Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/13/12
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Korean
My informant is a Korean student attending the University of Southern California. He lived in Korea until the fourth grade and then, for familial reasons, moved to the Bay Area, where he went to school until coming down to Southern California for college. When I asked him to tell me a Korean joke, he thought for a bit, laughed, and said, “Weird. I only know Korean-American ones now,” which is understandable considering he has not gone back to Korea in the past five years. Mostly pun jokes, they were composed of Korean and English and require an understanding of both languages for them to be even remotely funny. For instance:
What is a vampire’s favorite drink?
This is funny because 코피 in Korean means nosebleed, while the way it is pronounced, kopi, sounds a lot like the English word coffee. So while the real answer is nosebleed, kopi adds another dimension to it by making it sound like vampires like coffee. In this case, the audience would need to know English to understand the question, but also the Korean word for nosebleed, and understand that its humor comes from kopi‘s similarity to an English word–a complex, bilingual understanding.
Which celebrity likes to hold the most luggage?
Now this is one that, if you did not know better, you would think was an American joke because of the lack of Korean words. However, this is only funny because Jim (or jeem) in Korean means, more or less, “luggage,” while Carrey just sounds like “carry.” Jim Carrey’s name in Korean-American terms then, could be seen as Luggage Carrey.
These jokes are deceivingly simple, actually requiring a pretty advanced understanding of both languages for them to be immediately funny, as they are supposed to be (my informant could not stop laughing while he told these jokes, while I stared at him blankly, especially the second one). In that way, it can be seen almost as a rite of passage, or a kind of test, for Korean-Americans. To be truly bilingual, to be truly Korean-American, is to be able to understand these kinds of jokes. The fact that these jokes exist at all, in fact, makes it clear that Korean-Americanism is its own culture–that Koreans living in America are not just displaced peoples, losing their culture to America, but an entirely new, emerging culture that thrives on its distinction from both Korea and America.