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When humor crosses borders

One evening shortly after my sister returned from college, the family was sitting around the dinner table. “I think I’m getting all A’s this quarter”, said my sister. “Oh, wow, […]


Jon Charnas

Born in Switzerland in 1986, moved to France in 1991, then to the US in 2003. Graduated from Lewis & Clark College in 2008, now residing in the Los Angeles area.

One evening shortly after my sister returned from college, the family was sitting around the dinner table.

“I think I’m getting all A’s this quarter”, said my sister.

“Oh, wow, you have an A-girl”, said my mom to my father.

“Well so long as she’s not Z-girl…” I added, which provoked overall laughter around the table.

What was so funny about that last line? Well, it was delivered with a profoundly authentic French accent. I’m a TCK, like many others, but I’m also from a bilingual family. My father always spoke English – well, he would correct me and say “I speak American” – and my mother never strayed a sentence from Molière’s language. Our family’s communication is bilingual. Trilingual now, since my sister and I have learned Japanese in college. And there are many out there, who, like my sister and I, have jokes that just can’t be shared with many people. We have tons of funny things to say – but we’ll be laughing only with a few people about it.

Humor styles vary depending on the culture, but humor itself exists in all cultures. “The Japanese prefer to laugh off embarassing situations” was one of the first cultural lessons I received in Japanese 101. Americans have Comedy Central, the French have stand-up comedians, the British Mr. Bean, and the list is by no means exhaustive. We all laugh, but what we laugh at is defined by the culture we’re in. TCKs transcend borders and cultures, and so it’s not surprising our humor often does too.

Jokes playing on accents are common, but non-TCKs always avoid them around us. They fear insulting another culture or offending others. Rob Oandasan, a TCK fluent in Tagalog and English, says that in the Filipino community, “the younger Filipino generation (especially Filipino-Americans) make fun of the “FOB-ish” accent of the older Filipino generation when they speak English.” But, he adds, “This is more out of affection, than the intention to correct them.” An outsider to the community wouldn’t necessarily understand this, and may even take offense to it.

But even when the audience is capable of understanding the contexts, jokes can fall flat, or cause just plain shock in the audience. Liv Halvorsen is a Norwegian citizen, a fellow Lewis & Clark alumnae, with fair skin and dark blonde hair.

“In [a] debate [tournament] I had to do an impromptu speech and I was talking about language and being misunderstood,” she said. “I did an Indian accent (I thought it was fine, because I’ve lived in India on and off and know it pretty well). But you should have seen the horrified expressions of people, like I was stereotyping and doing something unheard of.”

So the issue can become one of acceptance. When is a joke politically incorrect? What do people need to know to accept jokes about places you’ve lived in that aren’t what your ethnicity suggests? Liv says that people would never second guess her making a joke about Swedes, but who would guess she lived longer in Nicaragua than she did in Norway? She keeps her jokes to her closest friends, she says, because they know where she is “from.” Rob, a TCK with Filipino roots now in Los Angeles, adds that he has to be aware of who is speaking to:

“I would say the jokes we say amongst my closest (fellow TCK) friends are the most offensive ones, because we each know that none of us will get offended,” he said. “For obvious reasons, the jokes I tell with coworkers and acquaintances are more politically correct. Sometimes, though, I do have to make a conscious effort of filtering what jokes I tell depending on the crowd (i.e. race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).”

But what of the times when there aren’t close friends that know your background, do you feel repressed?

“Definitely”, Liv agrees, “I make a certain set of jokes in Norway, a different set of jokes in the US.”

Few are the TCKs that can claim to be able to share the full breadth of their humor with anyone. Kathy Lin, a TCK who spent a number of years in Singapore was often laughing at US television, and found herself alone doing so: “I find American commercials hilarious! I can sit and watch American commercials all day!! [...] It seemed really weird to my friends in college when I first watched TV with them, because none of them would find the commercials funny (and many were really bored by them) but I found the commercials just as entertaining as the show I was watching!”

There is also a sense that TCKs have a different sense of humor. Jasmiina Laurmaa, a Finnish young lady who graduated university in France said others often think she has a weird sense of humor. “Maybe I’m just weird” she adds.

Kathy points out that “Family Guy” style humor was never really popular in Singapore, and that she found it absolutely hilarious. But she never saw it on Singaporean channels “I think also this type of humor was often applied to politically sensitive topics that, of course, the Singaporean government would have none of.” Though, she still laughed at Peter, Lois and the rest of Quahog.

Maybe humor is something universal, maybe not so much, but as my venerable Japanese teacher said it’s easier to laugh at your embarrassing situation than try to take it stoically. TCKs, I think, learn that quickly, since every time we step in a new environment we’re bound to make mistakes and embarrass ourselves. And we know that, we expect it. So we laugh when we do blunder, and take note for the next time we need a bar story.

So welcome to the TCK club. We’re not weird – we’re TCKs, and proud of laughing our tails off wandering the planet!

Thanks go to these people for taking the time to sit down and think about what makes them laugh: Liv Halvorsen, Jasmiina Laurmaa, Kathy Lin and Rob Oandasan