Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Did You Just Laugh??

[what's brewing: a missionary walks into a coffeeshop...]

Given all the great discussion last week on the process of language learning, it seems rather fitting to share the highlight of my week with you all. In my Guidebook to Language Learning, I didn’t even touch on the issue of cross-cultural humor. I’m still so baffled by it, but it is definitely a key player in the process of language learning, and the cross-cultural experience in general.

Every month our secretary updates the office bulletin board with announcements, birthdays, events and adds a few photos and jokes just for fun. Every month, I read the jokes and stand there wondering what’s supposed to be funny about them. I think I understand the words correctly, it just doesn’t strike me as particularly funny.

We’ve hosted dinners for church members in our home and have utilized some icebreakers to get everyone interacting on a more personal level. Each time, someone makes a comment that causes the whole room to erupt in laughter while I sit there wide-eyed, looking around for some hint of what was so funny. Sometimes I laugh too after receiving an explanation, but many times I’m just as baffled after the explanation as I was before.

When it comes to humor, word choice is crucial. Many times I think of something funny to say, piece it together and say it aloud, but am met with blank stares. Then Jason repeats the concept of my comment but with a slight twist in the words, and everyone laughs. And then they think he’s the funny one!

I’ve become pretty comfortable with the fact that I still don’t get the cultural bounds on humor and am content with getting my humor fix from the little kids at the Children’s Home who will laugh at almost anything. I continue trying to express myself with adults when I find something to be funny, but brace myself for the courtesy smiles and nervous giggles offered to appease my expectant look. So you can imagine my delight this week when I made a joke based on the content of the discussion we’d just finished in Bible study and dear Anna burst out in laughter and then proceeded to repeat the joke to the women sitting next to her. The ladies all laughed and looked at me approvingly, nodding their heads as if responding in unison to the question of disbelief in my head, “Did you just laugh at my joke?!”

I sat up straight, proud as could be, with a beaming smile spread across my face. The meeting had carried on despite the laughter I had created among the women, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from interrupting Jason to tell him what I had said and proclaim that all the laughter was about MY joke!! It was ME that caused this distraction!! It really wasn’t all that funny, what I had said. In fact, it was more sarcastic than anything, but they understood why I thought it was funny and were enjoying the moment with me. The sound of their laughter was like dipping my toes into an oasis in the middle of the desert of language learning. Thank you, Lord.


Melissa said...

It is really a great thing when one can join in the humor of the culture one is in!

I was just reading through the comments from last week's post, and must add that language learning is a lifelong process.

I've gone from absolutely no German to fluent in German in three years...yet, there is so much more to learn in the language!

The Stover Family said...

Jokes are such a tricky things and so cultural, what one might think is funny in America isn't at all funny here in Poland. My husband has a great sense of humor and can make anyone laugh no matter where he is, Poland, Thailand or America. I guess he is just gifted that way. I am not good at jokes in the States, so for sure my jokes go no where here. People do seem to feel more connected with you when you can participate in their sense of humor.

Karis said...

Absolutely fascinating! I'm not even far enough along with French study here in Cameroon (seven weeks of tutoring) to be able to be frustrated about not being able to understand or share humor -- I'm just trying to understand and share anything :-). This is so interesting and makes so much sense.

Anonymous said...

Congrats Coffeegirl! I am proud of you for making the effort to connect.

In my life I have seen three kinds of humor. 1. From my birth nation 2. From my adopted nation 3. and then amongst fellow missionaries. Missionaries get stuff that nobody else will.

One time I was translating for a visiting minister and he told a sad sad story in his message. As his eyes were filling with tears the 200+ group of people had burst out in laughter. I had begun to chuckle too (bad Angie!) and he was looking around bewildered. I told him to just move on and I would explain later. The story was about death. Here in Bolivia death is a joke.

During my language learning I memorized a joke that I did not understand but it had them laughing every time. Here is a post I did about my experience: http://angiewashington.com/2007/02/17/table-talk/

Oh, also, thanks for the Apple Crisp recipe on your side bar. What a great idea! It sounds delicious too.


Rodger and Lynne Schmidt Mozambique said...

Congrats, Coffeegirl! I remember how GREAT it felt to make people laugh and be able to laugh with them for the first time. It's something we take so for granted in our home culture. Makes you feel so accepted. It just gets better from here!!!! Soon you'll be having heart to heart talks with other women and that's just THE BEST!

Would you pray for me as I minister on a deep, heart level to a grieving widow this week? She's a muslim woman who is seeking truth and is feeling very alone. I need words from the Holy Spirit that supersede language and culture.

Becky Aguirre said...

Way to go at making them laugh! That does feel good, doesn't it! LOL

Humor and culture are so tied together, it is very hard to be funny in your 2nd language/culture! I like to be funny and make people laugh...it's humbling that it doesn't always work...but fortunately, my husband has a rather large repetoire of jokes and keeps people laughing enough for the two of us. :) And I do agree that it must be a gift because he makes people laugh no matter where he is!

Coffeegirl said...

@ngie - thanks for the link to your blog. Great idea to memorize a joke that they find funny, even if you don't!

Lynne - I'm praying right now for this situation and will continue to pray throughout the week. Thank you for letting us know. May God give you the very words her grieving soul needs to hear.

Cindy said...

Thanks for a great post...

Keep up the good effort with your language learning...it is a lifelong adventure. Today I got 'stuck' twice with the hausa that was being spoken to me. They were rambling on so fast...my head was spinning. I needed a really good joke at that moment!

Libby said...

I totally relate to this post! I am thankful to be past the stage where I USUALLY miss the jokes and can't make one, to the point of understand most jokes and making one sometimes. Celebrating with you over a little relief in the confusing jungle language can be sometimes. :)

nora said...

Congratulations on your first joke! I totally remember my first joke in French-I finally felt like I could really be myself once I could be funny. Oddly enough, I found my French sense of humor while lying on a gurney going into a French ER-God gives language grace right when we need it most, huh?

Wait, were they laughing because it was funny, or because they felt sorry for me...Nah. It was definitely funny : )!

Kara said...

I remember sitting through hours of improv shows--one of Russian students' favorite entertainments, and not laughing once.

My husband would memorize jokes when he was leading student meetings. It's funnier when the listeners know your language is not that good, yet suddenly you are telling a funny (and grammatically correct) joke! He called it party-trick Russian. And they are still some of our favorites--not that we get them after 8 years in the culture!

For the apple crisp, I love to use that topping instead of a second crust for a pie. But without time to make even one crust, I made a couple apple crisps like yours this fall. We've been enjoying the harvest in Ukraine, where my kids collect apples off the trees in the middle of the city. Free food!

My first blog post, including thoughts on food is at kara-musings.blogspot.com

JenniB said...

The tricky thing for me has not been making jokes in my second language, but in my first! Living in an international mission community, where the only common language is English, you discover that what Australians (or Brits or Canadians or Swedes etc etc) think is hilarious, Americans (or Fins or Singaporeans or Scots) may find completely insulting.
oh, and on the subject of apple crisp, green papaya makes a wonderful substitute. - You just need to cut it finer, and parboil it first, and tada! no-one can tell the difference.

Coffeegirl said...

Jennib - great point about the basic cultural basis for humor, not just the language being spoken. I bet that is a really interesting dynamic to navigate within your team.

Kara - I enjoyed reading your entry about food. I think it's interesting to consider the recent history of the people you're living among and the ways their perceptions and perspectives are affected by those events.

Thanks again for sharing the joy of my first joke with me, friends! I admit I'm still feeling giddy about it over a week later!

stephanie garcia said...

I loved your last sentence ... what a great description!

Adding our URL for the blogroll:

Anonymous said...

Humor is definitely a thing that does not easily translate. And a great measuring stick where you are in your language learning. On the other hand, it is also a learning process to appreciate another cultur's humor. It was not a matter of language proficiency when I had problems laughing about some British humor at first. After some time there were TV shows I found funny, but there are others that I still can't laugh about.


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