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I remember the first time I brushed past a Thai teenager wearing a blood-red swastika on his T-shirt on the streets of Bangkok. I cringed with pity. Some creepy foreigner probably sold it to a second-hand shop, I thought, and now this Thai kid is unknowingly walking around sporting the brand of evil incarnate.
Then a saw a second swastika T-shirt, this one royal blue, worn by a different teenager riding the sky train. And then another. And then another. And now that I know to look, I see one of these T-shirts at least once a week. The T-shirt wearer is always male, always young and he's typically a little punky or scruffy looking.
The shirt designs range from your classic Third Reich rally backdrops — as you see in this photo snapped in Bangkok's popular Union Mall — to artsy renderings of Hitler's face awash in acid-trip pinks and glittery greens. (They sell that one in Chatuchak market.)
So what's the deal with teenage Nazi fashion in Thailand?
Well, I'm not willing to compose a (potentially career-destroying) defense of swastika T-shirts. To state the obvious, they're tasteless, ugly and low-rent.
But I can offer an explanation. To some Thai kids, especially kids who aren't terribly well-educated or well-off, swastikas just look bad-ass. They're sinister and tough in a comic book sort of way. Like the Jolly Roger. Like Darth Vader's helmet. Like the logo for the evil Transformers crew, the Decepticons.
And that's pretty much it. Dubbed copies of Indiana Jones and Inglorious Basterds have lent the impression that Nazis are just Hollywood villains — and, when you're 16, it's fun to dress up like the villain.
This Thai nonchalance towards Nazi kitsch has caused several uproars. Several years back, a school headmaster apologized for allowing students to perform a silly Nazi dance routine. More recently, a wax museum in Pattaya apologized for advertising their Hitler statue with a huge billboard claiming, in Thai, "Hitler is not dead!"
In the airport last year, I picked up a children's Thai-language comic book (translated from Korean, actually) in which adventurous school kids embark on a zany quest to find Nazi treasure.
Translation: "Even though most of the gold has been found, those who knew the hiding spots have already died ... so I shall search for Hitler's gold!"
Essentially, if you never went to college with someone whose grandmother didn't survive Dachau, and if your grandfather never woke up screaming from images burned into his head in North Africa, then you're left to construct your concept of Nazis from B-movies and comic books.
We're no different, of course. In the mid-1980s, after Karate Kid came out on VHS, my friend and I would tie on bandanas printed with the imperial flag of Japan, scream "Hai!" and practice crane kicking each other in the face in my grandmother's basement.
I'm assuming that if my grandmother was from mainland China instead of Hyde County, N.C., I might know to avoid donning the same flag Japanese invaders flew over Nanjing.
But I can say for sure that, if we drew swastikas on our foreheads and ran around squealing "Sieg Heil!", then we probably would have suffered much worse than a few poorly placed crane kicks.