When Humor Runs Aground
19 Apr 2004
I think it’s pretty universally true that humor, being culturally dependent, is a tricky undertaking in a foreign language. Just supposing you have the necessary language skills to accurately communicate what you want to, the target culture may not find your “joke” the least bit funny. On the contrary, they might be offended (this has happened to me before), they might recognize you were trying to make a joke in their language and boo your lame attempt (that always happens to me in Japan), or they might just accept your statement at face value, not realizing there was any attempt at humor involved (which seems to happen to me the most in China).
I used to think that sarcasm was unknown in China. For a long time, my every attempt at it in Chinese would fail miserably, and it wasn’t due to grammar or pronunciation. Later I learned that “sarcasm” and “satire” are both translated as one Chinese word — 讽刺 (fengci) — in most dictionaries. Say what? From my perspective, this vocabulary issue pointed to a conspicuous difference in style of humor. This “no sarcasm” issue seemed to add to the “innocent Chinese” stereotype. But was my perception correct? Does such a gaping cultural divide even exist in reality?
Since coming to Shanghai, I’ve discovered that there are plenty of Chinese people that not only understand sarcasm, but find it indispensable in their daily exchanges. It’s been very refreshing. My girlfriend is one such blessed person. The thing is, she tells me that many Shanghainese feel that other Chinese are not nearly as quick-witted in their style of humor. And I know from experience that they’re less likely to “get” sarcasm.
It seems that sarcasm is most likely to “work” here in China when it’s especially exaggerated, e.g. “Oh, THANK YOU, I’m SO HAPPY!” A “wry” style of humor seems pretty much completely unappreciated here.
Here’s an example of a real incident from my workplace:
> HER: What’s a good way to teach the beach lesson vocabulary?
> ME: That’s easy. Just take them to the beach.
> HER: But there’s no beach nearby!
> ME: Stop making excuses!
> HER: (whimper)
OK, I know what I said wasn’t really funny, but the point was that she took my reply seriously when I never expected her to in the first place. My second response fared no better.
A former co-worker of mine has extensive experience telling jokes to Chinese audiences in Chinese. His Chinese is quite good, and in most cases, he is able to elicit the desired chuckles. His advice to me (should I choose to carry on the torch at future training seminars) was: “When you tell a joke to a Chinese audience, you may need to make the ‘punchline’ a bit later than you would ordinarly deem necessary.”
I’ll share the joke he told me. It’s a generic “smart people, dumb people” joke, which he filled in with Chinese and Japanese for convenience (and automatic audience approval).
> Two groups of foreigners were visiting the USA. One was a group of three Japanese businessmen, and the other was a group of three Chinese businessmen. They happened to be taking the same train.
> The Japanese bought their three tickets, but then happened to notice that the Chinese guys behind them only bought one. They were confused by this, thinking perhaps there was a miscommunication, but decided to mind their own business and not say anything.
> Once on the train, the two groups were sitting very near each other. As the ticket-taker started coming around, the Japanese watched the Chinese with interest.
> Suddenly the three Chinese guys sprang up, walked down to the end of the car, and crammed into the small restroom together. When the ticket-taker came by, he could tell someone was in the restroom, so he knocked on the door, calling “TICKET.” The Chinese slid their one ticket under the door. The ticket-taker collected it and moved on, and the Chinese came out shortly thereafter and sat back down.
> The Japanese were duly impressed by the crafty Chinese.
> On the train ride back, as luck would have it, the same two groups wound up on the same train. The Japanese, nervously seated with one ticket among the three of them, eyed the Chinese as they entered. The Chinese didn’t seem to have a single ticket. The Japanese didn’t know what the Chinese were up to, but they were nevertheless glad they had a chance to use the new trick.
> When the ticket-taker drew near, both groups headed for the restrooms. The Japanese crammed into the restroom on the right side, the Chinese crammed into the restroom on the left side.
> After a few seconds, one of the Chinese quietly emerged from the restroom and headed to the one occupied by the Japanese, who were nervously waiting for the ticket-taker. The Chinese guy knocked on the door and called out “TICKET.”
The joke, in its original form, is supposed to end there. My co-worker found it wise to add the following for his Chinese audience, however:
> The Japanese slid their ticket under the door. The Chinese guy grabbed it and went back into the other restroom.
Part of the appreciation of a joke is making the final connection yourself. It seems that the two cultures differ on where, exactly, that “final connection” is.
The Chinese love to crack open nuts, crabs, shrimp, turtles, etc. when they eat. They consider it part of the joy of eating. Many foreigners find it unnecessary work. Could it be that when it comes to humor, the situation is reversed?