The speaker is complaining that "these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year" need to learn that "In America, we don't talk on our cell phones in the library!".
And then it's the same thing, five minutes later.
But it's somebody else, you know,
I swear they're going through their whole family just checking on everybody from the
tsumani thing. I mean, I know, OK that sounds horrible,
like I feel bad for all the people affected by the tsunami,
but if you're going to go call your address book,
like you might as well go outside, because if something IS wrong,
you might really freak out if you're in the library and everybody is quiet,
like you seriously should go outside if you're going to do that.
Jay Livingston's comment:
Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.” I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds, “I’m sure he’s very good at this chess thing, but that isn’t really the issue.” Mantegna loses it. “My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you acknowledge that, then maybe we’ll have something to talk about. Chess is what it’s called. Not the ‘chess thing.’”
It's not easy to search for linguists who might have looked into this use of thing. All that I've been able to find is sense 4.c. of the OED's entry, which gives the gloss "colloq. With preceding noun, noun phrase, or adjective: the matter or business which pertains to or is associated with the specified place, phenomenon, etc.", and the citations
1906 ‘H. McHugh’ Skiddoo! vii. 94 When it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree.
1909 St. J. Lucas First Round iii. xxxiii. 320, I shall have to stay there I suppose; they spoke of giving me a fellowship at Balliol, and of course there is the All Souls thing later on.
1930 Chicago Daily Tribune 9 Nov. ii. 3/7 All of us would like to help a pal in any emergency‥. But on the ticket thing: Ixnay! Ixnay!
1955 F. O'Connor Let. 18 May in Habit of Being (1980) 82, I will be real glad when this television thing is over with.
1968 T. Wolfe Electric Kool-aid Acid Test i. 13 Thousands of kids were moving into San Francisco for a life based on LSD and the psychedelic thing.
1982 H. Engel Murder on Location 145 Where have you been? I've been trying to get you since this Miranda thing broke.
2003 T3 Mar. 32/1 There's an FM/MW tuner inside to pick up any slowcoaches who haven't cottoned on to the digital thing yet.
Some but not all of these examples seem to confirm Livingston's feeling that "for some reason, 'thing' here implies, 'I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.'"
But Livingston is clearly right about the most famous recent American use of this pattern, which is not from Searching for Bobby Fischer, but rather from an anonymous 1987 anecdote about George H.W. Bush (Robert Ajemian, "Where Is The Real George Bush?", Time Magazine, 1/26/1987:
Ideas and ideologies do not move Bush. People and their problems do. Domestic issues, in particular, stir him little. One man interviewed by Bush in 1980 for a senior post on his presidential campaign staff asked the candidate what two or three issues mattered most to him. Bush paused, then answered in his own way: he would put the best people in charge and create a superb Government. Colleagues say that while Bush understands thoroughly the complexities of issues, he does not easily fit them into larger themes.
This has led to the charge that he lacks vision. It rankles him. Recently he asked a friend to help him identify some cutting issues for next year's campaign. Instead, the friend suggested that Bush go alone to Camp David for a few days to figure out where he wanted to take the country. "Oh," said Bush in clear exasperation, "the vision thing." The friend's advice did not impress him.
As for the content of Ms. Wallace's rant, it seems unlikely to me that she actually overheard someone in the UCLA library checking in Japanese on the fate of relatives in Japan. There's some evidence internal to her discussion that calls her powers of observation into question — "Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong" is a conventional stereotype for Chinese speech, not Japanese. And there's a piece of external cultural evidence. During a visit to Japan back in 2004, I noted the relative rarity of public cell phone usage for voice conversations, and the popularity of texting there at a time when almost no one did it in the U.S. ("Texting", 3/8/2004):
This morning, I took the train from Meguro (near my hotel) to Ookayama (near Tokyo Institute of Technology). My car had about 60 people in it. Of these, 12 were busy texting. Among the other younger-looking people in the group, five were sleeping, and one was reading an English workbook. All of the other riders seemed to be older.
A striking contrast to the American pattern is that no one was actually talking on a cell phone. There may be some kind of rule about cell phone usage on the trains, I don't know — on the bus in from Narita airport, there was a sign in Japanese and English requesting riders not to use cell phones because it "annoys the neighbors". But I don't see or hear a lot of people talking on cell phones here, compared to the U.S. In fact, I don't think that I've actually overhead any cell phone calls during the couple of days that I've been in Tokyo, although I've spent about five or six hours in various public spaces where I'd expect to hear such conversations in the U.S. I've seen people engaged in cell phone conversations, but they have always been doing it so quietly or so much off by themselves that I couldn't hear.
Discussions with Japanese friends confirmed this impression ("More on meiru", 3/9/2004):
As for why Japanese people in general use cell phone meiru so much, there was agreement that it is considered rude to talk on the phone (cell or otherwise) in the hearing of others, and that talking on a cell phone in a public place would be especially impolite.
Update — Brett at English, Jack used COCA and COHA to scope out the time and genre distributions of what he dubs "dismissive 'thing'", and also goes looking for its beginnings:
The first clear instance I found was from a 1914 playscript by Eugene Gladstone O'Neill, The Movie Man. Referring to the planned execution of Fernandez, Devlin says, "Don’t forget to have Gomez postpone that shooting thing."
But it looks to me like the OED's 1906 citation from Skidoo! is also an instance of "dismissive 'thing'". A bit more of the context:
I pulled a wheeze on Bunch Jefferson a few weeks ago that made him sit up and scream for help. […]
Bunch can really sling a nasty little pen, but he isn't anybody's John W. Milton. […]
He can take a bunch of the English language and flatten it out around the edges till it looks quite poetic, but that doesn't make him a George O. Khayaam.
Not at all.
The trouble with Bunch is that his home folks have swelled his chest to such an extent by petting his adjectives that he thinks he has Shakespeare on a hot skiddoo for the sand dunes, and when it comes to that poetry thing he thinks he can make Hank Longfellow beat it up a tree. […]
When Peaches and I went out Westchester way a few weeks ago to spend a week-end with Bunch and Alice, all we heard was home-made poetry. […]
Even at meal times Bunch couldn't break away.
With a voice full of emotion and vegetable soup he would exclaim:
And now the twilight shadows on
The distant mountain flutter,
And thou, my fair and good friend John,
Wilt kindly pass the butter!
Update #2 — Some experimental support for the view that Japanese-speaking students are less (rather than more) likely to have loud cell phone conversations in the UCLA library, compared to people who look like Alexandra Wallace; from Baron et al., "Cross-cultural patterns in mobile-phone use", New Media & Society 12(1), 2010:
Of course, Ms. Wallace may be complaining about Chinese-speaking students, given her imitation of their language — but in that case, it makes no sense for them to be checking on "the tsunami thing". The most parsimonious explanation is that her tendency to see things in terms of group stereotypes is much stronger than either her powers of observation or her knowledge of geography and current affairs. This is a shame, since she seems to be planning a career in politics.