I Don’t Know What My Chinese Character Tattoo Means

White Woman Speaks:

It was a balmy summer night. I had just turned 18. My best friend Liz and I were on our third Smirnoff Ice in the basement of her parent’s suburban Ohio home. She turned to me suddenly, a glimmer in her eye, and said, “Hey, I want to show you something.” She pulled up her Abercrombie and Fitch jeans to reveal a beautiful Chinese Character phrase tattooed down the side of her lower leg.


I gasped. “It’s so beautiful and exotic looking!” I exclaimed. She grinned. I stared in silent awe for a few moments and then looked back up at her. “But—What does it mean?”  She rolled her eyes. “Who cares?” she asked, exasperated. “It means like, peace or wisdom or whatever.”  I nodded in quiet respect for this all-knowing tattoo that seemed to carry all the wisdom of the world in just a few intricate pen strokes. Everything you would ever need to reminder yourself of, forever inked indelibly into the flesh of your body.


I asked, “What language is it?” Again, she sighed, annoyed at my naivety. “It’s Asian,” she snapped. “It’s, like, just Asian.” I understood. It was so exotic. “I have to have that,” I said. “I have to have that now.”


And just like that, we were off to the 24-hour tattoo parlor in town. I glanced nervously at the boards of tattoo art lining the walls. Roses, butterflies, hearts pierced with arrows. “How obvious and mundane,” I thought to myself. I felt grateful knowing that I would never be one of those girls getting a rose tattooed to my ankle or a butterfly on my lower back. I wasn’t like everybody else.



My eyes wandered past the childish, clichéd images to the designs in the far corner, filled with Chinese lettering. Or Korean. Or whatever the fuck. Like a beacon of hope and truth and infinite enlightenment. Liz pointed to the one she had gotten and the surly tattoo artist pointed me to a chair. He began to work his needle. It hurt, but it was the kind of pain that made you feel like you were going to be a better person because of it. I felt like Joan of Arc or Jesus or some kind of Buddhist guru like Mao Zedong. I felt I was adding another layer of depth to my totally unique personality.


When Liz stepped outside to get into one of her raging fights with her boyfriend, I softly asked, “What does this tattoo mean, anyway?” The tattoo artist narrowed his eyes at me. “How the fuck should I know?” It was a good question. And to this day, it was a question I never answered. But I know it’s got to be something special.