more with locals in Asian countries than fellow travellers - though how would I know? Call me judgmental for making the assumption that the Filipino mother taking her kids out shopping at the wet market probably didn't buy her faded New York T-shirt on a vacation to the Big Apple, or that the call centre worker will necessarily know the name of the landmark she's proudly wearing across her chest ('Paris Tower?') If travel mementos carry some sort of status, doesn't that make you look a bit needy by pretending?

I realise that most of them probably just like the design or really don't care all that much when picking up well-fitted clothes in a nice colour from the bargain bin, but you do see the same nations being represented again and again, and it gets weirder when it's the flags being celebrated rather than the tourist traps. If you've travelled in South East Asia, you will have seen a lot of Union Jacks adorning tops and bags (let's leave the conversation about the flag not actually being called the Union Jack, I watch QI too).

Image: me

The Star Spangled Banner (not the name of the flag) makes a lot of appearances too, but usually a bit more understated as people generally know that represents a major world power, so are naturally a bit more wary of jingoistically declaring their loyalty. When it comes to the Union Jack (not called that), I think a lot of them really don't have a clue.

Why is that such a popular design? What about those countries with the less visually arresting stripy flags? Surely some of their historical foreign policies were just as impressively harsh and deserve the same level of respect as Britain's in post-colonial Asia? It's borderline racism.

Race hate tees

Image: me

I have to assume the Thai and Filipino people I keep seeing wearing variations of this shirt (on sale at a Tesco Lotus in Bangkok. That's Tesco as in Tesco) don't know what they're doing. I have to assume that, as the alternative is terrible. I recently saw a Filipino father, about my age, wearing one while waiting in line to check his family in for an Air Asia flight. He didn't look particularly neo-Nazi otherwise. I felt I should explain to him some of the backstory behind the slogan he's sporting, and that it wasn't a retro Power Rangers reference, but I didn't approach him. Because he was wearing a White Power T-shirt.

Image: CNN

There's no denying that some of them do know what it represents though, or at least know that Hitler was sort of funny. Thai fashion's preoccupation with the F├╝hrer has been widely reported, and as much as I value freedom of expression (in a blog telling you how to behave), it's probably for the best that this Nazixploitation is nipped in the bud to prevent scenarios of an innocent, desperately fashionable Thai person being confronted with the angry son of a holocaust survivor or something. They just like his funny little moustache, honestly.

Race hate tees II

Image: You can get it various places. Just don't.

But stop criticising those ignorant foreigners when you're just as bad, buying your hilarious 'Same Same' and 'Boom Boom' shirts to remind you of how funny these people's imperfect grasp of your language is. If a Thai person's selling it to you, then it can't possibly be offensive, can it? You use similar logic to justify your 'helping out' those bar girls.

I wonder if these people parading their hilarious Engrish T-shirts around various countries where English ability is frequently a sore issue actually think about the message they're giving. I don't imagine an Asian person would receive the warmest greeting if they arrived in the USA wearing a bloated caricature of a fat, dollar-eyed American spouting yee-haw catchphrases. Probably best to leave the White Power shirts at home too while you're at it.


  1. It took a long time, but I was happy when you got round to the 'same same' T-shirt. The worst I keep seeing are the 7-Eleven and Starbucks ones, although thinking about it, only ever in every single stall and not actually being worn that much. For some reason, Laos doesn't seem to have any 7-Elevens, just hundreds of bakeries.

    Others that I keep seeing are locals wearing cool English phrases (generally something totally offensive and with the word 'fucking' in it) that I presume they don't understand (see also: Brits with Chinese script tattoos) or, for some reason, a T-shirt that says "I'm not perfect, I'm limited edition". I'll think of some more as soon as I submit this comment.

  2. Oh, that's it. My 'favourite' thing about the Union Jacks (apparently not called that) is that most of them don't even bother copying the flag properly -- the red diagonals should be off-centre but no one really cares about that here. Same same, innit?

    1. I didn't notice the off-centre cross until some time in my 20s, so I'd be a bad nationalist. Though I do know which direction the spokes stick out on Germany's national flag, so maybe I'd be okay.

  3. I went tubing yesterday (planned before I read this post), so I feel like I'm entitled to buy one of your top favourite shirts now. I won't, obviously.