It is beyond awkward when everyone around you bursts out laughing at a joke that you do not find funny, especially if it’s a joke told in a foreign language.
While Chinese students find it easy to adapt to a foreign lifestyle, socializing with locals is much harder, according to a recent study. Researchers looked at how well Chinese students integrated into communities across the world. Of all the activities they struggled with, understanding jokes was considered the toughest.
Most of the time, jokes are funny only for people who share a common cultural background or perceive humor in the same way.
Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong found this out first-hand. He had achieved huge success doing stand-up comedy in the US, but when he returned to China in 2008 for his first live gig in Beijing, he discovered that humor doesn’t translate. People didn’t think his Chinese jokes were as funny as his English ones, the Global Times reported.
Being able to understand local jokes can help students feel a sense of belonging. But even without the ability to understand jokes, students should not feel any less confident about themselves.
“It’s OK if you don’t get the jokes. Don’t doubt yourself [because] a lot of the times, it is not a problem of language ability; it’s a matter of the known and unknown,” said Christine Han, who was once an overseas student and is now an Australian permanent resident.
The fact that Australia is called “Down Under” is funny by itself. Australia is ready-made for jokes, thanks to its history as a colony for convicts, its peculiar accent, the Outback and its strange cuisine. However, to most Chinese overseas students, understanding jokes about sports is the biggest headache.
“The hardest jokes are related to rugby because I know nothing about rugby,” said Melody Cao, who was once a student in Australia. “When I heard jokes I didn’t get, I just laughed along.”
Sport is an important part of Australian national identity. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 16 percent (2.8 million) of the population aged 15 years and over watched Australian football in 2010. About 9 percent (1.6 million) attended a rugby league game.
The rugby jokes are usually about how immature and dumb rugby players are, like in these two dialogues:
A: “Why don’t rugby players have mid-life crises?”
B: “They stay stuck in adolescence.”
A: “Why do rugby players like smart women?”
B: “Opposites attract.”
British humor vs American humor
British actor and comedian Simon Pegg discussed the differences between British and American sense of humor in a column for The Guardian. He believes that while Brits use irony on a daily basis, the Americans do not see the point of using it so frequently. He wrote: “British jokes, on the other hand, tend to be more subtle with a dark or sarcastic undertone... the [American] jokes are more obvious and forward, a bit like Americans themselves.”
Pegg illustrated his point by transcribing a joke he heard a British friend make, in the wake of family tragedy.
A: “I had to go to my granddad’s funeral last week.”
B: “Sorry to hear that.”
A: “Don’t be. It was the first time he ever paid for the drinks.”
In her book Watching the English – the Hidden Rules of English Behavior, Kate Fox, a British social anthropologist, describes her country’s humor rules. She argues that irony, understatement and self-depreciation are ingrained in the English mindset. “Humor is our ‘default mode’... We do not have to switch it on deliberately, and we cannot switch it off,” wrote Fox.
“American humor is more straightforward like the punchlines in the famous TV show Friends,” an Internet user named “Zac” wrote on Zhihu. “You burst out laughing immediately when you watch American humor, and then you forget about it quite quickly, but it takes time to digest English humor, and it may be funnier when you reminisce about it.”