I know I’ve lived in Thailand too long when the first image that comes to mind when I hear the word ‘joke’ is the rice porridge dish that makes for a great breakfast here. You can add a soft boiled egg, green onions, soy sauce, and other bits like ground pork for a sustaining meal.
Once I worked with a woman who “didn’t get” Seinfeld the first few times she watched it. My mouth hung open. I probably said something helpful like, “Really? What’s there to get?” She was rightfully embarrassed, but humor is personal, not one size fits all no matter how universal we might think the show or comedian is.
Take Jim Gaffigan, for instance. I proudly brought his stand-up specials to my brother’s house, to have my sister-in-law confess that she didn’t think he was that funny. Years later, she wrote back to tell me that she now thought he was hilarious.
As a daughter of a Thai immigrant, dealing with not only the language but a cultural divide, humor was our way of bonding. Joking around showed affection even if it was lacking sensitivity or good taste. When I had to wear glasses, my mom immediately called me four-eyes, why she could barely wait until we reached the car after leaving the store.
In anthropology class, we learned that language isn’t as straightforward as we might have thought. After all, there is legal speak, medical terminology, real estate/property talk, and scientific jargon. Also, when you’re learning a language you may not understand the subtleties or nuances, particularly humor.
I was always proud that my mom understood American humor, until that one day when we were riding the elevator in Bangkok. A couple of men joined us, and suddenly I burst out laughing. One of their t-shirts said, “Sorry ladies, I’m gay.” After we all had a good laugh and had left the lift, I looked at my mom strangely who was also laughing. “Did you understand what the shirt said?” She replied, “a little.”
Of course, who doesn’t laugh when other people are laughing. I’ve certainly done it. It’s contagious, and no one wants to look like they don’t get the joke.
After my dad passed away, I remember looking through his books. I was only six, but I understood that I was holding an engineering text even though the contents didn’t make sense. One of the discoveries was a big book of jokes. I flipped to the dog eared pages, read the circled or marked passages. I didn’t laugh, but as I looked through the pages, I absorbed the importance of mastering (and appreciating) a memorable story or telling a good joke.