Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Che Guevara, Hello Kitty, and the Debunking of An Insensitive Polish Joke

All these days on the road, I’ve constantly had a particular question on my mind.  Worldwide, whose image is more famous and ubiquitous:  Che Guevara’s or Hello Kitty’s?  And now, near the end of this latest journey, I’m going to call it. 

It’s a tie.

Yesterday, in Athens, I spotted both Che and Kitty within five minutes of each other.  I knew I would, because they are everywhere, all over the world.  In terms of international exposure, Che’s and Kitty’s images are the two most omnipresent, bar none.  I can’t think of another who even comes close.  Not Princess Di, not Mickey Mouse, not Mother Teresa, not Elvis, not Nelson Mandela, not Cinderella, not Michael Jackson, not Gandhi; neither Jim Morrison nor John Lennon; no one.  Sorry guys, but—on a global scale—you’ve been out-imaged, and by far out-marketed, by a revolutionary and a cat.

Now, to be sure, I haven’t been to every country in the world.  But I’ve now been to about a third of them, and if extrapolation is good for anything, I feel confident that I am right here.  I’ve seen Che and Kitty—frequently—on six different continents.  And while I didn’t notice them in Antarctica—I’d bet my bottom dollar their mugs can be found somewhere around the South Pole too. 

Che in Kigali, Rwanda.

Hello Kitty in Budva, Montenegro.

And now, a little Che and Kitty talk, in turn.

People think different—perhaps opposite—things about Che Guevara.  To some, he’s a freedom-fighting hero.  To others, he’s a ruthless, unprincipled killer.  And then there are the masses—typically kids—who wear his image emblazoned on their chest, having absolutely no idea who the guy is.  To them, Che is just cool.

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia:  Che with famous peace sign, upside down.

The more I travel, the more I realize:  it’s easy to see things in black and white, and to accept what others tell you.   Navigating through shades of gray—and thinking for yourself—are much more challenging.   Che, I think, is a shades-of-gray kind of figure, and someone about whom you must form your own opinion.

Take the following.  I live in a country where I can pretty much do whatever I want, say whatever I want, and go wherever I want, within reason.  Each morning, I wake up snugly under my blanket of constitutional rights and go about my day.  Sure, I have complaints about the government.  Who doesn’t?   But I’m not looking for a revolution.

People in other parts of the world, I’ve discovered, don’t live this life.  They are:  having their elections stolen; crushed under brutal regimes; plagued by endless corruption; forever subject to official bribery; and so on.  One man in Africa—and I won’t say where or who—told me that eight members of his family were summarily executed simply because, it was discovered, they voted for the opposition party in a previous election.  This wasn’t a Hollywood story.  This was real.

What I’ve gathered, particularly in certain places, is that Che is a symbol—an inspiration; an icon—for people who live under base oppression.  People who long for change.  People who need a revolution.

Che in a Peru bathroom.

Che in Old Jerusalem.

I’ll admit, I knew almost nothing (okay, nothing) about Che Guevara until I saw The Motorcycle Diaries.  Then, my Hollywood-influenced opinion of him shot through the roof.  He seemed like a hero to me.  I mean, who volunteers in a leper colony during a break from college?

Later, on a visit to Argentina, where Che was born, I learned more about him and—despite some questionable stuff I heard—I confess:  I got swept up in the Che Fever that pervades our continental neighbor to the south.  In fact, I bought my first Che image in Buenos Aires—a sticker—and carefully placed it on the inside cover of my South America travel journal.  I couldn’t help it.  I think the man in seriously cute, particularly in that black beret of his.

Now, Hello Kitty.  She’s a much less controversial figure.  Really, can anyone say anything bad about her?

This morning, in writing this, I learned some interesting things about Hello Kitty.  Her real name is Kitty White, and she’s a white, Japanese bobtail cat.  Produced by the Japanese company Sanrio, and first designed by Yuko Shimizu, her image debuted on a vinyl coin purse in Japan in 1974.  She made her way across the Pacific and took America by storm two years later.  Today, Hello Kitty is a global sensation with licensing arrangements worth more than $10 to $500 billion annually. 

Sounds like this little kitty is way richer than Oprah.  And, just like Che, she’s seriously cute, particularly in that little red bow of hers.

Now, you’re probably wondering how in the world I’m going to pull the debunking of an insensitive Polish joke into this Che-and-Kitty mix.  Give me a second, and I’ll get there.

There’s no easy way to broach this sensitive subject, so I’m just going to launch into a matter-of-fact discussion: 

The noun Polack (pronounced Po-lock) is an Anglicization of the Polish-language word “Polak,” which means a Polish male person (feminine being Polka).   In English, the term Polack essentially is an insult, and comes, according to Wikipedia, with the specific implication that Polish people or people of Polish-descent are especially unintelligent.

In America, so-called dumb-Polack jokes were popular in the 1970s, harkening back to Archie Bunker in All In The Family calling the Meathead Michael Stivic a “dumb Polack.”   Also, jokes like these would circulate often:

Question:            How many Polacks does it take to change a light bulb? 
Answer:              Three; one to hold the light bulb, and two to turn the ladder.

Fast forward to 2011 in Krakow.  I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when I spotted an image of Che Guevara on a restaurant called La Habana in the Kazimierz district.  I paused to take out my camera and snap a shot of Che in Poland.  But then, it dawned on me; I was seeing something of perhaps even more interest.

Just next to Che’s famous face was a man on a ladder changing a light bulb.  Below stood another man, holding the ladder.  I presumed these men were Polish.

I stood for a second and watched the entire thing unfold.  The man on the ladder was using some wrist-action to twist the light bulb into the socket, and the man below was keeping the ladder stationary.  It was then that I realized:  in one fell swoop I had both spotted Che in Poland, and had completely debunked the insensitive light-bulb-changing-ladder-turning Polish joke. 

On this trip I spent significant time in Poland and loved every minute of it, owing, in no small part, to its people.  I felt bad that the Poles had been made the butt of dumb-jokes for so long, and in my own country, no less.  I wondered who started the suggestion in the first place, so, of course, I spent the better part of a Krakow afternoon researching the matter.

Online I found a very authoritative-sounding article in a Polish journal that traced the history of the less-than-intelligent reputation given the Poles.  And guess who, I learned, was originally responsible for this nonsense?  The Nazis.  Of course. 

That doesn’t explain how the jokes made their way to America, though.  Probably some Nazi-asshole hiding out in Chicago way back when.  But I digress.

Here’s another interesting thing I learned in writing this post.  Back in 2009, the Polish government proposed the banning of certain materials that would incite “fascism and totalitarian systems.”  This would extend, presumably, to images of Hitler and also, some said, the widely-popular image of Che Guevara.  As you can imagine, this latter thing got some people up in arms, so to speak.  I don’t know whatever happened with the proposal, but—judging from the image on La Habana’s marquee—Che Guevara’s face appears to be legal in Poland still.

I saw no word on where the Polish government stands on Hello Kitty.  But, in researching whether anyone out there on the Web would accuse Hello Kitty of being a symbol of fascism, I ran across the oddest story out of Bangkok, entitled “Bad Cops to Endure Kitty Shame.”  According to the story:

Thai police officers who break rules will be forced to wear hot pink armbands featuring “Hello Kitty,” the Japanese icon of cute, as a “mark of shame” . . . . Police officers caught littering, parking in a prohibited area, or arriving late -- among other misdemeanors -- will be forced to stay in the division office and wear the armband all day, said Police Col. Pongpat Chayaphan.

Seriously, I don’t even know what to make of that.

Coober Pedy, Australia.

Kotor, Montenegro.