I wrote a column last year about the cultural differences between countries, especially, when it comes to humor. In many instances, it can be quite difficult to understand Chinese jokes here in China, and something essential, like a punchline, can become lost in the translation. When I moved to China, I quickly noticed that American humor is also very difficult for the Chinese people to understand.
The reason being, humor is dependent on one’s culture and language and it doesn’t translate well into other cultures and languages.
When a western comedian attempts to tell a joke that relies upon a play on words most in a Chinese audience would fail to understand the punchline. The same can be said for Chinese humor on a western audience.
I learned after living in China that Chinese characters can be read left to right, or right to left, or even top to bottom, so this becomes the basis for a Mandarin Chinese joke. The Chinese see the humor instantly because Chinese humor is language based and embedded in their culture. On the other hand, most westerners find themselves having to explain their jokes to a Chinese person with great difficulty.
There is usually no need to explain western jokes to an American audience. We either get it or not. If the joke needs an explanation, then it is considered a failure.
I became interested in stand-up comedy at a comedy club here in Suzhou, China called – ‘Kung Fu Komedy.’ The audience is a mixture of Chinese natives and foreigners from various countries. I found telling stories there with twists and angles makes for good laughs.
I have also found that it’s not too difficult to make a Chinese audience laugh because my humor relates to their culture. The same can be said for many Chinese stand-up comedians addressing western audiences. For instance, their jokes about Donald Trump go over big here and Trump jokes get the loudest laughs in China’s comedy clubs.
Younger generations here in China are beginning to warm-up to stand-up styles of comedy, albeit with a Chinese twist. As the number of super-rich increase in China, the more the jokes become easier for westerners to understand.
A Chinese comedian got a big laugh at the Kung-Fu Komedy club with this joke:
Chinese son: “Dad, I have a problem. I just came to America, but I can't seem to fit in. I am the only kid in my class who drives a Benz to school. My classmates take the train.” Chinese father: “It's okay, I just transferred five hundred million to your account. Go buy a train.”
Jokes such as this are using the second generation of super-rich as the basis of their humor. It seems that the children of extremely wealthy parents, whose behavior, is coming under increased public criticism, is becoming a goldmine for comedians.
More westerners are now traveling to China to earn a living in stand-up and many of them are becoming extremely popular in the Chinese comedy clubs.
Most of China’s stand-up comedians are not afraid to make fun out of everything. Including, China as a global economic power. China’s global influence is no longer off limits for the new generation of comedians.
A few weeks ago, a Chinese comedian here in Suzhou, China told this joke to a western audience:
“I am really confused about why a poor guy lends money to the rich. We should just divide the money amongst ourselves. But on a second thought, each of us would only get a couple of dollars... because the population is so big.”
The joke got a big laugh because it is easily understood in any culture.
As I mentioned - humor is culturally dependent on language and cultural cues and, even if you possess the necessary language skills to communicate to your cultural audience. They still might not find your jokes funny. You must know how to use the certain codes, and nuances found in the culture.
On the other hand, today’s comedians are fortunate, because of universal concepts, such as modern technology, human stupidity, and the super-rich. We can access these universal concepts as a comedic foundation. Universal concepts give everybody, an understanding of a good joke, no matter their cultural background.
I find that humor is the easiest way, to bridge the cultural divide, because after-all laughter is a universal language for uniting human understanding.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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