Joke Buster

“My column is all ethnic jokes,” explained Lourdes Gagui Mon, principal of Our Lady of Fatima School, chairperson of the governor’s Asian American Advisory Council, and contributor to the Filipino American monthly newspaper Via Times.

Here’s one of the jokes–an anecdote actually. It ran in her column, “Myriad o’ jests,” earlier this year:

“Popoy is a Black-American Filipino, who, according to his friends, is very proud of both heritage.

“His story goes like this. He went home to the Philippines recently, and because he grew up there, he is used to riding jampacked buses, standing room only. Of course, the buses are provided with handle bars for people to hang on to. And one day, this is exactly what took place. Popoy was on his way to town, and as he was minding his own business, hanging on to the bar so he won’t bump into anybody should the bus hit some huge pothole, two women boarded the bus, and when they saw Popoy, one of them commented to her companion. ‘Etong mga itim, parang mga, unggoy.’ [Which we’re told means ‘These black people look like monkeys.’] Popoy kept quiet and his cool. On the next stop, some friend of Popoy got on and was very thrilled to see him. So in Tagalog he greeted, ‘Oy Popoy matagai na kitang hindi nakita. Kumusta ka na.’ [‘Hey, Popoy, it’s been a long time since I last saw you. How are you?’] Excited to see his friend, but calmly, Popoy responded, ‘Mabuti, Eto U-UNGGOY, UNGGOY LANG!’ [‘I’m OK. Monkeying around.’] (Boy! He speaks Tagalog.)

“The two women were so embarrassed, and probably slightly scared, they asked the driver to stop so they can get off immediately.”

That’s the story. Mon followed it with a couple of lines that offered a moral, but they were cut for lack of space. She tells us that her moral said roughly this: “Those two Filipino women who got off making comments about this guy who was black have no reason to be doing it just because he looks different.”

It may be a true story. Mon heard it from someone who says he heard it from Popoy himself–Popoy being the nickname by which he’s known. Truth or myth, the tale apparently has made the rounds–community activist Reynaldo Lopez said he’d heard it several times before reading Mon’s column.

Did you laugh? we asked Lopez.

“I would be a hypocrite if I say I didn’t laugh at it,” Lopez replied.

What were you laughing at? we asked him.

“Because of the way he said ‘Here I am, monkeying around.’ He used the very term the ladies used in describing him, and the ladies were so embarrassed they have to get off the bus. That’s the punch line.”

But when Lopez, a union organizer and Filipino American organizer for “a grass roots interfaith action network” called Synapses, read Mon’s column he had second thoughts. “When she publishes it, the joke acquires a higher respectability,” he told us.

Lopez wrote the publisher of Via Times a stinging letter that said Mon’s tale “does not help in improving the tensed racial climate between Asian Americans and African Americans. . . . Every time we laugh at the punch line ‘eto U-unggoy un-ggoy lang’ we are not laughing at [Popoy]; we are also actively participating in reinforcing racism in this country; of which even we are victims.” Lopez felt this point so deeply he underlined it in his letter.

Via Times responded with ad hominem ridicule. The letter ran, but after it came a response from Mon warning: “Beware of Reynaldo Lopez. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. What modus operandi will he have against the Chinese next year? It will be the Year of the Monkey.”

And “Asian American Scenes” columnist Lee Maglaya wrote to inform Via Times’s readers that Lopez was trying “to smear . . . as a racist” a woman who’d spent 14 years working with black kids at Cabrini-Green. Maglaya accused Lopez in general of “sexist, gay-bashing, regional, patronizing bullshit and nit-picking” and in particular of taking Mon’s joke “out of context.” To us she assailed his credentials as an Asian American leader.

We’re no judge of his credentials. As for Mon’s column, after Lopez sent it to us we tried to sort it out with him over the phone.

Who would you say is the butt of the joke? we asked him.

“The butt of the joke is Popoy,” he said.

And why are the ladies embarrassed?

“Because they didn’t know that Popoy can understand the dialogue.”

Then the joke is on the ladies?

“The joke is on Popoy. The ladies call him monkey.”

But didn’t he turn the tables?

“He ignored the ladies. But then when his friend comes on the bus and visits him, Popoy says, ‘Here I am, monkeying around.'”

Why did he say that?

“To embarrass the ladies.”

But Lopez didn’t catch our drift. Do Filipinos call blacks monkeys? we asked. “We come from a colonized country,” Lopez said somberly. “We were under Spain. We were under America. We have adopted certain prejudices of our conqueror. We also look down on the aboriginal people–they are called Negritos or Aetas or Igorots. These people have kinky hair and black skin. . . . The sad thing about it is this, the early Filipinos in California were also called monkeys in the 20s and 30s.”

Reluctant as we are to side with someone protesting a joke he originally laughed at and now doesn’t seem to get, we’re sympathetic to Lopez on grounds that at least he means well (and was directed to us by a mutual acquaintance also offended by the Popoy story). But he’s probably charging up the wrong hill. Certainly it’s a steep one. Various parties to this dispute assure us of an earthiness to Filipino humor that moral indignation is unlikely to make much headway against. Here is a tale Mon tells in her latest “Myriad o’ jests”:

“A woman by the name of Dalisay was at a wedding reception and was heard saying, ‘The reason I don’t attend the meetings of our club is because I don’t want to hear somebody who laughs like a horse.’ (She imitated.) She should listen to herself first before criticizing, because she sounds like a cow when she talks and when she sings (kono), her voice sounds like it is coming from her posterior when she is having the runs . . . ”

No wonder Lopez’s hyperfastidious carping makes little headway. But with some strain, we’ve decided we do see a point that might be what he’s driving at. Perhaps Mon’s tale could be construed to mean this–not everyone who looks like a monkey really is a monkey. A reader who discerns such a sentiment has reason to be be offended by it.


Chicago author Eugene Kennedy has joined the Tribune as a weekly op-ed columnist who will plumb the peccable human spirit. Last week Kennedy did Bill Clinton an enormous favor by reassuring people like us that the reasons we thought we had for feeling uncomfortable about him don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Remember Clinton’s statement about not inhaling, which we’d thought made him sound like a mendacious ninny? “People have come to smile forgivingly,” wrote Kennedy, “as if recognizing some of their own adolescent foolishness, in the Arkansas Governor’s crossed-fingers alibi about holding his breath when the reefers were passed around the table at Oxford.” Swell! If everyone else is smiling with forgiveness then we’ll smile too, even though we still think he sounded like a mendacious ninny.

And what about Clinton’s inability to give a straight, complete answer to the question of why, and how, he dodged the draft? “Many men about his age worked almost as many angles as Clinton in maneuvering themselves . . . out of the Vietnam draft. They still don’t feel unpatriotic but they don’t want to talk about it and won’t vote against him for it.” Sure enough, though those men would feel even better about Clinton if he stopped acting as if what they all did then was something to be ashamed of now.

As for those “accusations of marital troubles,” Kennedy’s good news is that by now they’re “worn as smooth and harmless as the stairs of a shrine to some once lusty convert to a true faith.” We’re not sure what this means, but it sounds as if Clinton should feel incredibly relieved.

No, says Kennedy, the real reason Bill Clinton “makes us feel this small nagging doubt about his capacity to become president of the United States” is that his style “invites us to question whether he really holds together as a person.”

Evidence: He appears in public with his wife. “The apprehensiveness that their appearing together caused was not, as conventional wisdom has whispered, a function of her needs for power as much as his needs for somebody there with him, not just as a companion, but as the one he needed, as an actor needs the playwright, to present himself whole and entire to the multitude.”

Evidence: He’s campaigned frequently with running mate Al Gore. “The reasons may well be that the handsome and privileged Gore, from and with an intact family, supplied exactly what at some level Clinton understood that he lacked, that, in a spiritual and psychological manner, Gore completes Clinton’s political and personal self.”

Bill Clinton stands accused of recognizing himself as an incompletely self-sufficient man and acting accordingly. He spends time with his wife. He chooses a running mate that he thinks is an even better man than himself. If George Bush stops questioning Clinton’s trustworthiness in favor of this line of attack, Clinton will carry every state in the union.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.