Author Archives: Ashish Keshan

Akbar and Birbal

Informant KM is a sophomore studying Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is of Indian descent and moved to America at a very young age; however, she is very proud of her Indian heritage and considers herself to be very knowledgeable in regards to Indian mythology and religion. She is also fluent in two Indian languages, Hindi and Marathi. This piece of folklore is her recitation of a very common Indian folktale to me (AK).

KM: Akbar is known to be this angry king who has this little friend named birbal who is known to be very cunning and sharp. They have thousands of tales about the two of them. Akbar usually gets mad about something and birbal fixes it by being cunning and smart.

One such story:

There was a thousand people that came into the kingdom and they wanted to kill birbal because birbal was screwed up. So they told him that he needs to drink a bottle full of lime juice straight down. That’s supposed to tear apart your entire digestive system. So Birbal is like “okay I’ll do it.” and Akbar says, “Birbal, what the hell, you’re going to die” and Birbal just winked. And later, he went home and took a bottle of ghee, and drank the entire bottle of ghee which covered his entire digestive system. Now he came back and he downed the lemon juice and survived because the ghee was a coating.

AK: Why do you know or like this piece?

KM: I didn’t know as a child that lemon could kill you. I think it’s funny because in this story they depict everyone to look like idiots and Birbul looks funny because he’s this low-key middle-class guy, but it represents the underdog winning.

AK: Where did you hear this story?

KM: I learned of this story at home from this book called the Punchit Tandra. I also heard many stories from my parents including this one. I remember this story in particular because it is short and is a representation of the power of wit and intellect.

This story was very interesting to hear because I am also of Indian heritage, yet I had never heard this story before. I belief this is because I grew up in a very western society and these stories were never passed down by my parents. Another interesting thing to note is the manner in which this story was told by my informant. It is obvious that her recollection is devoid of many details and likely not performed as it was by her parents. I attribute this to a generational difference as well as the fact that my informant retold this story from memory. Therefore, it makes sense that she was only able to remember the most crucial plot details.

Funny Korean Proverb

Informant SL is a junior studying business communication at the University of Southern California. She is of Korean descent and only moved to America at the age of 16. Here, she performs a proverb that is very notorious to her because she heard it for the first time after doing something she learned she shouldn’t have done.

Original Proverb: 누워서 침 뱄기

English Translation: “Lying down and spitting.”

The informant was an only child growing up. For this reason, in elementary school, she didn’t have anyone to vent about her parents with. So one time she bad-mouthed her parents to a friend. This friend told her mom, and the friend’s mom told the informant’s mom. The story ends with the informant’s mom repeating the proverb to the informant. The proverb is very apt in this case because the informant explained that she essentially “lied down and spit on herself” because by telling a friend, she invariably ended up telling her mother. The informant believes that this proverb is very significant to know because it can apply to almost anything. It is akin to the concept of karma because what goes around will always come around (or land on yourself as spit in this case).

To me, this proverb is very simple to decipher. I take it to mean don’t do anything that could come back to bite you. This is especially relevant in today’s day and age due to the prevalence of the internet and social media. Everything we do online is documented and saved forever in the archives of the internet. This means something we have published over 5 years ago could be resurfaced at a later date. Everyone knows of very obvious examples of where this has happened, but everyone at one point or another has posted or commented something they would not like the world to see. For this reason, it is imperative that one doesn’t “lie down and spit”. This etiquette is essential to prevent something incriminating coming back to cause harm further down the line.

Common Korean Proverb

Informant SL is a junior studying business communication at the University of Southern California. She is of Korean descent and only moved to America at the age of 16. Here, she performs the proverb she is most familiar with because it is very commonly stated in Korean society.

Original Proverb: 오늘 걷지 않으면, 내일 뛰어야 한다

English Translation: “If you don’t walk today, you must run tomorrow.”

The informant explained that this proverb means that if you don’t do something easier today, it’ll be even harder tomorrow. She likes the proverb because it’s not something she lives by, but it motivates her to hear it. Since Korean is her first language, it feels deeper to her. She heard this proverb from her father who told her because she was not doing her work back in elementary school, and it has stuck with her ever since.

This proverb resonated with me because procrastination is something I often find myself struggling with. I have heard many different versions of this proverb, like the “journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, yet none really stuck with me like this one did. This proverb articulated my thoughts on procrastination by putting it into very simple terms. Essentially, everything is made easier by splitting it up into more manageable parts. However, if things are put off, the effort to complete it is a lot more uncomfortable and unmanageable. The analogy between procrastination and running is very accurate. Both are very uncomfortable, yet very often unavoidable due to human nature.


Hoerangi and Kkotgam

Original Title: 호랑이와 곶감

Phonetically: Hoerangi and Kkotgam

English Translation: The Tiger & the Persimmon

Informant SL is a junior studying business communication at the University of Southern California. She is of Korean descent and only moved to America at the age of 16. Here, she discusses a traditional Korean folktale that is told to many children by their parents or grandparents.

SL: There’s this little town in a village, and this tiger creeps up to a home because he’s hungry and hears a baby crying. So that attracts his attention and he wants to eat like the people in the house. And the tiger can hear the mom saying, ‘if you keep crying, the tiger is going to get you.’ When the tiger hears that he’s like “holy shit, how does she know I’m here.” The baby keeps crying and the mom sees a kkotgam and the baby stops crying. So the tiger thinks, whatever this kkotgam is, it must be scarier than me cause the baby stopped crying. So the tiger runs away into the storage of the house, and in the dark, he scares a robber in the house. That scares the robber away and the tiger hearing about the kkotgam also runs away because he thinks the kkotgam is bigger than him.

The informant heard this tale from her grandma because she was eating a kkotgam (persimmon). She really likes this story because it’s very funny and gives life to a tiger. In her opinion, the moral is that you shouldn’t be scared of the things you don’t see. The tale doesn’t mean too much to her, but the tiger is the national animal of Korea. She described the relationship as similar to the bald eagle’s representation of American identity.

Personally, I found this story to be more comical than anything else. While I understand the moral it is attempting to teach, I believe this tale is better served as merely one that provides entertainment to the listener. I also do like how easy this story is to remember, and that is perhaps why it has lasted all these years since its creation. Since the situation is so ridiculous, it is quite easy to remember the details that occur in the tale.


Heungbu and Nolbu

Original Title: 흥부와 놀부

Phonetically(names): Heungbu and Nolbu

Informant SL is a junior studying business communication at the University of Southern California. She is of Korean descent and only moved to America at the age of 16. Here, she discusses a traditional Korean folktale that is well known by all kids in Korea. SL compared this story to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ from western culture in terms of how well-known it is.

SL: Heungbu is the dad of a poor family, and one day they find a bird in their backyard, and the bird has a broken leg. Seeing this, the dad takes the bird in his hand and wraps the leg of the bird. Then the bird flies away, and the same bird comes flying back… but drops them off a seed. This seed turns out to be a pumpkin seed and it keeps growing and growing and growing and becomes this giant thing. It becomes this giant ball. It becomes so big the wife and the family have to saw it open. Once they cut it all the way open, they find all this gold, jewelry, riches. Basically a treasure chest in a pumpkin. But then, his neighbor saw this and the neighbor was a rich greedy man. And his name was nolbu “n-o-l-b-u”. Nolbu had heard what happened with Heungbu’s family, so he goes outside and purposely breaks a bird’s leg. And then he wrapped it up the same way, bandaged it, and the bird flew away. And that bird game back one day and dropped off a seed. He picked up the seed all excited and happy and it grew into the same big big size. And inside were trolls called Dokkaebi. Dokkaebi’s are always known to have bats, so then they popped out of the pumpkin and beat them up. Seeing this, the nice guy Heungbu comes and helps him.

The informant is not entirely sure where she knows this story from because Korean children simply grow up with it. It is heard through books, nursery rhymes, family etc. and there are even restaurants with this name. The informant likes this story because she thinks it’s funny and teaches you the whole moral of “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. As a child, she thought the story was about being greedy, but now she realizes why parents tell the story. “When we’re told don’t be greedy, no one will know what that means. But this story exemplifies it well and teaches the dangers of greed well.”

In my opinion, this piece exemplifies a common thread linking together many different cultures. Greed is universally seen as negative by nearly every culture, and it is very important to teach this concept to children when they are very young. I really liked this story because it presented both the dangers of greed as well as the benefits of leading an honest life. To me, this piece is an excellent teaching tool, and I can see why it has been memorialized in Korean culture.

For another version of this story, see