It was a amateur stand up night in a Beijing bar and a Canadian guy had just bombed out trying to get the international audiance to laugh at the names of “wacky” sounding Canadian towns. The MC was about to wrap things up when a Chinese girl, conspicuous among the mainly laowai crowd, put her hand up.
“Come on up!” The MC beckoned her on stage.
The girl, who looked like she was barely out of high school, nervously took the mic, giggled shyly and apologised for her broken English. The crowd smiled, encouraging.
The would-be comedian spoke with an ernest seriousness.
“You foreigners, you come to China, and some of you, you have Yellow Fever bad huh?” She began. Giggles from the crowd.
“And us Chinese girls, we think of our friends, ‘oh, you date a foreigner! That’s so cool!’ so you must think if we date you we think you are cool,” she continued, earnestly.
“But I ask my friend, I say, ‘why you date foreign guy?'” She paused and considered the crowd seriously.
“And my friend tell me: ‘Because they have big cock!'”
The crowd was momontarily stunned, but after a breif moment she received the biggest laugh of the night – partly because it was funny, partly … well, because no one expected the Chinese girl to make a cock joke.
There are lots of unfair stereotypes about China. Friends from home ask me how I’m handling the food (“fine,” I say, confused, although Tim Tams are more expensive) How I get by not knowing the language (surprisingly easy) and am I worried about being arrested? (well, unless I decide to take up serial killing, no, not really).
But prehaps the biggest misconception I hear about the Chinese from people that havn’t been here is that it is a dour, serious place. Chinese people, the stereotype goes, have no sense of humour.
This, of course, is not true, I have had hilarious conversations with Beijing taxi drivers when neither one of us has understood a word each other is saying, I giggle with the girls at the beauty salon down the road. I’ve shared a laugh with shop assistants and waiters and people on the street, usually at my expense, when finding myself in any variety of “hopeless laowai” situations. When my fellow Laowai recently bought a puppet from a street seller and took in on the subway he provided much mirth for our fellow commuters. The Chinese people I work with or have met socialising tend to split into the hilarious/dull as dishwater categories with as much of a division as anywhere.
What is different in China, however, is that politics and media is a strictly giggle-free zone.
Which is why, at the end of last year when the People’s Daily, the ultimate mouthpeice of the Chinese government, mistook an article on US satirical website The Onion as being serious, and wrote a story congratuating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on being named the sexiest man alive, the Western media had a field day.
The People’s Daily quoted, word for word, the Onion article.
“With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-born heart-throb is every woman’s dream come true,” The Onion wrote and the People’s Daily faithfully reprinted.
“Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle and, of course, that famous smile.”
From a Western perspective, North Korea is a country that is in equal parts horrifying and comedic, for China, it’s just their neighbour, admittedly their kooky slightly reclusive neighbour that the rest of the street has fallen out with, but China still sends the occasional New Years card.
Many Chinese people would have responded with a serious *facepalm* learning of the People’s Daily’s mistake, but personally I don’t find it so surprising. The media here can sound completely weird to western ears, it is contrary to much of the type of media we in the west have grown up with and recognise and it’s difficult to view it from a Chinese perspective, the same must be true of Chinese watching western media, how do you critically view something if you have never been taught or encouraged to? And if you have never seen deadpan satire, how would you recognise it?
Not long after The Onion article another gag had the Chinese confused. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a satirical video, warning that the Mayan prophacy was correct and the apocalypse was near. An Australian PM who can’t take a joke wouldn’t last long, but for the Chinese, who are used to leaders being straighter than straight, the film was confusing, and slightly alarming. The internet lit up with “netizens” (the term for the increasingly powerful, and vocal, army of Chinese internet users) slightly concerned that the political leader of a whole country was confirming the end of the world was coming. Not everyone believed her per se, but many condemed Gillard for falling for the silly prediction and fuelling possible mass panic. In some parts of China people were panic buying water and building bunkers, so they didn’t want to add fuel to the apocalyptic fire.
Yesterday I went to HouHai lake in the middle of Beijing with my brother who is visiting from Australia. The lake is frozen over, and after a misguided attempt to skate (disaster!) we traded in the skates for ice bikes. As the Chinese staff gave us our bikes they couldn’t stop laughing at the laowais making awkward attempts to get used to riding them. Later, one of the Chinese staff came tearing across the lake to say hello and have a laugh for no particular reason – proving that sometimes sharing a joke can be easier than sharing a language.