Humor Knows No Boundaries

I have a pretty dry sense of humor (at least, I would like to think so). It’s 95% sarcasm, peppered with faux disdain and self deprecation. And most of the time it’s very deadpan. I’m not as talented as the British (very few are in that department), but it’s definitely not an “American” sense of humor.

So it goes without saying that many people either take my comments seriously, or, if they’ve known me for a while, as “mean” (though they know better). It doesn’t help that I sometimes write my emails with a sarcastic bite (to my friends of course), and so they misconstrue what I’m saying. Sarcasm doesn’t translate over the internet unless it’s really over-the-top obvious.

This brings me to an interesting post I read about sarcasm and humor in China (he updated his thoughts recently). I must say that it’s pretty fascinating, as I never actually realized the disparity between Chinese and “western” (read: American) humor until recently. I remember trying to joke with my family members in Chinese, and they either didn’t get it or thought I was serious.

Case in point: I was driving home with my father one night, and he noticed that a lot of recently built houses all had their lights out. Since it was Memorial Day weekend and this is Los Angeles, I joked that maybe the owners all went to Las Vegas. He responded with “no, I think it’s because those houses couldn’t get sold.” Maybe what I said wasn’t all that funny, but I was pretty convinced that my dad didn’t get it. He wouldn’t respond the way he did if he did. Maybe it was my deadpan delivery, or maybe it was that he didn’t understand sarcasm.

Although, I must say that self deprecating jokes, some of them, are understood as being ironic. Some of the time I make fun of myself and people think I’m serious.

After reading the post, along with an fascinating WSJ article, I realize that the reason why my sense of humor is not understood by most Chinese people is that, other than the language barrier, sarcastic and dry humor does not have a long history in China. Their sense of humor is more straightforward, pun-heavy, and sometimes incredibly slapstick. The use of irony and all its subsets (maybe not dramatic irony) has not travelled into the mainstream. I’ve found that the Chinese people who actually understand my sense of humor are either born outside of China or are exposed to a lot of “Western” humor.

Although, changing the way I kid in China might still led to misunderstandings. I remember one time when I was studying in China, my American classmate tried to make a pun in Chinese, deliberately mispronouncing the word baozi (dumpling) as biaozi (a curse word). The folks he was talking to didn’t understand, and tried to correct his pronunciation. He continued to insist on the second word, and the Chinese folks continued to insist on correcting him. I found that situation funnier than the actual attempt at humor.

Anyway, as I prepare for my time in China, this thought just crossed my mind. I’ve honestly not travelled to China with people my age for quite a while: it’s either been with people 40 years older than I am or by myself. This should prove to be an interesting experience, as laughter is supposed to be this amazing ice breaker that spans across all cultures. I guess the ways to create laughter does not.

P.S. If you didn’t get the title of this post, I was being sarcastic. Explaining humor seem so foreign to me, I must learn to get used to it.

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