Informant (“A”) is a 19 year old, female from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and attends The University of Southern California. She is a Human Biology major. She is of European descent and her family includes her mother, father, and older brother who attends college in Texas. Informant has studied ballet for 17 years, including work in a professional company.
A: “…Now this one is going to sound really weird but recently there was a production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and there was this kinda offensive song sung in it.
This sort of got turned into a backstage chant, and like I’ve also heard other people do this too. We all huddle in and whisper this ‘We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn, we’re gonna rape kill pillage and burn, eat the babies’. We say this multiple times getting louder each time until all of us are full on screaming it backstage. You know how people can like to scream vaguely offensive stuff, but its not that bad to us because we all know where it’s from. Then right before I go on stage I’ll do like a cross, you know the like Catholic one. I’m not really religious but I’ve been doing it for years. I think it started when I did a really hard solo and it had that cross in it. It basically tells me that I’ve done all I can and now I just have to perform. It’s another aspect of getting mentally ready, because so much of performing is about being physically but also mentally on your game.”
Analysis: The crossing seems to be a sort of parody of superstition. It may be an attempt to ‘use’ a previously accepted superstition in a socially accepted way or to comically parody their own use of superstition before the performance.
This backstage chant seems to be a sort of ‘trust building exercise’ that uses both humor and chanting to reinforce a sense of community. In high stress situations like ballet performances, such reinforcement likely serves to cater trust in other dancers, as the difference between an effective performance and a mishap could rely on other dancers.
About the Interviewed: Spencer is a former student of the George Washington University, now graduated and teaching English overseas. He describes his ethnic background as “Potpourri”, with his family having a mixture of Scottish-Polish origins with some Irish thrown in the mix. His family has lived in North America for generations, so he prefers to identify ethnically as just that. He is 22 years of age.
Spencer, my friend from the George Washington University gave me a talk about a sub-culture of individuals known in America as “Hipsters”.
Spencer: “Hipsters are a stereotype. But they’re a funny stereotype. (laughs) They’re like, people who don’t ever want to be mainstream. They do everything outside of the ‘norm because that’s what’s cool.”
I ask him what he means by things that aren’t “mainstream”.
Spencer: “Well, a ‘Hipster’ is probably not somebody who listens to [music] that’s popular or anything upbeat. They like things that are old, things that are vintage. There’s this video of someone taking notes on a typewriter. Stuff like that. It’s sort of a label. I mean, they’re a kind of subculture. Hipsters don’t identify as hipsters. It’s kind of an insult, really.”
I asked him why he believed that being labeled a Hipster represented an insult.
Spencer: “Well, It’s sort of a joke. (he laughs) Though some people probably take it seriously”, he continues. “It’s like if you have a friend, and you want to watch a movie together, like Star Wars, but he doesn’t want to see it because it’s too mainstream.” He makes a gesture here with his hands in a faux-suave kind of way. “You’d be all like – Man, you’re such a Hipster!”
He stops to laugh again.
Spencer: “People just think that they’re arrogant. That’s kind of what the word means.”
I asked him to describe what he thinks a hipster would look like.
Spencer: (laughs) “Oh man. Well the real hipsters dress funny. I’d picture dudes wearing leggings, loafers with no socks, handlebar mustaches, things like that. Girls would be kind-of the same, just more irregular.”
Spencer: “I mean, I live in [Washington] DC, and you see them all the time, or people who look like them [hipsters], I’m not judging. I mean, they’re sort of cool in a retro kind-of way. I like anyone who can do things without caring too much about what other people think of them. (laughs)”
“Hipsters” are a subculture of individuals who live organically and distance themselves from the “mainstream” or “popular” world. As the idea of a Hipster has become something a stereotype, the term is seen by some as derogatory.
Personally, I find the concept of Hipsters to be very interesting. They’re sort of postmodern: rejecting our concept of modernity to substitute their own. Hipsters live an organic lifestyle, though some would argue that it’s mainly reactionary. The word “Hipster” embodies both a label, and a definition. Though many people adjust to the subculture, Spencer and I both agreed that the term has become somewhat patronizing in recent years.
“In India, it is not uncommon – actually, scratch that, it is incredibly common to make tongue-in-cheek jokes against members of other cultures. They are not meant to be offended, because everyone makes such jokes against others. This is one of them. Pay close attention: Three men – a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim – are in a boat, and it is starting to sink because the boat is too heavy to stay afloat. In order to keep the boat from sinking, the three men all decide to make compromises and throw something overboard to lighten the load. The Hindu says, ‘I’m going to throw my Rolex overboard. I’ve got two or three more watches like this at home.’ And so he does. The Christian takes off his impressive top-hat and antique walking cane and promptly throws them over, saying, ‘I’ve got several more of these at home as well.’ The Muslim, to the shock of the other two men, picks up his wife and deposits her unceremoniously into the ocean, proclaiming, ‘I’m throwing my wife overboard. I’ve got several more wives like this at home!'”
The informant related his experience with this joke: “It was actually my brother-in-law who had come up with this joke after he’d had a little too much to…well, you know. He told me the joke at a party some sixty years ago, but I didn’t find it as funny as he did, perhaps because I was slightly more sober than he was. But only slightly. However, I must confess that did steal the joke from him, obviously because I’m the better joke-teller. Don’t look at me like that, I’m not making it up! I actually modified it a little and then told it at a dinner. It got many more laughs than when he told it. See?”
As the informant said, in India, it is very common to make jokes about other cultures, religions, and ethnic subgroups, poking fun at things that are stereotypical to their particular community. In this particular blason populaire, there are stereotypes of more than one group. In India, there are three distinct images – the Hindu man dressed in a very Spartan manner, with cotton everything except for his expensive gold watch; the Christian man with his tailored suit, felt top-hat, and wooden walking cane; and the Muslim man with his train of wives. Out of all of the three stereotypes, this joke exploits, in particular, the image of the polygamous Muslim, a depiction that has particular popularity among the socially and sexually conservative Hindu community. These two communities have been at odds with each other since the Partition in 1947, and therefore, many ethnic jokes have sprung up from this division in both communities, exploiting stereotypes on either side of the great divide.
“You know this is my favorite joke ever. Because it’s hilarious. And also because I’ve probably told it to you a million times. So this young guy, who comes from a minority population and speaks pretty limited English, starts working at a donut joint. At this point, he’s told to say ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’ to customers with questions. So the first day of work, this customer comes in and asks ‘what do you sell here?’ The guy who works there does as he’s told and says, ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’ But he says that to every other question he’s asked, which are ‘How much to they cost?’, ‘Are they fresh?’, and ‘Should I buy them?’. Supremely confused, the customer leaves. So the manager tells the kid to say ‘Twenty five cents’ when asked how much they cost. Then another customer comes in with the same questions – ‘What do you sell here?’, ‘Donuts, donuts, donuts!’, ‘How much do they cost?’ ‘Twenty five cents.’, ‘Are they fresh?’, ‘Twenty five cents.’, ‘Should I buy them?’ ‘Twenty five cents.’ The manager, an understanding guy, tells the kid to say ‘Very, very fresh’ when he’s asked if the donuts are fresh. And so, naturally, in walks a third customer. The same suite of questions is asked, and instead of answering ‘Yes!’ to ‘Should I buy them?’, the poor kid answers, ‘Very, very fresh!’. Obviously because he doesn’t know any better. Now starting to get fed up, the manager tells him to respond, ‘Do it before somebody else does!’ to the question ‘Should I buy them?’.
And so, now that the kid’s finally got everything down, guess who comes in next? A guy dressed in black who’s obviously robbing the joint. The exchange goes like this:
Burglar – Whaddaya sell here?!
Kid – Donuts, donuts, donuts!
Burglar – How much you got in the register?
Kid – Twenty five cents.
Burglar – Are you acting fresh with me?!?!
Kid – Very, very fresh.
Burglar – That’s it! I’m gonna shoot you!
Kid – Do it before somebody else does!
And so, you can probably guess how the story ends.”
I was reminded that I already knew the context of this story, but I asked the informant to relate it anyway. “This is our family’s favorite joke. Ever,” he said. “You know because I’ve been telling it since we were kids. It shows you how a nice guy with a limitation in his knowledge of the English language, of which he is benignly unaware, gets in trouble because of his blissful ignorance.”
This joke takes on more than one form. It can be seen as a blason populaire against non English-speaking minorities, a darkly comedic cautionary tale against the disadvantages of not knowing the English language, and gallows humor. It is made apparent at the very beginning by the performer that the kid in the story is unfamiliar with English, and this is what ultimately ends up getting him shot by a burglar. In a rapidly globalizing society, the importance of the lingua franca is highlighted at the end of the sordidly humorous tale. Confused and dissatisfied customers might not be that big of a deal, but angry, armed pastry bandits? Nuh-uh.
“Two gentlemen are at a museum of modern art, one Indian and one American, and they are both looking at a very strange and indeterminate painting, trying to figure out what it is all about. You know, what people do with art, especially with modern art. So the first man proclaims his opinion on the work – ‘This painting is very vayg-yoo.’ The second man, although agreeing completely, is supremely annoyed at the first man’s butchering of the word ‘vague’. He attempts to clarify – ‘Look here, sir, in English, we do not pronounce the ue at the end.’ The first man nods, understanding, and benignly responds – ‘All right, all right, friend. Let us not arg.'”
The informant actually came up with this joke due to his fascination with the English language and its janky mechanics – “I came up with this joke after watching the film Chupke Chupke, which is, essentially, a questioning of the jhameli (ruckus) that is the English language. In the film, there is a line that perfectly sums up my fascination and confusion with this language – ‘Agar T-O “too” hai, aur D-O “doo”, toh phir G-O “go” kaise hua?’ (If T-O is pronounced ‘too” and D-O is pronounced “doo”, then how does G-O become “go”?) And so various other confusions came to my mind, namely the selective silencing of certain syllables. I thought this little anecdote was in perfect conjunction with this question from the film.”
English is a very weird language. It takes elements of every language by which it has been influenced and scrambles them up into an interesting but utterly confusing potpourri. The informant’s joke is, therefore, the perfect exploration and depiction of the non-native English speaker’s constant battle with the odd language. In India, especially, where Hindi is the most widely-spoken language, every syllable of every word is pronounced exactly as it is written in the native scripts. Therefore, when confronted with a word like “vague”, one can understand the confusion of the Indian man at the silencing of the last part of the word. Also, in a country where the rules of languages are fairly constant, one can also sympathize when the man does not understand that the rule of dropping the “ue” does not extend to every single word, and is instead a case-by-case situation. Interestingly, this joke gently pokes fun at the strange formulations of the English language while also not sparing the Indian man’s ignorance of pronunciation.
“A Hindu man is in a rowboat in a particularly stormy section of the river. All of a sudden, his boat rams into a boulder, and he goes flying into the icy water. The rapids are carrying him away, and so he holds onto a small fragment of the wooden boat, trying to stay afloat. This doesn’t help him for very long. Just as he’s about to drown, therefore, he has the brilliant idea to pray to Ganesha, the deity of overcoming challenges and obstacles. Ganesha appears before him, and asks him what he wants. The man tearfully begs the elephant-headed god to get him out of the water, to which Ganesha replies – ‘Hah! You drown me every year, without even asking me what I want, and then when you’re drowning, you expect me to help you out of the water? Yeah, right!'”
The informant, a devout Hindu and an avid joke-teller, related the history of this joke – “This is one of the most hilarious jokes I have ever heard. A lot of Hindus know the joke, and know the significance of the joke. It’s funny because it puts the festival and rituals of Ganesh Chaturti into the perspective of the god himself, turning the joke around on us and making us wonder what the gods actually think of what we do to them.”
This joke mocks the rituals of Ganesh Chaturti, a traditional Hindu festival in which earthen idols of Ganesha are immersed in the nearest holy river or lake, symbolizing his return to his mother, the goddess of the earth Bhumi Devi, amid a spectacular celebration. It personifies the idol of the young, elephant-headed god, and switches the positions of the drowner and the drownee, putting Ganesh in the position of power here. In addition to this, the god is portrayed hilariously immature and vindictive, diminishing his deified dignity and showing him to be actually disgruntled by the rituals of a festival which celebrates his birth and ascent to heaven, a situation which people don’t really consider when performing these grand and honorific traditions.
My informant is an orthopedic surgeon, who was born in Hawaii, lived in Texas, Long Beach California, and Virginia Beach. He is also in the Army Reserves. My informant now works in New Orleans, Louisiana. Over lunch with my informant we were talking about occupational folklore and stereotypes, which led into a conversation about stereotypes of different types of doctors brought up the saying, “strong as an ox and twice as smart.” The conversation is as follows:
I: The stereotype of orthopedic surgeons is that they are strong as an ox and twice as smart.
Person 1: I thought it was half as smart
Person 2: Yeah, I think that’s how it actually is
I: Well at Yale we said twice as smart but we were Yale residents. There was actually a journal article called, “Strong as an Ox and Half as Smart” investigating this. They compared test scores of orthopedic surgeons and anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons were higher than everyone else.
This conversation shows two different versions of essentially the same proverb, and how things can be modified and passed down. However, my informant who is a surgeon, passed down the version where surgeons were “twice as smart,” while the other people involved in the conversation had heard the version where they were “half as smart.” I had never heard either of these stereotypes before, but it is interesting that my informant carried the altered version of the saying that displays his profession in a more positive life. I looked up the scientific research paper, entitled “Twice as Strong as an Ox and Half as Smart” by Subramanian et al. and it does conclude that orthopedic surgeons are twice as smart. I have attached a link to the abstract for the scientific paper and also an image displaying the various stereotypes of different types of doctors. My informant first heard this stereotype from a fellow med student who was also a surgeon. My informant says he does not tell people this saying as a way of gloating, but just as a joke when with friends. He tells it as affirmation of how strong and smart he is, but he also just likes to joke around when with other doctors who are not surgeons. My other two informants who heard the opposite version, don’t remember where they heard it and it seemed to be something that they have always known. This occupational lore seems to come up among people in the medical profession. Doctors in different fields know the stereotypes and are able to make fun of each other and joke around while in med school or in the workplace. I have found this stereotype to be surprisingly true, my informant loves doing anything athletic, competes in triathlons, and is always trying to fix things that may be broken such as appliances. This fits the stereotype that surgeons are very strong, but I have not found the half as smart part to be true.
Annotation: the study found that the proverb should actually be that surgeons are twice as smart as an ox, once further research is done into the IQ of an ox. This journal article was published by the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, but may have been somewhat biased.
Subramanian, P., et al. “ORTHOPAEDIC SURGEONS–TWICE AS STRONG AS AN OX AND HALF AS SMART.” Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, British Volume 94.SUPP XXXIV (2012): 5-5.
“My friend told me this story. He said his friend was working at this grocery store, and this very large, borderline obese African American woman is walking towards the exit, and her body seems especially lumpy? More so than it would be for a normal obese woman. And all of a sudden, out of her shirt, on to the ground, falls a ham. A big ol’ ham, like you’d have for Christmas dinner. And – and she looks around, and she goes “who threw that at me?” (said in a very sassy voice). And- and it was very obvious that it had just fallen out of her shirt, but she proceeds to play it off like someone just threw a ham at her. And she reacts, and I guess this would supposedly be an appropriate reaction for having a ham thrown at you, by saying “nuh uh. Ya bettta don’t” (said in a very sassy voice with left hand on hip and right hand waving with the index finger. Head bobbing right and left while phrase is said). And, and then she just walks out. And the ham is on the floor and the employees were just standing there, mouth agape”
The informant currently attends the University of Southern California as a student. He says that he heard this story from a friend in high school in New Jersey. It has become a friend of a friend story, and he has told many of his friends the story several times. He normally tells the story after he uses the phrase “nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” in some conversation, and the people who do not know the context of that phrase ask him about it. I first saw him use it when it came up in a conversation on facebook where somebody refused to go look for their wallet to pay for a ticket that was going to be sold out within a few hours. The informant replied to that comment with “Sarah just tried to pull the same shit. Nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” to which he received many questions as to what that meant. Ever since then, he has repeated the story many times, each time receiving laughter regardless of if the audience has heard it before or not.
It is obvious by the way the informant tells the story that he is an active bearer of this now legend. Every time he repeats the story, there are fixed phrases and beats to the narrative. He makes use of the oral formulaic theory also with the final phrase where he imitates the woman. The audience, regardless of if they themselves repeat the story or not, the phrase “nuh uh. Ya betta don’t” has become a phrase that many people have started repeating and using within this group of friends at least. This story is a very amusing narrative, but it is also a bit racist. When the informant was describing how to properly say the phrase, he said that one has to do it with a proper ghetto accent and sass. This plays on the stereotype of African Americans that exists in the USA today, where it is normal and almost expected of the group to talk with a certain accent. This piece of folklore is an urban legend that makes use of the oral formulaic theory in the method that it is performed and Blason Populaire with the content that it contains.
There’s a German man, American man and a Chinese man who are all employees at a cement factory. When the employer comes along, he tells the German man to set the cement, he tells the American man to set the bricks, and he tells the Chinese man to get the supplies. When he comes back in an hour, the cement is all set and bricks are all in place, but the Chinese man is nowhere to be found. When he asks where the Chinese man is, the Chinese man jumps out of the bush and yells “supplies!”
The informant says she first heard this joke from a friend in high school when they were both on a trip. She says that although they are both Asian, they both found it extremely funny, because this joke plays upon stereotypes of accents that are often true within the older generation that came to America, not having grown up here. Although it is stereotypical, she believes that it is all in good fun.
It is interesting how this joke plays with the idea of Blason Populaire. The informant and the person whom she heard the joke from are both Asian Americans with parents who have accents that are similar to the one being made fun of in the joke. By laughing over the joke and taking the idea lightly, they are both identifying with a group, which reaffirms their identities as Asian Americans. Furthermore, this joke also uses the rule of 3, which indicates that it originated in Western culture.