SEOUL: The sense of humour of Koreans these days is quite penetrating and hilarious.
According to a widely circulating joke, a Korean man died and was taken to hell by the grim reaper.
As he was about to enter hell, he saw an “Under Renovation” sign hanging on the closed gate. When he asked Hades about the renovations, the ruler of the Underworld told him, “We’re working on raising the temperature of the hellfire because you Koreans are so accustomed to ‘Jimjil-bang’ (dry saunas) and ‘Bul-gama’ (fiery furnace saunas) that you’re numb to hellfire. Koreans even seem to enjoy hellfire, because they keep saying, ‘Ah, siwon hada! (Oh, this is nice and cool!)’”
As he was not allowed to enter hell, the Korean man went up to heaven. But he found the same renovation sign on the gate to heaven as well. Thus he asked God why heaven was also under renovation. God answered him, “I’m sorry, son, but so many Koreans have cosmetic surgery these days and their faces do not match our records. So we are installing automatic face-recognition software now. Until the installation is complete, Koreans are not allowed to enter heaven.”
Rejected by both heaven and hell, where can the Korean people go after they die? I hear that these days some people who have had cosmetic surgery in Seoul encounter problems at the airport immigration counter because their faces are different from their passport photos.
Another humorous joke in Korea is the one that compares our ex-presidents’ styles with different types of drivers.
Syngman Rhee was a student driver (he was the inexperienced first president); Park Chung-hee was a speeding driver (he pursued speedy economic development); Choi Kyu-ha was a driver with a temporary licence (his presidency was soon usurped); Chun Doo-hwan was an unlicenced driver (he seized power through a coup); Roh Tae-woo was a sleepy driver (he was a quiet man who was not well aware of the complexities of international politics); Kim Young-sam was a drunk driver (intoxicated by ostensible prosperity, he did not know the Asian financial crisis was imminent); Kim Dae-jung drove a car with a sunroof (he pursued the sunshine policy and, as a result, received the Nobel Peace Prize); Roh Moo-hyun was a reckless driver (he drove the wrong way on a one-way street); and Lee Myung-bak was a company driver (as a former construction company CEO, he ran the country like a corporation).
There is another funny joke about Koreans’ delusions. A young woman’s delusion: when a man happens to be walking behind her, she wrongly assumes that he is stalking her.
A mother’s delusion: when her child does not do well at school, she erroneously thinks that he just does not study hard enough, despite the fact that he is smart and intelligent.
Parents’ delusion: they naively assume that when their children grow older, they will return the love and care they received from their parents.
A mother-in-law’s delusion: she naively thinks that her son will continue to love her more than his wife after getting married.
In-laws’ delusion: they incorrectly think that their son-in-law is not interested in their savings and real estate holdings.
A wife’s delusion: she thinks her husband is not interested in young, pretty girls.
A husband’s delusion: when his wife gives him the breakfast of champions, he misguidedly thinks it’s a reward for his superb sexual technique the night before.
An old woman’s delusion: she thinks she can still be pretty as long as she puts on her makeup.
An old man’s delusion: He thinks he is still attractive to young, pretty girls.
Another fine joke is the comparison between a Korean sportscaster and a Western one at an ice rink where Kim Yu-na is giving a dazzling performance. Watching Yu-na’s landing, the Korean sportscaster says, “Ah, such a high-level technique will give Yuna extra points!”
But the Western sportscaster exclaims, “Ah, she looks like a beautiful butterfly gently touching down on a flower petal, doesn’t she?”
Then the Korean sportscaster says, “If she lands clumsily, it’ll affect her score.”
But the Western sportscaster just praises Yu-na’s graceful, dexterous motions: “Look! She’s like a silk scarf touching down on a lake, making gorgeous ripples.”
At the end of the performance, the Korean sportscaster shouts, “Ah! Yu-na dominated the ice link completely. She will definitely win the gold medal!”
But the Western sportscaster whispers, “Thank God, I am so lucky to have seen this mesmerising performance today.”
This anecdote illustrates how obsessed Koreans are with obtaining high scores and winning medals, unable to appreciate the artistic qualities of the performance.
Humorous jokes often reflect innate problems in their country of origin. Reading the jokes above, we can ponder the compelling social and psychological issues of South Korea today, while laughing heartily.
> Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.