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How I Realized What’s Funny and What’s Not is Cultural


We were three friends sitting at a small wobbly wooden table, set half on the sidewalk, and half on the curb side of the dusty road. We just came back from a bar where my roommate’s Chinese boyfriend was performing and we were starving, craving for a platter of jiaozi. It was a hot and humid night in Nanjing, China.

The three of us were chatting and the rest of the band had joined us. The night was alive and even though the restaurant was located on a small side street, we could hear the traffic on the busy Nanjing Lu. It was around 3 a.m., another hot and humid night in China.

Suddenly, we heard the strangest noise. Couldn’t have been human. A painful caterwaul, a muffled barking… It was coming from Nanjing Lu, the main street a few metres away from where we were sitting.

We heard it coming our way. I looked behind my shoulder towards the main street. And we saw it.

A young man, riding an old beat-up moped. On the luggage rack were a lot of parcels piled up, and… tied on both sides of the rack, two geese, tied up by their feet, cackling at the top of their lungs.

My roommate and I burst into laughter seeing this weird urban scenery. The four Chinese guys looked at us, puzzled:

“What’s so funny?”

“Well… People don’t usually carry geese around tied on a moped’s luggage rack!”

“What’s wrong with that? It’s much easier this way than holding them while driving!”

It was. In a way. But this scene remained incongruous for us, the two Westerners. It made us laugh. The Chinese guys didn’t understand why.

Humour, jokes, what’s funny and what’s not strongly differ across cultures.

When I first came to Canada, I couldn’t really understand any of the Jay Leno jokes on the Tonight Show because I lacked a basic understanding of North American culture. Stand-up comedy was also fairly new to me. On the other side, I found some situations totally hilarious:

The huge lineup at Tim Horton’s drive-through while nobody was queuing inside (are people that lazy they can’t get out of their car?)

Seeing people wearing shorts and tee-shirt when it’s just +1C

Translation of every single English word in Quebec (like the “stop-arrêt” sign)

No later than yesterday, I saw a guy driving a huuuuge Hummer downtown, around the market. His stereo was blasting “Men, I feel like a woman” by Shania Twain and he was singing along. I found the whole scene terribly funny, but nobody else seemed to notice!

I focus less on culture shock situations now, since I’m kind of used to my Canadian life. Yet, I’m experiencing another culture shock, with my friends and family back in France.

French like to rely on wordplay and misunderstanding, political humour and playing with social convention. The thing is, I left France a while ago now, and don’t follow politics as much as I used to. So I don’t know the latest gossip. A few years ago, I would have been able to crack a joke on every single article of this satirical newspaper, “Le Canard Enchaîné.” Not anymore. But you wanna hear a good one about the Maple Leafs?

My friends found it hilarious when, last year, I excused myself from the café where we were sitting “to go have a smoke outside.” Duh. It’s okay to smoke indoors in France! On the other side, I was almost shocked when I heard them cracking non-politically correct jokes about immigrants, or sex jokes about politicians. North America is much more conservative about that… (i.e.: the French never really understood what Bill Clinton did wrong with his secretary—isn’t it commonplace?)

And here I am, one more time, stuck between two cultures if not three or four!

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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