I have been living and working as a cultural diversity teacher in China for approximately 13 years, and I can honestly say it has been fun and rewarding teaching here.
I found that having a good sense of humor can get you through any difficulty in life. And reaching out to people and communicating openly and honestly is important, too.
When I first arrived here in China, I quickly noticed that American humor is difficult for many Chinese people to understand. Culturally speaking, what is humorous in one culture may not be entirely understood in other cultures. One reason for that is most humor is language-based; it’s a play on words and meanings.
On the other hand, physical humor is universal and comic actors like Rowan Atkinson are very popular here in China. The Chinese, especially children, love watching short movie clips of Rowan Atkinson playing Mr. Bean.
I found out quickly from teaching here that I lack the proficient language ability to tell a good joke in Chinese. When I try to tell jokes to my Chinese students, I’m told that I don’t have the right verbal cues that a Chinese person would use to make the jokes hilariously funny. However, my students say that I look funny when attempting to tell a joke in Chinese.
In the 1960s, comedy teams in America, such as Rowan and Martin, used their day's politics to bring in the laughs, but here in China, after 1949, political humor was banned. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China. The humor here can be rather vanilla; the opposite of political satire.
I have also learned that after 1949 comedians in China had to clean up their humor. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the Chinese revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness were gone, too.
The Chinese love posting political satire on the internet where they can remain anonymous from the internet police. Jon Stewart jokes were translated into Chinese and extremely popular here, but they were still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime-time, and his jokes were far too politically sensitive.
A significant source of internet satire in China is aimed at North Korea. In April of this year, a clip of an old Jon Stewart joke about North Korea went viral in China. It turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences.
I like to tell my Chinese students that in America when it comes to political satire, such fear as to what we say or how we say it is unnecessary. We have our freedom of expression, which most entertainers in China envy about us Americans.
The Chinese have a saying, “laughter is the shortest distance between people,” and that saying is profoundly true in any culture.
- Always with love from Suzhou, China
Thomas F O’Neill
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