On my 18th birthday, I celebrated by getting my first tattoo. Because I was 18 and I could. I wasn’t exactly full of good decisions back then. Really, I’m not much better at them now.
Everyone warned me, “Make sure to get something that you won’t hate in 20 years!” Yeah, yeah.
I gave the design a full 30-seconds worth of thought and chose an arm band with a Chinese character.
This makes me laugh…
I chose shòu, which translates as “longevity,” along with a bat symbolizing prosperity and a butterfly symbolizing happiness.
I figured in 20-30 years I ought to be able to appreciate a tattoo that means long life, prosperity, and happiness and I proudly showed it off for many years.
About a decade later, around 28 years old, I was sitting at my desk at my corporate job, and noticed a co-worker staring at my arm with her head kind of half-cocked and a contemplative look on her face.
I typically didn’t allow my tattoo to show at work, choosing instead to wear sleeves that covered my upper arm, but on this particular day it was oh-my-god-kill-me-hot outside and dress code allowed us to wear tank-tops with a 3-finger width sleeve.
She saw me notice her looking at it and asked me, “What does your tattoo mean?”
I panicked. I knew this particular employee fairly well, well enough to know that she was fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
I winced and asked, “You don’t know?” She gave me a sympathetic smile and shook her head.
I explained to her that it was supposed to be the character, shòu. She stared at me blankly.
“For longevity?” I clarified, questioningly.
“Oooh!” She said, now understanding and correcting my pronunciation (I’d totally butchered it).
Then she just said, “Huh.”
My heart fluttered then sank. “Is that not what it says!?” I asked her.
“Not exactly,” she said, still trying to be so very polite about it.
Crap. For 10 years I’d been walking around like an idiot with a tattoo on my arm that says who knows what!?
She came over and sat closer to get a better look at it and said, “Okay, I can kind of see it.” It’s not the simplified or common use of shòu, she explained. It’s the traditional or more ancient version and it’s not done exactly right.
“Does it say something else?” I asked fearfully.
“Nope, nothing at all.” She said.
It’s now been 20 years since I had that tattoo done, my arm band of Chinese gibberish.
I don’t hate it exactly. It gives me a funny story to tell and at least it doesn’t say “fart bubble” or something terrible. Or, if it does, my co-worker was much too kind to tell me.