We had been spending the day on the beach, enjoying the sun, eating deep bowls of seafood and noodles, and walking the kilometre through the weird mudflats to get to the real water. When the sun began to set lazily, we left the beach and waited for a bus to get back to the mainland. In time, I noticed some commotion: the people next to me were staring, and discussing me with great import. They were in the deepest of cabals, practically huddling, with heads burrowed into one another’s so that their words could not escape their secretive ring. They were discussing something of import. Of gravity.
After a few moments, the bravest of these champions approached me. He had steeled himself for this moment. Maybe he was wearing armour underneath his hiking gear, I cannot be sure. Speaking to a stranger in English is often like dragonslaying, and I admired this curious stranger for his bravery and stout-heartedness in the face of such danger.
“We wanted to ask you something. About your t-shirt.”
I thought the shirt to be simple and unassuming when I bought it. It is dark red, and adorned with the logo for a very popular brand of instant noodles in Korea and beyond, with the words “Ramyeon” in Korean and “Ramen” in Japanese splayed across the front. Standing in the basement of a department store, hovering over the artsy-weird collection of Japanesey t-shirts in the Uniqlo, I decided this one to be the perfect mix of locally popular, if globally obscure, weirdo regalia. I would wear it here and abroad and be confident that it was cool and didn’t make any sense.
I didn’t really think it would make me into a minor celebrity.
When I put this shirt on at home, I have to prepare. I must gird my spirit. Entering the world with my Shin Ramyeon shirt means a certain degree of attention, more than that which I am already accustomed to, which is to say: a lot. People stare. People point. People whisper to each other about my shirt, and elbow one another, and crane their necks around to get a better look, as though I am a walking car wreck, with blood mist and jagged spires of metal shrapnel exploding outwards in constant, glorious slow motion.
Walking down busy streets, I’ve had chefs in restaurants call out to me with a joyous smile, and motion for me to turn so that their comrades and patrons might get a look. I’ve had people on the bus move a seat closer so they can more fully appreciate my t-shirts various splendours. Children gawp, elders chortle, and people everywhere ask me if I know, exactly, what my shirt is all about.
The beachgoers at first asked me this, too, to make sure I knew. I told them I did. After a while, we began speaking in Korean, and I explained to them that I lived nearby, and did occasionally eat that which was featured so brazenly across my meaty carapace. After another cabal, the man returned to ask me if maybe I worked for the ramyeon company, a question that seemed to hold such weight and import with his nearby friends that I felt ashamed to disappoint them. No, I told them, I am just a man in a shirt.
Still later, having caught the bus, the man behind me noticed the Nongshim company label across my back, and I obliged by displaying the front of my shirt to him and his wife. So enthralled by my shirt, the man began talking to me at length, declaring me his friend, despite being the age of my father, and buying me a beer and some snacks while I waited for the ferry to the mainland. The bus was a tizzy with our interaction, the very air seemed to halt around us as others watched, breath held. Not only was I, a weirdo foreign guy, engaging in a long conversation in Korean, but also I was totally wearing a Shin Ramyeon t-shirt at the time.
Part of it is that Koreany things just don’t often come on t-shirts—they are not a major part of branding. Korean things are not exotic or weird or interesting here, so why would anyone care all that much about putting them on some clothing? Just as there is a ravenous desire in North America for Asian languages and cultural artefacts in t-shirtery and tattoo design, so to do desires for fashion here typically run foreign. People want bizarre and interesting on the stuff they wear, and what good is a t-shirt if everyone around you can understand all of the things on it?
As such, if t-shirts have language on them in Korea, it is invariably English, and it is usually a slurry of nonsense. Which is fine, because if people wore t-shirts with Korean on them at home, I am fairly positive it wouldn’t be shining examples of syntax and grammatical purity, either.
By a similar token, most Koreans are used to foreign people’s dress just being obscure and difficult to parse. On Halloween last year, we dressed up as Korean alcoholic beverages – soju, makgeolli, and a Korean beer. The reaction to our costumes was virulent and joyous, one of a kind of unrestrained glee. People high-fived us in the subway, bought us drinks in public, and asked to pose with us in pictures for hours. At one point, we were interviewed with television.
Because Halloween isn’t just a time for dressing up, it’s also a time for sharing a reference point, a common intersection of interest. A relatively popular western cultural reference will get some play in Korean Halloween, but anything even slightly off the beaten path, for which most Koreans understandable won’t have been exposed, is just another weirdo costume that doesn’t make any sense. To suddenly be confronted by a local reference point – and to see people from other places enjoying and wanting to embrace such a reference point – made everyone throw up their hands in delight. Drunken, excited delight.
And so too, my t-shirt combines a perfect storm of familiarity and worldly appreciation. I am a non-Korean person wearing a very Korean thing, and people are delighted by the shock. People just aren’t prepared to see something they are so familiar with, so used to, become t-shirt worthy. It is like seeing a family picture suddenly splayed across a billboard, flatteringly photoshopped, for the rest of the world to appreciate. It is a grade two craft project sold at auction for thirty thousand. It is the everyday being called special by someone else. It makes people surprisingly happy. And it makes me, or at least my shirt, weirdly popular.