Let’s Talk About… Being Funny

Or, more forensically, let’s talk about the abject differences between Western and Chinese humour. This is the first instalment of a semi-regular series where I take a closer look at some China-related topics and have a good old natter about them. Mostly for your entertainment, but also to get some stuff off my chest.

I’ve lived and worked in China off and on for over 12 years, something I’ve written about extensively in my This is China book series. Anyone who has had a similar experience will probably tell you that one of the main differences between Eastern and Western people is the humour. We just don’t mesh. Both Mandarin and Cantonese are very complex languages. Like most things in China, they might seem relatively straightforward on the surface, but beneath lies a minefield of hidden meaning, subtleties and sub-text. The finer points don’t often carry over well, so what we are usually left with if someone tries to translate a Chinese joke into English is a nonsensical mishmash of words. Like this:

Q: What do you get if you cross a thirsty man with a chicken?
A: A wooden cupboard!

The Chinese people around you will be cracking up, while you’re still waiting for the punch line.

Here’s another one:

Q: Why is the sea blue?
A: Because the fish make bubbles.

Er… okay.

Nevertheless, telling (and requesting) jokes in class can be an entertaining exercise.

Recently, I shared this joke with a group of college students:

Q: What happened to the blind skunk?

A: He fell in love with a fart

Now, you might think this is easy enough to understand. Even for people who’s first language isn’t English. Farts smell like skunks, and because the skunk couldn’t see, he thought the fart in question was another skunk. Yeah?

Not so.

Strangely, almost all of them knew what a fart was. But some weren’t too sure what a skunk was. That took a bit of explaining. Also, the Chinese are very analytical, pragmatic people. My ‘joke’ was met with a slew of questions as they tried admirably to find the funny part, like, “Was it his own fart or someone else’s?”

I don’t know. Does it matter?

If you ever tell jokes to groups of Chinese students, don’t expect to just have to explain it, be prepared to dissect that sucker.

My book, This is China: Misadventures in the Middle Kingdom part 1: The North, is available now.

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