Every week our mail delivery woman puts a bunch of discount ads and inserts in our mail box. I typically don’t go through them but last week, the above insert from Cost Plus caught my eye. Not only was there a $10 off coupon, but those bags – advertised as the “Xuan Bag Collection from Vietnam,” caused my jaw to drop.
If you’re a Vietnamese language speaker, you’d see that the upside down “Phân Gà…” on the messenger bag says ‘chicken manure… use for all kinds of trees’. The smaller print in the ad said that “No two bags are alike!” so I wrote the chicken manure messenger bag off as an anomaly. My husband thought that I’d want to own one since it was so novel. Plus there was a coupon.
“I’d look ridiculous carrying around a bag that was formerly full of fertilizer,” I told him. Nix that idea.
Yesterday at our Saturday farmers’ market, I saw a middle-age White woman with one of the Xuan pulley bags designed for grocery shopping. It was hard not to miss the colorful tropical fruit print. I didn’t want to stare but I could have sworn that it too had the word “phân” on it.
In Vietnamese, “phân” means excrement. Note that the rooftop-like accent mark gives the word a different meaning than phần (portion, fraction); you may have seen that term on Viet restaurant menus in the form of cơm phần, a Vietnamese set meal. Without any diacritical (accent) marks, phan is a common Vietnamese surname, like the chef/restaurateur Charles Phan. As you can surmise, say or spell a word incorrectly in Vietnamese and the meaning can totally work against you!
After seeing the Xuan fertilizer bag at the farmers’ market, I had to check it out myself. We popped into our local Cost Plus this afternoon. I found the Xuan bags and giggled. I whipped out my iPhone and started taking shots of them because they were ALL former fertilizer bags!
A curious young clerk came over and asked if I needed help. I explained the meaning of phân and he initially ignored me as if he didn’t believe me. He started telling me how great the bags were because they’d been recycled and were designed for practicality. “This one was designed to fit over the back of your bicycle and you can load up both sides with groceries,” he proudly explained.
I looked at the bag and pointed out that phân bón meant fertilizer in Vietnamese. He looked at me with skepticism. “ ‘NPK’ refers to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the standard measurements for fertilizer. Go down the street to the nursery and you’ll see ‘NPK’ on the fertilizer bags!” I responded.
The young man paused, smiled at me and surprisingly said, “I really like that recycling idea. We have all kinds of shopping bags in the US that are made out of new materials. What a waste. I like these bags even more now.” Then he grabbed the bag that he’d just shown me and said that he was going to buy it for himself!
Whoever did the buying for Cost Plus may not have understood what phân meant. Or maybe they did recognize Vietnamese resourcefulness, design, and marketing savvy.
Would you use one of these former fertilizer bags? They’ve been meticulously cleaned! If you’ve seen one of these bags, what are your thoughts?
P.S. For a glimpse of Vietnam’s exciting fertilizer industry, visit this hyperactive site of Con Ty Phan Bon Mien Nam (The Southern Fertilizer Company): http://www.phanbonmiennam.com.vn/ I think that the pulley-style grocery bag may have come from this company.