Telling Bad Jokes in Korea

by NB Armstrong (November 2013)

The following is an extract from the author’s book about living in South Korea, Korean Straight Lines.

I was asked by a member I met at a friend’s house to become moderator of the city’s English forum. Members met to discuss an agreed upon topic on Thursday evenings at seven and then dined together in a nearby seafood restaurant. I would just chip in, monitor for egregious errors, and clarify misunderstood terms. My remit was quasi-monarchical, receiving a stipend for occupying an executive seat of authority. Who could say no to that? Royalty is the second best thing to every man’s dream, which is to be paid the exact amount of money he is, as his job, able to tot up with a front loading bank note counter until whatever time of day it is when vice steals him away. And as for dinner afterwards, even if I dislike the taste of shells I respect the process of bringing me to the table. I said yes, I will.

The English Forum was made up of local middle and high school English teachers. A senior high school teacher, the forum convener, described in full xenophiliac flow his unsullied experiences traveling around New Zealand. There followed a period of warming small talk with all but one member of the forum. This university professor, a regular member with no defined role but who was closely observing everything, instantly quizzed me on the rights and wrongs of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the South Korean and US governments in light of a recent terrible accident in which two middle school girls had been crushed to death by an American army tank. Mass candlelight vigils had been held and I walked daily past a semi-permanent display of images of their crushed bodies set up by enraged undergraduates. A friend described the issue as a “hot potato,” especially in regard to the tank operators’ privileged legal position as foreign soldiers under the SOFA agreement. What to say?

I demurred, quietly nodding, on the understanding this would be recognized as dignified agreement. It wasn’t. The Professor took silence as open invitation to commence a minutes-long rant. I soon gathered the purpose of initiating the exchange was not as a test of my forum moderating aptitude, but as an opportunity for me to issue an apology on behalf of America, the West, and the human species heretofore for its historical and continuing deliberate policy of persecuting Koreans. I tried to reorient the discussion by talking about the transportation of army vehicles around the heavily militarized Gangwon Province. No game. I might as well have praised the model of tank involved in the tragedy. The Professor was smaller than me but had a way of raising his chin and eyebrows to an angle of superiority of which his wife must never have grown tired. I recall by the end, as he mopped his brow with an untainted handkerchief, fighting to agree with the professor more and more animatedly but him misinterpreting my animation as disagreement and beginning yet another sentence with a loud, mystified, “Don’t you think…?”

So, tell me more about New Zealand, Mr…

We got off the subject by the late arrival of four female middle school teachers, laughing their way over to the remaining empty seats. They, like everyone else seated around the conference table in this meeting room in the new city library on a cold Thursday evening, had endured another long day of work, teenagers, spouses, children, the cost of living, and an extended set of duties and obligations, one of which is to be a member of associations, clubs, societies and forums on midweek winter nights, when what they all really needed was a long warm bath. Yet they were laughing. They wanted humor.

Each week a different topic, introduced by a different member, served the basis for round table English practice. I felt my heart seeking out deep waters in which to sink as Professor SOFA began passing round an article from a technical magazine on the future role of the CIO. Our professor wanted to debate the role of the Chief Intelligence Officer, and why wouldn’t he? SOFA read the article out word for word. At the end of each sentence, he would rehash it for explicatory purposes by reading the sentence again but changing one vocabulary item, and often not a crucial or difficult one, either. So he would read a sentence like, “Strategic investments in IT and automation require companies to rethink radically outdated legacy systems,” and then say, occasionally raising his chin and eyebrows to address the exosphere, “Strategic investments in IT and automation need companies to rethink radically outdated legacy systems.” I looked at the clock. It wasn’t helping.

I waited cold and hard for the debate to begin. It never did. The now glazed expressions of those laughing female teachers betrayed thoughts of children and bills. The convener displayed a kind of happy distant tolerance, a dreaming of New Zealand face, while the others must have been questioning the role of what they were hearing in their networking and social self-betterment plans. Meanwhile Professor Sofa was reading as if he was going to get a call from the President in the middle of the night asking him to fix the Sixth Republic. Then, queerly, like a cuckoo bursting out of a cell phone to announce the passing of another hour, a moment of humor in the article. It was slight, easily missed, something like, “Many of the CIOs polled had ambitions to one day become Chief Executive, but then so did many of the tea boys.” I laughed out loud, looking in the direction of the females. No reaction; but the professor looked at me and began and ended a pause he had practiced many times before. Presently, he continued…

Nevertheless, I had my reference point, underlined the passage, and promised myself to come back to it.

The end came. But we were made to work for it. SOFA reread the last sentence three times, because it was the conclusion, see. The audible exhalations when he was done were like those of a church basement full of villagers realizing the bombers had passed them by. People didn’t actually look to me but I was being paid and all so what the heck: “This is a serious article, but there was one moment of humor. I wonder if anyone…” But no-one. So I pointed out the sentence, described the role of the tea boy, the overlapping ambitions of one so lowly with an aspiring CIO, and thought, “Yeah, it’s really not that funny.” I’ll explain why…

Humor often fails to cross cultural boundaries, it often requires a complex knowledge of the second language, I in all honesty began. Words which have a double meaning or…But this couldn’t go on for long. How, reasonably speaking, could anyone stay awake through that plus this? Boredom might give way to anger. One of the teachers was already looking at me as if I’d broken into his grandmother and stolen his ancestry. Analytical riffs on very tedious articles in voluntary forums, I was learning, miserably compound people’s resentment at being there. I would have to tell a joke, by way of illustration, to not tell but show.

Ok. The one about the Irishman who shot an arrow in the air and missed? No, too short, too abstract, and idiotic about the Irish. Must contain a simple narrative. What about the Irish policeman who found a dead man on Szyrgny Street and -not sure how to spell Szyrgny Street- dragged the corpse into Main Street? See that’s the same as before. You’re panicking now. But I’d started a disquisition of sorts and people were bored but looking at me expectantly. I used to have a store of witty lateral questions forever at hand to uplift my company humanity. But right now all that went through my head were jokes about non-Caucasians entering bars. Only one tale that didn’t turn on teller and listener collaborating in hate suggested itself. I began.

“A man in a wheelchair goes to Lourdes. His family has tried everything. He has been in the same wheelchair for twenty years. They take him to the water’s edge. A huge crowd looks on. A pulley lifts the man -still in his wheelchair- up into the air. It slowly lowers him into the water. He remains under the water for several seconds. The crowd looks on anxiously. Eventually, the man emerges from the lake, the pulley levering him out. Unfortunately, his condition hasn’t changed at all. There is quiet sympathy and a few audible prayers. Then begins a ripple of gasps and applause. “Look,” shouts a young girl in Marian headdress. “The wheelchair is brand new.”

The silence that followed was of the lambs. My friend who had asked me to moderate, the man who went to New Zealand and returned extraordinarily xenophiliac, my four laughing ladies and everyone else, all were addressing the table as if on it lay a document outlining in cold bureaucratic language why they were to be taken from this room and shot. I explained what and where Lourdes is, how to operate a pulley, crowd states of anxiety, and, to ensure the incident will haunt any future moments of minor self pride, imitated muttering an audible prayer. Still nothing. I then retold the joke, alternating between a tone of unwarranted humor and hand gesturing insistency.

“A man he is in a wheelchair. A chair with wheels because walking not good. Cannot walk for long time. Twenty years. Twenty years. His family go too. They go to special place. The special place in France. Usually at special place sick people well. Well, not usually well, but sometimes well. Well, I mean it has happened. Not well people getting well. Well, people say it has happened. Special water, drink and wash. Become better. Machine put man in water. Lift man. Plunk! In water. People wait. People watch. Man come out of water. He not drowned! He ok. No he not ok. Same not well in wheelchair. But wheelchair” –and here, with the insane happy expression of a pantomime actor describing the golden well at the foot of the rainbow, I made a broad circular motion with both hands – “wheelchair good. Wheelchair all new. Wheelchair well!

I went on praising the wheelchair until I noticed that the meeting was breaking up for dinner, at which I asked a lot of questions about New Zealand. No one asked for clarification on the wheelchair story. Moderation is not as easy as it looks.



NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His latest books, This Gangster is One of Your Own and Korean Straight Lines, are now available. [email protected]

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