風になりたい! Kaze ni naritai! 

A look at life in Japan through big, round, gaijin eyes. Relfections on life in Japan, America, from the faceless streets of Tokyo. Let's blogging!

Friday, December 10, 2004

American Joke?

Yesterday I showed my ichi nensei students (7th graders) a slide show from my recent trip to America. Slide number 5 was the first slide in which I appeared. It's a picture of me standing on a New York City street next to a clown on stilts who was passing out flyers for a charity event. As I showed the picture I said, "I told you, in America most people are really tall. It's like a land of giants. Espeically for me." Now, I tried to be convincing, so I'm not going to judge my students for believing that Americans are actually 10 feet tall. I know the educational system here well enough to understand that most Japanese people don't really have an idea about life overseas, nor are they actively encouraged to think too far outside the box. And I know that even at 5'7" (generously), I seem big to my students until they sprout up between 8th and 9th grade. Still, I expected some laughter at my little "American joke," or at least at the funny picture. The fact that at least a couple of my kids took me at face value just illustrates once again that the gap between my culture and the one I live in is always bigger than I realize. And humor can be especially difficult.
I remember on a rainy day way back during my second or third month in Japan, the students were starting to go home. There was one umbrella in the umbrella rack (I have a friend who thinks Japan means "land of 10,000 umbrellas"-- if it looks like rain you can't leave home without one...) that was completely trashed, so that only the frame was left. I saw a teacher that I hadn't really had a chance to have a coversation with yet, and thought of a way to get a little smile and break the ice. I grabbed the umbrella frame and said, "Wow. Yamaguchi-sensei, Japanese umbrellas are really different from American ones!" To which she replied, stunned, "Oh no~ that's a broken umbrella! The ones over there are ok!" I explained that I had been joking and she laughed politely. "Oh, so that was an American joke?"
A moment later I tried again. I opened the umbrella frame and ran out into the light rain. "Oh my God, my umbrella is broken!" I screamed. A crowd of students that was standing nearby erupted in laughter at the stupidity of the insane foreigner in their midst.
American humor does not translate well to Japanese unless it's really over the top. I go back and forth over whether or not this is because our jokes are more, or less sophisticated than theirs. Probably less. There is certainly a biting, dry sarcasm in Japanese humor that I think is pretty funny. In fact, most Americans laugh at Japanese jokes. The problem is when it goes the other way. The little verbal ironies that Americans love to toss around dont' seem to work. They don't even register as being attempts at humor. This is why to Japanese people, "American jokes" are jokes that are not funny--no matter who tells them.
My sense of humor is probably the one biggest sticking point in my relationship with my Japanese girlfriend, Juri. This is generally echoed by every American-Japanese couple I know. She loves the fact that I am always laughing, though she can't always figure out why. And I generally laugh at all of her jokes so she's happy there. But she flatly tells me-- half of the time when you tell jokes with your American friends, they are not funny. Even if you explain the joke, it's not funny. Your friends' jokes aren't funny. The funny stories you tell me about your friends aren't funny. None of them make any sense. And (emphatically) "American jokes are stupid."
I'm slowly trying to train her. There's no guarentee that she'll come around. My friend Peter has had little success after 8 years of marriage to a Japanese woman who speaks fluent English and has even taken American citizenship. She still considers "American joke" a dirty word. Juri and I watched Shrek 2 together and laughed a lot. Yet I've got a lot of work ahead of me. She watched American Pie, and Something About Mary before we met, and she lists those as examples of funny American movies. Making matters worse, she fell asleep 15 minutes into the The Big Lebowski. She explained reassuringly, "Your boring American jokes put me right to sleep. Thank you!"