By Donella Meadows
–September 3, 1987–
There are jokes some folks tell to demean other folks, such as Polish jokes told by Americans. They tell you more about the mean-spiritness of the teller than they do about the national characteristics of the Poles.
Then there are jokes people tell on themselves, about their own kind of people. Those jokes are strangely revealing. They say something about how nations think of themselves, how they compare themselves with others, what they are proud of, and what they are willing to poke fun at.
For example, there’s an old story repeated in many variations all over Europe. The last time I heard it, told by a Swiss, it maligned and praised five European countries simultaneously:
In Heaven the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the mechanics are German, the police are British, and the whole place is run by the Swiss. In Hell the cooks are British, the lovers are Swiss, the mechanics are French, the police are German, and the whole place is run by the Italians.
An Asian version of this joke was told to me by a Chinese woman. Apologies in advance to American feminists, but this is how the Chinese tell it:
In Heaven the food is Chinese, the women are Japanese, and the houses are American. In Hell the houses are Chinese, the food is Japanese, and the women are American.
Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of Sao Paulo tells this one: We have an old political joke in Brazil. We were at the brink of an abyss and now we have taken a great step forward.
The Austrians have lots of jokes that emphasize how disorderly and happy-go-lucky they are compared to their Teutonic neighbors. For instance: The Prime Ministers of Germany and Austria met to exchange notes. “How are things in Germany?” asked the Prime Minister of Austria. The German sighed, “Well, in Germany the situation is serious,” he said, “but not hopeless.” “In Austria the situation is hopeless,” the Austrian Prime Minister replied, “but not serious.”
Some nations have jokes about their own internal divisiveness, such as this one from India: “One Indian is worth two Chinese. Two Indians are worth one Chinese. Three Indians are worth nothing.”
Another one comes in many versions, but I first heard it from a Dutchman. Holland has more than twenty feisty political parties, and my own experience of the Dutch is that they would rather cooperate with anyone else rather than another Dutchman. So I like this joke best the way they tell it in Holland:
Satan was conducting a guided tour of hell. The tour group entered a chamber with three pots of boiling oil, all full of howling people. Around one pot was a ring of devils with pitchforks, catching people who escaped from the pot and pitching them back in. Around another pot were just a few devils, haphazardly watching for escapees. Around the third pot were no devils.
“Why are there so many devils around that pot and none around this one?” asked the tourists.
“Well, there where all the devils are is the pot for the Jews,” said Satan. “They keep helping each other climb out of the pot. So we need a big guard to keep throwing them back in. In the second pot are the Germans. They never help each other, but occasionally a clever one manages to pull himself out. So we have to keep a few guards there. In the third pot are the Dutch. We don’t need to watch that pot. Whenever one of those fellows crawls out, the others pull him back in.”
The most bitter joke about a region’s inability to get along with itself comes, appropriately, from Israel.
A frog and a scorpion were sitting on the bank of the River Jordan. “Hey frog,” said the scorpion. “I need to go to the other side of the river. Would you carry me across on your back?”
“No way,” said the frog. “If I let you come close to me, you’d sting me and kill me.”
The scorpion said, “That would be stupid. If I stung you while we were in the river, we’d both drown.”
“Hmmm, that’s true,” said the frog. “OK, hop on.”
So the scorpion climbed on the frog’s back and they headed out into the River Jordan. Halfway across the river the scorpion stung the frog.
“What did you do that for?” cried the frog, as they were both going down for the third time.
“I couldn’t help it,” said the scorpion. “This is the Middle East.”
I suppose every nation has jokes praising itself. My favorite comes from the Soviet Republic of Georgia, on the south slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. I heard it at the most typically Georgian of occasions, a banquet at which people were drinking wine, making toasts, and singing songs about Georgia.
Just after God created the earth, he called all the peoples and nations to assemble on a certain day, so each could be presented with a homeland. All the nations dutifully showed up, except the Georgians. God parceled out a piece of the earth to each nation, and then, weary from the task, he started home. On the way he came across the Georgians, sitting on the grass under a tree, drinking wine and singing.
“Why didn’t you come to the Giving of the Homelands?” God asked. “Now you have none for yourselves.”
The Georgians were crestfallen. “We’re sorry, God,” they said. “We were on our way, but we were so impressed by the beauty of this world that we stopped to drink a toast to the grass and the trees. Then we drank toasts to the sun and to the blue waters and to the high mountains. In fact we spent the whole day here, singing and drinking to the loveliness of your creation.”
God was touched. “Well,” he said, “there is still one little piece of earth left, the most beautiful of all. I was saving it for myself. But since you know so well how to appreciate it, you shall have it, and it shall be called Georgia.”
One country that doesn’t seem to tell many jokes about itself is our own. How long has it been since you heard a good American joke?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987