I’m the same age as Hello Kitty. This doesn’t mean we’ve gone through life in the same way, but it does create an affinity, one people of all ages have for her (which explains her inordinate popularity). I grew up with the predominantly red Hello Kitty items available to me at the time. Going to find Hello Kitty stuff wasn’t just like going to the candy store. In the case of my youth, I can remember that it was actually a matter of going to the candy store, actually, a Tabagie, a smoke stop of sorts, in suburban Montreal. My best friend and I would gape at the little plastic queendom of Hello Kitty in the dim and cluttered, as I recall, basement, and then buy some green and purple flat, sugar-coated licorice on the main floor. Your earliest memories of Hello Kitty are likely different, as they probably even are for my best friend and I. But the love affair might be quite the same. Years later, just as Hello Kitty was starting to become an object of nostalgia for my generation, I moved to Bangkok, where this story takes place, and where I wrote it. This was truly (one of) Hello Kitty’s world, her popularity was universal, and this was both comforting and jarring to me. Now, I’m living in Japan, which, in the context of my lifeworld-with-Hello Kitty, adds another level of meaning to the recent events that have caused ripples worldwide. Hello Kitty is not a cat? Or, she is kind of a cat as Kitty White, personification of one? None of this should make me think so much, but it does. The idea that something outside of Hello Kitty (even if its her creators) can come along and throw information out there that both changes everything and nothing is disconcerting. It’s also interesting. I hope that my story, in a small way, brings Hello Kitty to you however you need her to be.
by Tammy T. Stone
I’m in an electronics alleyway in Bangkok’s largest market. Gadgets with wires hanging out of them, computer parts, toys, toy guns, massive calculators, tools, shiny things resting on beds of saturated colour on scratched metallic table legs. The men call out to me half-heartedly, beautiful, beautiful! But mostly I’m completely ignored.
Zoned out under a sun just beginning to acquire the power of a day in the tropics, I wade through other distractions until I reach a stand being watched by a tiny teenage girl. She’s selling watches, almost exclusively Hello Kitty, which lords over street consumerism in Bangkok in pastel and deeper pinks, also one of the King’s two colours. Hello Kitty stares blankly, cute but not entirely indifferent as she stares out at passersby from any number of brandable objects, from pajamas, pencils and hang bags to stationery sets, neck pillows and Rubix cubes.
The men sitting here on the stools with toothpicks in their mouths, and the elderly doing their shopping are not the target consumer for cute pink things that teens and white collar workers here love so much. Hello Kitty’s audience is missing. She isn’t a mockery of herself but the magic, which comes from collective adoration that almost verges on something important, is absent.
It makes me want her more. The watches are 70 baht apiece, and dangle vertically from mini racks. Most are working but the times on each vary. Some are stained with grime. I lose myself in this kaleidoscope of time-tellers as I lift watches from their little hooks to examine them – for what and with what kind of discerning eyes, I don’t know. I’ve hardly noticed a gaggle of schoolgirls approach to gawk at me. I may have brought them there, I may not have. In this country I never know some pretty basic psychological things, which at home I rely on as the schema for a functioning life.
The girls don’t leave. I’m still trying to choose a watch when I see one glinting at me in smile. The girls chatter to themselves. I decide I’m going to buy one Hello Kitty watch and one of the nameless-cartoon ones. I want to surround myself with this glorious wealth of plastic that might eradicate each of us without an agenda of its own.
I see that the girls have put three watches each on their left wrists. Nine watches in total. At that exact moment, they flick their wrists again with a quirky grace too intoxicating to be absurd. I have to close my eyes from the shine. Of course when I open them nothing can be the same. And it’s not.
I see them right away. They’re pink, bigger, up to my thigh or so. Furry and white, mostly, but some are shiny and hard. Plastic. But filled with life. Their heads see and move and propel them this way or that in small clusters of like-with-like. I’m the only person here who is not Hello Kitty.
One of them hobbles up to me, bouncing really, and takes my hand. Come, her look says. She can’t speak, she has no mouth. She looks serious. I wonder for the first time if all Hello Kitties are female. They look androgynous. It was always the pink of their corporeal existence I associated with their femaleness. Cats in general seem female when only half of them are.
Now that I think about it, I’ve never really put Hello Kitty in the cat realm, though I think her popularity in Thailand must have something to do with the Chinese reverence for felines.
Where are we going? I ask Hello Kitty, but she doesn’t answer. She tugs gently but firmly on my arm and starts hoppiting forward. I follow right behind. She’s guiding me like she’s the wind and I’m a fragile leaf just fallen from the tree with no conception yet of ground.
She bounces from foot to foot and I walk through. I feel like I’m floating or on a conveyor belt. The world passing by is pink and spotted with other pastel-coloured objects. Everything here might taste as good, as surprisingly saturated, as cotton candy. There is no one else on the conveyor belt with us; most everything else rests higher up, in the sky of light gauzy pink. Then the movement stops. Ahh, I say, gently landed. Hello Kitty lets go of my hand and makes a squeaking sound. Her whiskers twitch. Hello Kitty’s alive, I think with amazement. The twitching stops.
She’s a million versions of herself and they’re all vibrating, or giggling, I can’t tell which. But their eyes remain serious, little black dots looking only forward, until they turn their bodies to hop somewhere else and begin twittering again. Some of them sit on regal furry sofas, all pink or white or a combination of the two. Some of them have images of Hello Kitty embroidered onto them in glossy, fuschia stiches. Kitty, the one who has led me here, cranes her neck to look up at me.
What am I doing here? I ask her. She continues to stare and doesn’t say a word. I’m not surprised by this. I am surprised, though, at how loud my voice sounds to my ears. Like the ripple effect, it has reverberated in and around the little spaces in which Hello Kitties congregate. Maybe it sounds like music to them.
Poke. My Hello Kitty is trying to get my attention. What is it? I say with my eyes. Show me. She takes my arm again, no small task for her; she has to take both of her short, stumpy arms and clutch them together around my long, slender one. I’m enraptured by her big head and her face that now looks earnest as she pleads to me even though her actual expression cannot have changed.
We’re in another space now, a yellow one. There are no Hello Kitties here, no floating objects, just yellow. A pastel yellow, granted, but it’s not pink. Hello Kitty doesn’t exist in a world of yellow. What is this, I ask. Her look is now imploring.
This is grotesquely wrong, I say to myself. Hello Kitty needs to be in her place because then we know our place. How did she find this yellow room though, and what threat does it speak to? Is the yellow room going to expand and invade the world of pink? Has it already, is this in fact a war because the world isn’t ready for this? Maybe this new insipid colour has stripped the pink kingdom of its language. I take Hello Kitty by the arm anyway and say come. Let’s go back. Who needs this room.
She won’t budge. I start to get a little anxious. Well, I say, I’m leaving. I feel a pang of regret already. I’ve been here for a few minutes, with someone I think I’ve loved for years, and my first thought is must exit. And I’ve gotten angry. Now I’m angry about getting angry. I’ve learned nothing. There’s no chok di, good luck in this for me.
I’m sorry, I say. No response. I start back where we came from.
As soon as I reach the place where yellow meets pink, I find a pile mountain high of Hello Kitties, and it’s glowing, actually shimmering. They’re trying to do something, together. What sounds, what vision! The desire they generate seems to promise a future. I am positively in awe of this white mountain of heads and eyes set in pink.
Take me! I want to shout. Carve a little space for me with your soft pliable selves and let me dive in. The world can stay plush, I know it can!
I don’t need to see outside amorphous confines of their world anymore. I can give up seeing and get carried away in other pleasures this new world offers.
I’m going to do it. I’m ecstatic. I poise, knees pent, and then –
I dive forward. The shimmer gets momentarily brighter, but then immediately disappears. I crash land into a pile of hard plastic that hurts my head and shoulders. I bump around for a second and then pile’s gone and I’m back in the yellow room. Many Kitties are here with me. They float around and the space between them seems thick and saucy. Something sounds like music, or at least, it did.
My first Kitty, my strange little guide, stands in the corner, far away, separated from the rest, watching me. I get the feeling she thinks I have something to do with this room. Something big. I remember that my childhood room was the same yellow. I had a pink Hello Kitty pencil holder with a little notepad and little colour pencils and a little eraser that came with the set.
I face a Hello Kitty perched on a Hello Kitty swing hanging from a non-existent yellow sky. The swing starts swaying faster and faster, until Hello Kitty rotates all the way around and is ejected so hard that she spins and flies and floats until she simply disappears. Goodbyyyeeee, I hear. The others disappear the second I look at them. I run but the air is indeed swampy and I feel like sludge. There is no pink in sight and the yellow is getting brighter. It’s getting to be as bright as the sun. The Hello Kitties must have found their way back. Good, I think, good. They’re happy again.
The room is getting yellower and hotter. My clothes stick to me and my face is dripping in sweat. My Hello Kitty is still standing in the corner, watching. I look back. She won’t divert her gaze.
Why are you looking at me? I’m not going anywhere. Why don’t you go back to your friends? It occurs to me that I’m not sure Hello Kitties can be friends with each other. Is friendship impossible when everyone is smiling the exact same smile or is that the very definition of boundless love, which much be happiness?
The heat is unbearable. Hello Kitty begins to look like a god to me. She’s so … unruffled by this. So assuredly here. Hello Kitty, I say. Help –
My words are violently cut off as the deep yellow turns into a blinding sheen. My eyes snap closed involuntarily and when I open them I’m on the side of a road. I don’t know where this road is going but I’m the only person I can see in all directions and I know because of this that I’m not in Bangkok anymore. There is bright green grass and a clear sky and no smog. I think there is a dilapidated cabin, maybe a farmhouse, in the distance. I am somewhere between water and sky.
I’ve said before that I want to buy a house in Saskatchewan, not in Saskatoon but off in a tiny town that is a shell of its illustrious farming days, a ghost town. I want a small house, nothing fancy, not to live in but to come to once in awhile, a place far away from all the clutter. So I can stop moving. I couldn’t, at the time, think of a place farther from everything than rural Saskatchewan. I’m here, I’ve made it.
Then I hear a faint twitching sound. I look down and see Hello Kitty looking up at me from my new watch, her eyes small and black and motionless but full of expression anyway. It still seems this way to me. She’s never close or far. She just is. She is exactly here, where we find her in any of our configurations.