Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Folk Belief – Kazakhstan, Korea

An active sex life can clear away acne

A Kazakh friend told me that she heard this, asking me if I thought it was true. I told her that I although I am not particularly inclined to believe it, I am not sure, and that I have heard it as well. She told me that her peers, mainly her Kazakh friends, would occasionally refer to it. I told her that in my experience in Korea, many people seemed to believe it, and a lot of adults would mention it as well too. For example, if a girl’s skin mysteriously cleared up, her friends might tease her by asking, “Who is it, who is it?”

Because both of us have international friends, and friends who have been abroad, we are both not completely sure where this belief originated from—whether it was predominantly Asian belief, or whether it was an American belief that our friends have picked up and brought back. It is so interesting to see, that as people’s concepts of nationality and ethnicity begin to blur, the distribution of our folklore consequently gets just as complicated and confusing. Is this a Korean belief that spread to Ukraine?—An American one that spread to both Korea and Kazakhstan?

Apart from its interesting distribution, I also think it shows a rather positive attitude towards sex. It implies that sex is a natural and healthy activity, and the lack of it could result in unhealthy skin. Because this belief is often expressed hand in hand with the belief that stress causes pimples, it also seems to suggest that either sex is a good way to dissipate stress—or that without sex, we are likely to experience stress.

If I were to guess, I would tend to think that this belief is probably more inline with Asian beliefs, than with American beliefs. Although Americans are much more liberal with their bodies, and open about sex—I still feel that I can perceive the Christian notions that sex is a temptation, or a guilty pleasure. Yes, the Americans are open about sex, but it simply means they are open about admitting their carnal desires. In Asia, or at least, in Korea, however, we are not as open about talking about sex, or showing lots of skin, but sex is not usually thought to be a “sin” or a “temptation.” More often, it is thought to be a natural phenomenon, and a rather normal and healthy one, at that. It is simply considered embarrassing and distasteful to talk about it too publicly, is all.

Folk speech

Folk Speech – Korean



One Hand Tribe

The word “jok,” officially meaning tribe or race, has been used informally to create a colorful range of neologism to denote the various subcultures that have emerged with new technologies and new trends. One big one that was in widespread use while I was in Korea in 2006 was “???,” (sounds like “Well-Bing-Jok) literally, the “Wellbeing Tribe,” which refers to the growing masses of people who have decided to lead a health-conscious lifestyle. Because often these neologisms use English terminology, it is not difficult to translate into English. Recently, Gisuk told me of a new term that is in use in Korea, and it is the “One Hand Tribe.” She learned this over the Internet in 2008. She said that it describes a subculture of people who, whether for pleasure or business, have become so proficient in cell phone use that they often are text messaging with one hand, while doing something else with the other.

Cell phones are an indispensable aspect of modern Korean culture; cell phones now act as a phone, email, lap top, TV, and accessory, and I have known a few people who could literally hold up a full blown text message conversation while doing three other things at once, so I was not very surprised to hear that they now have a word to refer to these people. I can only imagine, that in the future, we’ll be saying Two Hand Tribe, as opposed to One Hand Tribe, when the one handers have become the majority, and the primitive, peculiar people who need to use both hands to handle a cell phone—have become the minority tribe. I will probably be one of them.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Folk Metaphor

Zorrillo; Caballo; Paloma

Skunk; Horse; Bird (Pigeon/Dove)

These are common Spanish words for different animals, but for Spanish speaking truck drivers, zorrillo (skunk) means the highway patrol, a caballo (horse) is a policeman on motorcycle, and paloma (bird) denotes the patrol from the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.). Jorge learned these terms on the highways in Midwest United States—he simply kept hearing them in context, and eventually understood what they meant. When truck drivers are on the road, they use a radio to communicate with other truck drivers nearby. Interestingly, although they are not officially set apart, English speaking truck drivers and Spanish speaking drivers use different channels. He says he thinks that other languages might have their own channels as well, but he is not sure. These words are used mainly to warn others if they see patrolmen or police. Because the patrolmen and police have access to the radio as well, should they think to tune in, the truck drivers use this coding to avoid being so obvious.

Jorge thinks this shows a negative attitude toward the officers of the road. “It’s their job to give us tickets. If I can help another driver to not get a fine, that’s great.” He says it’s a way to be stealthy, but it is also a way to make fun of authority. “Sometimes we’ll say, ‘stupid horse’ or ‘dumb pigeon’ in Spanish.

I agree—naming the officers after animals is clearly a way to make fun of them. The Spanish-speaking truck drivers have code words for other things too, such as Romana (Roman) for the truck scales, but it is the terminology for road authority, in which they specifically make allusions to animals.

I think that there is a slightly different dimension to it as well—I think these terms also signify, in a sense, a feeling of power by the truck drivers. Truck drivers have little authority, on or off the road, but I noticed that when they are sitting aloft in their massive trucks, they feel powerful. In fact, sitting up there and looking down at all the other puny cars and buses one feels like king of the road, and the other vehicles do indeed look like creatures. While driving, Jorge would often refer to them as such, calling another car “that little thing.” An expert driver, he does not worry about making a mistake, but does tell me that if other cars break the rules, such as tailgating or cutting too closely in front of the truck, “they’d better watch out cause they’ll get squashed like a bug.” The patrolmen have authority over the drivers, of course, but sitting so high in their trucks seems to give them a slight sense of power, intangible as it might be. Black and white patrol cars really do look like little skunks, and the D.O.T. in their white cars do look like pigeons. Policemen on motorbikes, of course, do resemble a mounted horse.

Finally, I think these words are also significant in that they reveal how important it is for truck drivers to cooperate and support one another. More than people in other professions, truck drivers seem to bond very closely, they are generally very warm to each other. I have seen Jorge talk jovially and joke around with random truck drivers who pass by over the radio, and have never witnessed hostility or rivalry. It is natural, then, that they would want to help fellow drivers avoid a large fine, or a damaging record on their licenses. Driving for days at a time alone in a truck can get lonely, I suppose, and truck drivers seem to turn to one another for companionship, as well as for road information.

Folk speech

Folk Speech – Korean



eye moisture

A pity

Gisuk was talking to her young niece when she first heard this term. She said she must have said something ‘un-hip,’ because her niece suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, ????!” meaning, “Oh, it’s a pity!” Gisuk did not understand however, and asked her what that word meant. Her niece told her it was ?(?) eye, and ?(?) moisture; short for “moisture on the eyeball,” it is an expression of pity so deep that the eyes start to tear up. Gisuk told me that it was largely an Internet term used by young people online.

I had heard, or rather seen, the word in use before, but had not heard of this explanation. After some research, I found out that it originated when a famous Korean comedian, Ji Sang-ryeol (???) said comically “??? ????” (My eyeballs are fogging up). It instantly became a popular phrase over the internet, until people started to shorten it to just two syllables, the first syllable of the word ‘eyeball’ and the first syllable of the word ‘fogging up.’ In my opinion, this is a perfect example that says an awful lot about the online Korean youth culture.

First of all, the shortening of a two word phrase into a two syllable word is the most common and conspicuous form among these Korean Internet terms. The South Koreans are among the top, if not the top, users of Internet, and have developed a very extensive online culture. The shortening of phrases suits this online culture well, as it is much more of a task to type out long phrases than to merely speak them.

The creativity and unpredictability of the words that get mashed together is also very typical of Internet words. The young people are often find the more colorful and ingenuous creations more appealing, and these are the ones that catch on. Gisuk also mentioned that she thought it was a way to exclude the older generation—to make up words with unpredictable meanings and spread knowledge of it over the Internet.

Another thing that this word points to is the somewhat homogenous nature of Korea’s entertainment. Ji Sang-ryeol is not a mega-star, and yet it is not likely that there are many Korean nationals who have not heard of him. There is not as much diversity on Korean television as there is on American television, and if there is a show on the main channels, everyone is bound to have watched it, or have heard of it. In this way, trends catch on impossibly fast and widely in Korea—and it helps that Koreans are stoutly collectivistic. Therefore, if there is a catchy phrase uttered on television, it is literally a matter of days before many are saying it—with the Internet, the spread is faster and wilder.

Interestingly enough, because of this, it is a goal of some Korean celebrities, especially comedians, to try to begin a new trendy catchphrase, to the point that they have begun to make fun that desire as well.


Joke – California

Sick of being criticized, the police decided to try to pick out a few outstanding drivers and reward them for their good driving habits, as opposed to only punishing the bad drivers. After a month of careful observation, ten officers were sent to reward the designated good drivers.

One officer found his lucky driver, pulled him over, and explained the situation to the nervous driver. “You’ve just earned a reward of one hundred dollars for your excellent driving!” he said, “just out of curiosity, what are you going to do with the money?”

Delighted, the driver announced, “I’m going to go get a drivers’ license!”

Horrified, his wife said, “Please, officer, don’t believe him—he’s drunk!”

With a sigh of defeat, one of the passengers in the back exclaimed, “I knew we’d get caught in the stolen car!”

As the disgusted police officer began to whip out his pen, there could be heard an impatient knock from the back of the car.

“Ey, we cross the border yet?”

(this last line was performed with an exaggerated Spanish accent)

Mary learned this joke from a Hispanic friend in California. She believes that her friend also learned it in California. She says she performs this casually to her friends when they are exchanging jokes. When asked what she thought it means, she said she thinks “it’s basically a joke about illegal immigrants,” and that it’s funny because the people in the car keep unwittingly revealing their secrets that they were hoping to conceal.

Could there be a timelier joke? It is probably no accident that this joke is circulating whilst anti-immigrant sentiments are growing stronger. I agree with Mary that it is funny because of the way the driver and passengers talk themselves into trouble, but I think that the main feature of this joke is that it obscures the identity of these poor, witless folks until the very end. The punch line is a punch line in that it suddenly reveals that they are undocumented immigrants trying sneak in. Admittedly, I gave a hearty laugh when I heard this joke, and I still do not think that the joke is particularly mean-spirited—but after some analysis, I now believe that this joke unfortunately reinforces some negative stereotypes that circulate in California. We are painted a picture of this pack of people crammed into a car, including into the trunk, and they have broken law after law after law. Not only is the driver driving drunk and without a license, they have actually stolen the car. Up until the last line, the listener may or may not have suspected that they were Latin American immigrants, but when we hear the last line it is almost as though we slap our foreheads and go ‘Why of course! Who else would nonchalantly break all the laws and load an entire mob into a single car?’

It is hard to laugh too hard now; these are very damaging stereotypes for the Latin American community, and the joke seems to use humor to confirm them quietly in our minds while we are caught off guard amidst the laughter. And it almost strangely sounds like an argument for the rising anti-immigrant attitude in the US.


Joke – El Salvadorean

Do you know why Hitler killed the Jews?

Because he didn’t know the Mexicans!

This is a ‘Mexican joke’ that Jorge says he would say with his Salvadorean friends, but would never say it in front of Mexicans. It is said at any time one might begins to joke with intimate friends, but the potentially offensive nature of this joke is well understood; Jorge takes care to perform this only in front of people he knows will not be offended. Interestingly, Jorge first learned this joke from a Korean friend, whose punch line was “Because he didn’t know the Japanese!” but he initially had a hard time remembering that the joke was originally an anti-Japan joke. He first told me he probably learned it from some old Salvadorean friend, and it was only after thinking back a while that he remembered the other version. It is popular now among his friends, he says, and does not fail to get people laughing.

When asked what the joke meant to him, he asked me again, “Why did Hitler kill the Jews?” Among other things, I said that Hitler believed that the Jews were responsible for the bad economy and threatening the purity of the Germans. “If the Jews were a threat to economy, what about the Mexicans?” he said. He also explained to me why he felt there was as a strong anti-Mexican sentiment among the Central American immigrants in the United States. First of all, when immigrants stay in Mexico for a while before crossing the border into the US, Jorge says that the Mexican people would treat them very poorly, sometimes even trying to prevent successful immigration. Second of all, Jorge says that many of the Latino people in America feel that the Mexicans have made a bad name for all of them—and it does not help that so often people will stereotype all Latin-Americans as ‘Mexican.’ “The Mexicans were living here for so long! Yet what do they have? Nothing!” he says, explaining how much progress the Salvadorean community in California has seen already, despite only having been here for some two or three decades now. He says he, and many others, are frustrated because they feel wrongly stereotyped as ‘lazy’ or ‘uncouth,’ and he feels the Mexican community is in part responsible for this bad image.

Needless to say, I found all of this fascinating. Before I came to the states, I assumed that Mexican jokes were mainly told by white Americans, but at least, not by Latin Americans. As soon as I got to California, however, I quickly noticed that it were the South and Central Americans who most savagely joked about the Mexican people. When Jorge explained all this to me, it became much clearer to me why—they suffered in Mexico, and were very frustrated with their unfairly stereotyped existence in America. He also mentioned that he felt the Mexican-Americans were often arrogant because they’ve lived in California for so long. The Salvadoreans who laugh at this joke do not want to see the Mexican people dead, but they do see an ironic humor in comparing them to the way Nazi Germany saw the Jewish—mainly, threatening their financial wellbeing and giving them a bad name.

What also really stands out for me was the fact that it was originally a Korean’s joke against the Japanese. This adds another layer of meaning to this controversial joke. Older Koreans are still sometimes deeply angry at the Japanese people for the atrocities that were inflicted upon them little more than half a century ago. There is a slightly different feel to this version of the joke—because it has more of a historical texture to it. Both the Japanese occupation of Korea and Hitler’s holocaust happened tightly around the events of World War II. If Hitler did not know the Mexicans, and if the Salvadorean version is funny in its anachronistic absurdity, Hitler did indeed know the Japanese—they were allies. The original version of the joke seems a bit graver, as it is somewhat more realistic. It suggests that if Hitler really knew the Japanese, perhaps more intimately, he would actually have tried to exterminate the Japanese people.

As distasteful as this joke is, I still deem it interesting as folklore, because it takes three different cases of animosity among ethnic groups, and creates a complex, tri-layered web of analogy and association. Or, perhaps, from another point of view, it takes an immensely complicated and sensitive concept, and simplifies it to a ridiculous degree into the form of an embittered, resentful joke.

Folk speech

Proverb – Korean

???? (????)


Green green same color

Cho and Rok are the same color[*]

On the dance floor, I pulled a harmless prank on another dancer while my friend, Gisuk, was watching. When I pretended I did not know anything, the dancer turned to Gisuk and jokingly said, “Well we have a witness right here!” Gisuk cocked her head and said “Witness? Witness to what?” Giving up, the dancer laughed, “Cho and Rok are the same color” and danced off. I asked Gisuk what this proverb meant. She had learned this while living in Korea, and told me that it means that similar people will stick together. In this case, he meant that close people will stand up for one another. “Cho” and “Rok” may sound different, but in the end, they are both the same color. She also mentioned that in Korea, there are very many proverbs that mean the exact same thing, listing off quite a few.

It is fitting, I think, that the Koreans have many ways to express this idea. Korea is ethnically homogenous, and have a remarkably strong sense of national solidarity. (Perhaps this is even evident in the way I’ve unconsciously written ‘Korea’ as opposed to ‘South Korea’.) As a smaller nation that have survived for centuries next to China, and now the financial giant, Japan, Koreans seem to believe that it is important that we maintain this feeling of national unity. Maybe that is why we have so many proverbs reminding us that we are all essentially the same color.

[*] “Cho” and “Rok” are two different names of the same color, green. The most common word for green in modern Korean is “Cho-Rok.”


Legend – Korea

There was a boy who went to get an acupuncture treatment on the back of his neck. When it was over, the boy ended up with paralyzed legs. Apparently his doctor made a small mistake, and accidentally severed some very important nerves.

When I first heard this story, it was told as a true story—by a friend in Korea who claimed it happened to a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend…. However, after hearing several similar stories, I began to suspect it was a legend. It was the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I heard these stories in Korea. These stories were always told to me by my young peers—usually middle school and high school students. I never heard any mention of them on the news or by adults. These stories all involved acupuncture that went wrong—resulting in grave physical consequences, usually from damaged nerves. My cousin had told me a particularly gruesome version that she heard:

A girl was having acupuncture on her ear. When the needles were withdrawn, she noticed a tiny piece of thread poking out of one of the holes. Curious she pulled on it, when it snapped. She lost her vision.

Based on true stories or not, I think that these legends all express a certain uneasiness that Korean youths felt toward acupuncture—more broadly, an uneasiness with traditional medicine. I believe these legends show a conflict between western modes of thought and traditional Korean medicinal practices—especially the scary ones.

The performers of this legend were almost always in their teens—these were kids who grew up with a modern education, and taught westernized science; they were old enough to have a rudimentary understanding of the nervous system, and they were old enough to be able to begin questioning their parents’ beliefs. They were teenagers in a contradictory world; Korea is still so steeped in traditional beliefs and practices, yet in its race for economic competence, it has also modernized itself with ruthless speed. Outwardly, Western lifestyle and practices were so very quickly adopted, before the more intimate beliefs of the older generations were able to change, and it seems that this may have caused uneasiness among the young teenagers who were troubled by the incompatibility of western medicine and acupuncture. Therefore in their stories, a young person goes to have acupuncture to heal an ailment according to Eastern medicine. However, because of the mechanics of the nervous system as dictated by Western science, the unfortunate young victim suffers the loss of his legs of her eyes.

These stories were very scary, and while simple enough to often be taken as true. I must say that I have never allowed my mother to try her acupuncture kit on me. I never exactly feared for the loss of my limbs, yet I have never believed much good could come from piercing my body with needles.

Folk speech

Proverb – El Salvador

Dime con quien andas, y te dire quien eres.[*]

Tell me with whom stand, and you tell who are

Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are.

Jorge learned this proverb from his mother back when he lived in El Salvador. According to him, you will most often hear this being said by older people to younger people. He compared its use with the American “If your friend jumps off the bridge, will you jump too?” saying that a Salvadorean parent might use this proverb instead. Although the two proverbs are slightly different in meaning, they can both apply for young, impressionable people who are often easily influenced by their peers. For him, the proverb is a warning to heed who you hang out with, as you will become like them. “If you hang out with smart people, you will get smart too,” he says, “but if you hang out with dumbasses, well…” he chuckles. He added that it can also at times mean, that you can tell what someone is like by observing who he hangs out with.

I agree with Jorge that the proverb can be about the way people can take on the characteristics of those they are most often with, although I would tend to think it speaks more directly about the way similar people tend to congregate. I am also unsure how much I agree with the comparison with the Anglo proverb. I might suggest instead that it is more similar to “birds of a feather flock together.”

[*] Annotation: Santiago, E. (2006). When I was Puerto Rican. New York: Da Capo Press, p. 243

Folk speech

Proverb – El Salvador

En casa de herrero, cuchillo de palo.[1]

In house of blacksmith, knife of wood

In the house of the blacksmith, is a knife of wood.

Jorge heard this proverb in his childhood used by the adults in El Salvador. His mother used to say this to Jorge’s older brother, Tony, because even though Tony helped out doing chores for their neighbor, he did not do those same chores at home. According to Jorge, this proverb is used when “someone should be doing something at home, he’s not doing it at home, he’s just doing it outside.” Basically, this proverb is used to point out how oftentimes people will do things better and more properly outside, but when back in the comfort of their homes, they are prone to slack off. Thus, although the blacksmith works hard all day working metal for others, in his own home he uses a knife made of wood.

I personally would interpret this proverb from a slightly different angle. To me, it speaks to the relationship between one’s private life and one’s professional life. I’ve heard somewhere that “Cooks never cook at home.” To me, this projects the same idea—what we do at the office, or at the factory, we do not like to carry over to the home, or we do not have the energy to do so. I think this speaks an unfortunate truth about our present society so caught up with work and careers—whether in El Salvador or in California. The fashion designer often cannot groom the self, and the doctor has no time to exercise. My mother is an English tutor, and I have often heard her complain that she does not have the time and energy to teach her own children. Of course, I have no way of knowing if this is what the original users of this proverb meant. However, I have a feeling if this proverb remains popular in the future, it will most likely be because of this sad irony of modern life.

[1] Annotation: Glazer, M. (1987). A Dictionary of Mexican American Proverbs. New York: Greedwood Press, p. 51