Author Archives: Iris Park

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.

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.

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

Superstition – Persian, Armenian

To protect a car from bad luck, an egg is placed right in front of each tire of the vehicle. Then the owner drives the car forward, slowly crushing the eggs.

Mary learned this from her Persian-Armenian neighbors in Glendale. She said this is done when you buy a new car—almost like an initiation ceremony for the car. She said she is not sure exactly how this is supposed to work, although she thinks it may have something to do with “crushing evil.”

I am not sure how to go about analyzing this, but I thought it was an interesting piece as it combines a very ancient form of superstition—magical superstition, and a very modern object—the car. No doubt this tradition has started after the invention of cars, and after the wide distribution of cars among the Persian-Armenian communities. I thought there must be some older Persian custom that involves the crushing of eggs for good luck, but was not able to find any. At any rate, this tradition is concerned with an issue that concerns us all—motor safety. If Persian-Armenians had previously crushed eggs for some form of protection, it makes sense why they would try to adopt this to the car—we now, after all, spend much of our time in cars, and we are all aware of the dangers of the road.

As for the eggs, they have been symbolically important for so many cultures. Eggs seem to usually connote good rather than evil, so I am not too sure about Mary’s idea of symbolic crushing of evil. The wheels are like the ‘legs’ of the car, and are very important to the car’s reliability and maneuverability—perhaps, then, it is an attempt to instill some of the egg’s protective power into the very rubber of the wheels.