“Gook” and “Tianmu” Origination Legend/Starcraft and Koreans.

My informant is a third generation Chinese American male student. He grew up in Irvine, California. During dinner in a shopping center, he mentioned the following origination legend of the word “gook” (He was eating Korean food, which prompted his anecdote):

Informant: Ok, so, why are Koreans called gooks?

Collector: Why?

Informant: Well, during the Korean War, the South Korean troops would applaud the American soldiers when they came walking through the fields to liberate them and they’ll cry out, “Megook! Megook!”, which means “America” in Korean. However, the American soldiers, in all their wisdom, felt that the Korean soldiers were identifying themselves as gook, “me gook”; hence they started calling them gooks. So the Koreans are called me “gook!”, me “gook!”. “Oh, you call yourself gook! I get it, you guys are all gooks!”

Collector: Ok, so where did you hear this?

Informant: I heard it from my Korean friends.

Collector: Do you know where he heard it from?

Informant: He’s Korean [laughter]. He was probably born knowing this story, kind of like how he was born knowing how to play Starcraft, and born knowing that they created the sundial.

Collector: [laughter] Well, what do you think is the importance of that little tidbit of history?

Informant: The term “gook” is often used to apply to Southeast Asian populations, as well as Koreans. This kind of says that Koreans are indeed number 1.”

This legend is set during the Korean War from 1950 – 1953 and explains the origination of the racial slur “gook”. My informant’s tone of voice implies that the Americans are, as he says, liberators (“the good guys”) but nonetheless foolish. The foolishness of the American soldiers lies in their assumption that everyone speaks English and in their misunderstanding of the Korean that the Koreans are speaking. The legend suggests that the American soldiers hold a sort of bigoted assumption that everyone naturally speaks English.

Interestingly, I, myself, have heard a variation of this legend in 2005 from a cram school math teacher in Tianmu, Taipei, Taiwan. Here’s a bit of background on me: I’m a third generation Chinese Taiwanese male student who was born in Taipei, Taiwan. I speak English and Chinese. I lived in Taipei for two years before moving to New Jersey, where I lived for seven years. After that, I returned to Taipei where I finished high school.

My cram school math teacher performed this legend as a joke item in between math tests.

For more information on Tien-mu, click this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tianmu,_Shilin_District.

As I remember, the story goes:

“Do you know where the name Tianmu comes from? Back in the 1960s, when American Soldiers occupied Tianmu, they would come into the fields and ask the Taiwanese farmers, “Where are we?” But, the Taiwanese farmers, unable to understand English, said, “Tee-yah-buo?” (‘Tee-yah-buo’ means ‘I don’t understand’ in Taiwanese), “Tee-yah-buo?”. The American Soldiers misunderstanding the farmers said, “Oh! Tian-mu! Tian-mu. Ok. OK.” Hence, Tianmu is called Tianmu.”

*My cram school math teacher performed the legend in Chinese; however, it’s been too long for me to remember the exact way he performed it.*

Both my informant and my legend deal with post-world war affairs in East Asian. While the “gook ” legend originated during or after the Korean War, the “Tianmu” legend originated during or after the American occupation of Taiwan in the 1950s, when the U.S was still fighting the Pacific front. However, the story could have also possibly originated in the 1960s when U.S soldiers stayed in Tianmu to help the reconstruction of Taipei’s economy. The legends both show a cultural remembrance in how the U.S shaped East Asia in the 1950s to 1960s post world war II and overall, portray the Americans as a positive influence yet foolish in their approach. Moreover, the tone both the legends were performed do suggest a sort of respect for the work the American soldiers did in Korea and Taiwan.

Another interesting thing my informant mentioned in his performance of the “gook” legend was:

“kind of like how he was born knowing how to play Starcraft, and born knowing that they created the sundial.”

There seems to be a widespread belief on the internet and in online gaming folk culture that Koreans are really good at Starcraft, a online real time strategy game. A simple Google search on “koreans are good at starcraft” yields 2,770,000 results.  More information can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarCraft_II:_Wings_of_Liberty.

Also, there seems to be a widespread belief that  Koreans think they invented everything, hence my informant mentions that his Korean friend was born knowing that his country created the sundial, which is not a widespread belief. A quick Google search on “koreans invented everything” yields 2,670,000 results. This is possibly a result of widespread rumors of legal claims that Korea has made to the World Heritage Foundation on several cultural artifacts, which are generally considered Chinese cultural items, such as Confucius, soybean milk and the Dragonboat festival…etc.