If you really want to know if you are fluent in any language or understand any culture, then you should test yourself with what the humor a given people/culture is. For me, I can wholeheartedly say, I don’t get the humor in Taiwan or in China and for that, I can say I am not fluent in Mandarin.
For me, however, the one place I have found the greatest gap between Western and Eastern humor has always been in the cinema. But, before I get into that, let’s start off with some actual research.
A lot of people have gone into detail about what is different between Western and Chinese/Taiwanese comedy and humor, but in many regards, the best example I have read that explains the key differences between humor is a research paper, titled “To be or not to be Humorous? Cross Cultural Perspectives on Humor.”
In this paper, the opening paragraph sums up everything nicely:
“On December 14, 2008, an Iraqi journalist startled attendees at a press conference at the prime minister’s palace in Baghdad, Iraq, by throwing a shoe at U.S. President George W. Bush. After the incident, Bush joked: “If you want the facts, it’s a size 10”
What they discuss here is – how Freud actually discussed it – that humor in this regard is used as a defense mechanism to deal with stress and to turn it into a positive in some way. Humor in most Western cultures is an attractive quality to have. There are very few times when having humor can be shunned. It has been shown that bosses are rated better better when they are humors, men are perceived more attractive if they are humorous and in general, there are very few situations when a joke can’t be used.
Hell, people even started to make satire of the event on the internet. It was just a joke and people laughed at the hilarity of someone throwing their shoes at a president. It is a weird and surreal situation. In many respects, what makes someone funny in the West is the absurdity associated with it and humor is used to make sense of it.
In Ireland, a great example of this is when you get the giggles at a funeral mass. That is going to sound terribly morbid to anyone that is not Irish, but it is something that happens often. I remember once at a funeral my friend thought he heard the priest fart and it was the absurdity and the situation that was unfolding itself before us that made us lose control and laugh quietly. I had a sore throat and chest for a week after that because I tried my best to hide my laughter.
In contrast to Bush, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took a different response to a shoe-throwing-protester:
“On February 2, 2009, a student threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as he was giving a speech at the University of Cambridge. The student was removed from the lecture hall, but Premier Wen was not amused: “this despicable behavior will do nothing to hold back the friendship of the Chinese and British people”
Wen Jiabao’s strongman approach is quite typical. For traditional Chinese society seriousness is valued and people can sometimes feel that being humorous will put their own social status at risk. In other words, there is a time and place for humor, and using humor to mitigate stress isn’t something that happens very often. Of course, a lot of this goes back to the the culture of “Face/面子” and i’m not even going to go down that rabbit hole. However, none of this suggests that humor is not present in the society, but rather humor is used differently and for different reasons.
The most important line taken from the research paper is that “Chinese tend to value humor but devalue humor as a trait of self.” It isn’t that humor isn’t valued, it is simply not valued as a trait that someone can hold, while in the West being humorous is a huge plus.
The paper closes with results from a experiment with a group of Chinese and Canadian students which found Chinese students did not find humor as desirable as a trait as their Canadian counter-parts. What was also found was that Chinese students prefer their humor to come from professional entertainers rather than friends or family members.
Despite all of this research and many others who can show empirically that there is a difference in humor, I still can’t stop but go back to my own experience on an individual basis with people. Sure, when I watch Mandarin Standup or as it is more commonly known, a “Talk Show/脫口秀”, everything feels so safe and methodically set up. It feels more like I am watching a magician than a comedian. But I guess that is where there is a difference in expectation of who to find funny than what.
However, on a individual level, humor doesn’t seem to prevent friendship. There are times when my own humor, which I will admit is vulgar and a bit overwhelming at times, can put my local friends at a sense of unease and when I crack a joke in 7-Eleven, sometimes the shop keeper just looks at me with a face with the expression of “and?” like they are waiting for me to finish whatever it is I am going to say because my humor doesn’t make sense in Mandarin anyway.
Even then, I have watched Arrest Development with local friends, said jokes in Mandarin and been vulgar, and this made my friends laugh. I guess my go to jokes in Mandarin are Oscar Wilde witty quips.
- 我能抗拒一切，除了誘惑 / I can resist everything except temptation.
- 詩人能挺過一切劫難，除了印刷錯誤 / A poet can survive everything but a misprint.
- 什麼是離婚的主要原因？結婚 / What is the main reason for divorce? Marriage.
These jokes fly over better than random and situational jokes, but still, even with my girlfriend and friends, they still get a kick out of me being vulgar at times and Western TV shows can sometimes be their favourites. But even then, let’s not try and put a curtain between East and West and say the two can’t meet somewhere in the middle, Chinese humour can be hilarious too.
Chinese humor still works in the West
Now, before you go thinking Chinese humour or Eastern humour is just too different or not vulgar enough for you, watch Joe Wong here.
It is his play on words, and keeping a straight face that creates the comedy. In Mandarin, a lot jokes are linguistic based like this stand-up performance and it can cross over into English very well.
Steven Wright is someone that I think you can relate back to this type of humor.
The cinema is where I find the difference in humor
It might sound like a weird place to find the difference in humor, but I believe that is the case. I have seen every genre of film from comedies, science fiction and horror in Taiwan and it is obvious that a Western audience laughs at different times than a Taiwanese one.
Take for example Logan, a film that if you haven’t seen, then be warned, I might give away a spoiler, but I will avoid too many details.
In the movie Logan, our protagonists loses a very close friend and everything he planned has broken apart and he is being hunted like an animal. Injured, in grief and on the edge, he bashes the side of his car and a fit of rage that is intense and unsettling. Well, at least me and the other foreigners thought so, the audience in Taiwan was laughing.
Another case was when I watched the movie Kramer vs Kramer with my girlfriend. Dustin Hoffman’s character is breaking down, much like Logan, after his wife leaves him and he left to take care of his son as a single parent. The same thing happens, he in a fit of rage and denial and strikes out. What, again, should be a moment of unsettling drama was humorous to my girlfriend.
Even the epic Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan got quite a few chuckles in the cinema.
What struck me as weird, was the fact that, according to studies, Eastern humor doesn’t utilize humor to offset stress or emotional discomfort, so why was were audiences in Taiwan laughing at a scene that was clearly a traumatic for a character?
I think someone should really conduct research with film to see the differences in humor for East and West. It would be an interesting paper to see how different segments of films are perceived, because for me, I laughed at parts of films and I was the only person in the cinema doing so.
Even in the West, there are cultural differences for what can be seen as funny. It is very difficult for comedians from the British Isles to make it big in the United States. If you want to make it big, you have to try break into the American scene, this is very true for comedy. There are many British comedians who have done that, but there are quite few and the only one who comes to mind for me is Eddie Izzard.
Even an Irish comedian such as Tommy Tiernan found out that American humor is not as vulgar as Irish/British humor and that he couldn’t talk about certain topics in the land of the free because it would be offensive. In the end, he found that the crowd in America that gave him the best reception and enjoy his jokes the best were African Americans.
When it comes to humor in Asia, I try to keep an open mind, but for me, as the old saying goes, a joke is a serious thing, and a serious thing is a joke, and it is hard to deviate from that. Still though, there are a lot of creative Taiwanese artists out there that make me chuckle and keep me entertainer with there humor. I for one love the comics by Pam Pam Liu on “過去 x 未來 多提無用 NO FUTURE NO PAST”. Her comic on Bunny the Hater is so vulgar and hilarious and I made sure to get a copy for myself and my girlfriend.
All in all, there are differences in humor, but nothing Earth shattering. If you look long enough you will find an outlet of humor that others see eye to eye on.n