Swastikas Popping Up in the Oddest Places

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After our lunch of southern style dishes, Tawn and I did some shopping at Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market.  With thousands of stalls and vendors, you can find most anything for sale and the people-watching is entertaining, too.  Along the way, I stumbled across some disturbing signs: swastikas.

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First off, some of the interesting sights.  We encountered this cute Jack Russell terrier who was dressed in full kit including shoes.  He was nearly as stylish as his owner!

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We also encountered a fortune teller (in the bandana) who was giving a reading to the young man in the (potentially offensive – sorry) black shirt.  Based on the shirt’s message, I can only imagine what questions he is trying to have answered about his future.

Actually, as an aside, his shirt is an example of something I see often here in Thailand: Thais wearing shirts with English language messages that would broadly be seen as offensive or not particularly appropriate for wearing in public in an English-speaking country.  I always wonder to what extent the wearers understand the message and its meaning.  Would they wear the equivalent message if it was in Thai?

Which brings me to the swastikas.

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In a number of shops, I encountered buttons, t-shirts, and other items that featured swastikas.  Now, the swastika has a history that extends back a few thousand years before the Nazis came along and appropriated it.  Even in contemporary Buddhism, you see the swastika as a sacred symbol.  I feel comfortable, though, concluding that the use of the swastikas in this commercial context was not religious, but was meant to evoke the perceived “revolutionary” feel of the Nazis.  Witness the Mao Zhe Dong buttons as a similar “statement”.

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This sighting of swastikas brought to mind an incident from September, when a private Roman Catholic school in Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand), had a sports day in which a group of students dressed in a Nazi theme and marched carrying swastika banners and wearing swastika arm bands.

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There was widespread outrage and several foreign consulates as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles denounced the event, citing it as insensitive and inappropriate.  The school authorities, no surprise, claimed they had not been aware of the students’ plans, even though their protestations seemed a bit thin.

What followed (before the floods) was a lot of discourse about how poor the Thai education system is and how the teachers and administrators had failed to educate their students.  There were others who pointed out that students in western countries are often just as unaware of similarly significant events in Asia’s history and are sometimes even equally unaware of the details of the Holocaust.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the students or the teachers.  There has been enough said to that effect already.  Suffice it to say that I was disturbed that in a short period of time, I saw several signs that the history of the Nazis and the Holocaust is not very well appreciated by some people in Thailand and the symbols of that history are seen as benign fashion statements.

There are probably countless examples in other countries where locals appropriate words and symbols from other languages, cultures, and countries, without fully understanding what the meanings are, sometimes causing offense.  I guess that more than anything, this is a reminder that we need to be aware when we adopt things, whether they are words or symbols, that are not originally our own.  Meanings are not universal and it is easy to be insensitive to others’ feelings.

 

0 thoughts on “Swastikas Popping Up in the Oddest Places

  1. Hm. I’m not sure what to say about the swastikas. But as for wearing that English-labeled and offensive shirt… In the US, we have products and clothes with other languages as well, and I have to admit that I wonder at times if we’re doing the exact same thing – ‘saying’ ‘F— you’ in a language we don’t comprehend. (Yet… that doesn’t stop us from buying similarly themed things.) I suppose it’s a risk you take. (But as for the man in your pic – I can’t help but think that that expression is probably pretty well known… so how could it be accidentally worn??)

  2. There are indeed many interesting finds and sightings in the weekend market. I still have a few of these items such as tees (not as explicit as that) and household decorations acquired from numerous shopping trips. That was a really cute doggy outfit, but it’s kinda hot inside the market, must be uncomfortable for the pooch!As for the last batch of photos…..wow, Thai Nazis in Chiang Mai?? Quite an uproar!

  3. I don’t know where to begin. To put a dog in such an outfit is criminal as far as I am concerned. Such it looks “cute” but how deos the animal feel? And the offensive shirt seems to be popping up around here too. I guess sex sells. The use of the swastika was originally religious but now conveys the idea, to me at least, of elitism and of course WWII. There seems to be a complete disregard for the feelings of others when using this symbol. Remember the trouble Prince Harry got into for going to a costume party dressed in a Nazi outfit. I begin to feel the ideals of the Nazi party are beginning to make a come back. Sorry for the length.

  4. Very disturbing – there are of course problems like this all over the world – and in every culture. Education is the key and it must be available to all, in formal and informal settings. We are responsible for the education of our neighbors, children and selves…

  5. In Buddhism, the swastika has the arms facing the other way. It is a symbol of peace. To reverse the arms (as depicted in your photos) is to mean the opposite of peace and what the Nazis intended when they incorporated the symbol in their campaign.

  6. At first I thought that the Swastika was a Hindu and Buddhist religious symbol, and perhaps the Thais were coming into the religious nature of the day or whatever. But reading your post makes me feel really bad. Too bad that the educational Board was not more strict about the display.

  7. i do see a lot of offensive things being written on shirts in asia. i feel like they don’t entirely comprehend what those things can mean or suggest. i mean sometimes you see americans with funny ‘asian’ tattoos, but it’s kind of different. i think people just want to be rebellious and/or stand out, and that’s why those things sometimes become fashion statements. as for the high schoolers.. that just puzzles me.

  8. I’m fixated that picture of the Jack Russell–way too cute. I see way too many offensive tshirts that I’ve become desensitized to them. Even here in North America some people seem to be confused about what is appropriate and what’s not. Here it’s about freedom of expression; I suppose in Asia it’s more of a sign of oppression and lack of education.PS. I remember you were a fellow Scorpio right? Happy Birthday!!!

  9. @Passionflwr86 – You’re right, it is a pretty well known expression. I wonder, though, if he appreciates the relative gravity of the word. For example, a friend of mine here in Bangkok (who doesn’t know Thai terribly well) was using a word that he thought was kind of like “kidder” but it in fact more like “bald faced liar”… I stepped in to correct him before he ended up slapped!@CurryPuffy – Yes, I would imagine the outfit was a bit uncomfortable for the dog.@Fatcat723 – Thanks for reminding me about the Prince Harry incident. I’d forgotten about that but it does go to show that these type of things happen in western countries, too.@ordinarybutloud – Glad you found it interesting.@fauquet – Never, ever again, I hope.@murisopsis – Very true that we all share a responsibility to educate others and make them aware of the importance of history.@Vitamin_D – Well, that’s what I thought, too. But as I did some research before writing this entry, I found that there are plenty of examples in ancient religious art, etc. of the swastika facing both right and left. And while the Nazi use was right-facing in one-sided representations (banners, posters, patches, etc.), on flags it was printed through so that the reverse side of the flag showed a left-facing swastika.@ClimbUpTreesToLookForFish – Especially as the world becomes more connected, right? We have to learn more about the entire world, not just the world immediately around us.@ZSA_MD – As is so often the case here, nobody is ever held responsible. Blame is pointed in enough directions until it dissolves.@iskrak – Given the tremendous use of Che Guevara images, I’d agree with your assessment that it is a desire to be/appear rebellious.@lil_squirrel4ever – One thing that seems to get lost in the US, thanks to lack of effective Civics education, is that “freedom of expression” means only that the government cannot restrict most kinds of speech. It does not mean that people have the right to express anything they want in any situation. I wish folks had a better grasp of that. As for your second point, thank you – it is next week.

  10. That Chiang Mai incident – hopefully it was just a one time event. I’ve always enjoyed your pictures of the various markets. I kinda feel like I was there but without the heat, humidity, smells… hahahaha (just call me the armchair traveler).

  11. @ElusiveWords – The blog is proud to offer heat- and humidity-free armchair travel experiences. LOL As for the Chiang Mai incident, there was actually another similar incident a few years ago. No, we do not know our world history here.@jace1982 – I responded earlier to another commenter who made a similar statement. When I did some researching, though, what I found was that there are many examples of both right- and left-facing swastikas in Hindu and Buddhist art and iconography through the centuries. It is only since WWII that there seems to be a pronounced effort to use only the left-facing ones at Buddhist shrines and temples, persumeably to distinguish them from the NAZI swastika.

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