I took J to the doctor today. Turns out, her sore throat was nothing but "Guangzhou cough." The pollution has been bad, and doctor told me where to get an air purifier. In the meantime, I decided this was a good time to test another joke on the nurse, only because my friend Nancy just sent me a great "doctor office" joke. My "Chinese victim" in this case, the nurse, is Chinese but speaks passable English.
They say jokes don’t translate across cultures. I’ve been trying to find a joke that does. This was not my first attempt. Last year, I tried testing a few light bulb jokes on a Cantonese friend. You know, "How many x does it take to change a light bulb," but it was a total flop. She just couldn’t see any humor in the following joke: Q: "How many Latvians does it take to change a lightbulb?" A: "Nine, one to hold the light bulb and eight to turn the ladder." I decided this joke required too much knowledge of cultural stereotypes, so I tried another one: Q. "How many cockroaches does it take to change a light bulb?" A. "No way to count them, they all scatter when you turn on the light." This was a joke even my four year old could understand. But my Cantonese friend was still completely befuddled. She wondered aloud, why would a cockroach be changing a light bulb? She just couldn’t picture it.
Well, this is another year and a different "Chinese victim" (as my Mandarin teacher calls the people I practice speaking Chinese with, except in this case I am the nurse’s "English victim" — we speak English so she can practice.)
As I said, my friend Nancy sent me a joke I thought had no cultural stereotypes unique to my own culture, and not only that, it was about a woman in a doctor office doing exactly what we did today: height, weight, temperature, etc. Perfect opportunity! So I began my joke: A woman goes to the doctor and the nurse is updating her chart. The nurse asks, "How much do you weigh?" and the woman replies, "120 pounds." The nurse weighs her and says, "No, you weigh 195." Then the nurse asks, "How tall are you?" and the woman replies, "Five foot seven." The nurse measures her and says, "Nope, you’re five foot one." The woman gets a really distressed look on her face and soon starts to cry. The nurse tries to comfort her and says, "Why are you crying? What’s the matter?!" The woman replies, "Well, when I walked in here, I was tall and thin, but now when I leave, I’ll be short and fat!" When I finished this joke, the nurse cracked a brief smile, I guess because she knew it was supposed to be a joke. And then she puzzled over the joke a bit with a very serious look on hre face for a long minute. Shaking her head, she finally said very soberly, "I guess they didn’t know how to measure."
I’ve heard that when a westerner giving a speech in English tells a joke during a speech using a translator to put the speech into Chinese, the translator (rather than translate the joke) will generally instruct the audience, "Laugh now, he just said a joke." They say it takes many years of language and cultural skill to be able to deliver a joke that crosses our cultural boundaries. I guess I’m really not there yet!