Pencils on the move

Sadly, my sabbatical is drawing to a close and one of the things to think about now is souvenirs. My sabbatical involved visits to Germany, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. My daughter has cousins and friends in each of these countries and so before we left Australia we went souvenir shopping for them. In addition to special presents for cousins and close friends, we bought generic souvenirs for school mates and unrelated children we might meet along the way. As a result, we’ve now schlepped erasers in the shape of a koala and pencils with images of kangaroos out of Australia and distributed them along the way. Both the erasers in the shape of a koala and the pencils with images of kangaroos were made in China but the koalas and kangaroos were obviously supposed to be code for ‘authentic Australian.’ Should I mention that in all my years in Australia I’ve never seen a koala in the wild?

Now, that we are ready to return to Australia and have to think of souvenirs for school and club mates back home, we’ve been looking at pens and pencils as convenient bulk souvenirs again. Here in Dubai, there are plenty of pens that say “I love Dubai,” are adorned with little models of camels, or sport pictures of Dubai’s two landmark buildings, the Burj Khalifa and the Burj Al Arab. That’s only pencils, of course, and I won’t even mention some of the completely whacky souvenirs for sale, including a salt and pepper shaker in the form of an Arab man dressed in a white dishdash (salt) and an Arab woman dressed in a black abaya (pepper). All these souvenirs are made in China, too, (maybe even in the same factory as the koala and kangaroo souvenirs?) but, again, the models and images of camels, traditional local dress, or landmark buildings are supposed to be code for ‘authentic Dubai.’

So, do you want to know what my daughter chose as Dubai souvenirs for her mates? None of the above. We ended up in a Daiso store in one of Dubai’s mall. Daiso is a Japanese chain that sells Japanese knickknack and displays huge signs “Everything in store imported from Japan.” Japanese stuff is hugely popular with children and young adults globally and my daughter felt that an ‘authentic Japanese’ souvenir would be more popular with her Australian friends than something Dubai-ish. Do I need to mention that, despite being ‘imported from Japan’ most of the goods in the store, and certainly the ones we ended up buying are also ‘made in China’?

To sum up this madness: I’ve spent money on objects made in China in Australia and Dubai. Then, I schlepped the objects bought in Australia to Germany, Iran and the UAE and the objects bought in Dubai to Australia. Why? As an expression of affection and a way to establish symbolic connections between my child and other children in diverse locations and as a reminder of various places to which we have been (Australia) or that are widely thought of as cool (Japan).

The brisk business in souvenir shops seems to suggest that I’m far from being alone in engaging in such irrational practices. Indeed, “objects and language in trans-contextual communication” make up a fascinating area of enquiry and will be the focus of an upcoming special issue of the journal Social Semiotics. Check out the call for papers here. The deadline for abstracts is March 02, 2012.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Gabriele Budach

    Dear Ingrid!! Thanks for sharing this tale and the excitement about objects and their stories. I wonder whether the purchases from Daiso were well received by the Australian friends and whose kitchen will be decorated with a the salt and pepper shaker in the form of an Arab man dressed in a white dishdash (salt) and an Arab woman dressed in a black abaya (pepper). I wish you had time to find out and tell us more about the trajectory of all those intriguing objects.
    If anyone shares that passion and feels compelled to dedicate time to a more thourough exploration of objects on the move, please be invited to contribute to the special issue of SOCIAL SEMIOTICS, Ingrid mentioned, and get in touch with me by posting a comment to this message.

  • The convoluted production, consumption and movement of goods in the age of globalization is crazy. Here’s one that’s not quite so crazy as yours, but almost:

    I regularly order books and DVDs from to help us in raising our daughters bilingual in German and English here in the U.S. Some of the books are Disney stories that have been translated from English into German and the books themselves tend to be printed in China.

    So, we see a book “originally” produced in English, translated to German, printed in China, shipped to Germany and then, finally, shipped to the USA.

    And — thanks to Hollywood’s maddening region encoding — I end up showing my kids Disney movies dubbed into German on a region-free DVD player made in Japan whose chip has been modified by a U.S. company. Luckily, no one seems to enforce DVD region laws: is in violation of these when it sends me Region 2 DVDs. Then there’s the Net, where content walls limit accessibility based on IP address– arggh!

  • Jean Cho

    Hi Ingrid,

    Good to hear from you again and I hope that you enjoyed your stay overseas – and welcome back! 🙂
    It is impossible not to use stuff made in China as evidenced by Sara Bongiorni’s book “A Year without “Made in China”. It is a headache for me to decide what to buy in Australia whenever I visit my friends and family back home because I don’t want to give them something that they believe represents Australia and yet was made somewhere else. I think your daughter’s decision to buy Japanese products imported from Japan is a smart one and hope that you won’t tell her that they were made in China too!

  • My comment here is a bit off the point you are trying to make, but I think transnational Japanese companies like Daiso would make a fascinating site of research on language work and multilingualism on the move. Apart from the Canadian work by Monica Heller and her associates, are there any other related research you’d recommend for us to look into?

    PS: Yes, I have bought many made-in-China souvenirs in Japan with a label that says “Authentic Japanese Products” and given them to my friends in different parts of the world, apologizing that it’s not made in Japan while quickly justifying that it seems at least designed by Japanese or possibly the production is supervised by Japanese expats managers who are sent to their factories in China… performing authenticity…such a tiring practice in the 21st century…

  • Asma Fatehali (Karachi, Pakistan)

    Thanks for sharing such fascinating narrative. Today’s world is a global village where we may find the products made in China everywhere. It depends on buyers to purchase or ignore like your child. Children are taking keen interest in buying different types of souvenirs for their friends and cousins. They are greatly admired by the things which grab their attention, like your child bought the product made in China but from Japanese store.

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