Comments 10

When humor crosses borders

One evening shortly after my sister returned from college, the family was sitting around the dinner table.

“I think I’m getting all A’s this quarter”, said my sister.

“Oh, wow, you have an A-girl”, said my mom to my father.

“Well so long as she’s not Z-girl…” I added, which provoked overall laughter around the table.

What was so funny about that last line? Well, it was delivered with a profoundly authentic French accent. I’m a TCK, like many others, but I’m also from a bilingual family. My father always spoke English – well, he would correct me and say “I speak American” – and my mother never strayed a sentence from Molière’s language. Our family’s communication is bilingual. Trilingual now, since my sister and I have learned Japanese in college. And there are many out there, who, like my sister and I, have jokes that just can’t be shared with many people. We have tons of funny things to say – but we’ll be laughing only with a few people about it.

Humor styles vary depending on the culture, but humor itself exists in all cultures. “The Japanese prefer to laugh off embarassing situations” was one of the first cultural lessons I received in Japanese 101. Americans have Comedy Central, the French have stand-up comedians, the British Mr. Bean, and the list is by no means exhaustive. We all laugh, but what we laugh at is defined by the culture we’re in. TCKs transcend borders and cultures, and so it’s not surprising our humor often does too.

Jokes playing on accents are common, but non-TCKs always avoid them around us. They fear insulting another culture or offending others. Rob Oandasan, a TCK fluent in Tagalog and English, says that in the Filipino community, “the younger Filipino generation (especially Filipino-Americans) make fun of the “FOB-ish” accent of the older Filipino generation when they speak English.” But, he adds, “This is more out of affection, than the intention to correct them.” An outsider to the community wouldn’t necessarily understand this, and may even take offense to it.

But even when the audience is capable of understanding the contexts, jokes can fall flat, or cause just plain shock in the audience. Liv Halvorsen is a Norwegian citizen, a fellow Lewis & Clark alumnae, with fair skin and dark blonde hair.

“In [a] debate [tournament] I had to do an impromptu speech and I was talking about language and being misunderstood,” she said. “I did an Indian accent (I thought it was fine, because I’ve lived in India on and off and know it pretty well). But you should have seen the horrified expressions of people, like I was stereotyping and doing something unheard of.”

So the issue can become one of acceptance. When is a joke politically incorrect? What do people need to know to accept jokes about places you’ve lived in that aren’t what your ethnicity suggests? Liv says that people would never second guess her making a joke about Swedes, but who would guess she lived longer in Nicaragua than she did in Norway? She keeps her jokes to her closest friends, she says, because they know where she is “from.” Rob, a TCK with Filipino roots now in Los Angeles, adds that he has to be aware of who is speaking to:

“I would say the jokes we say amongst my closest (fellow TCK) friends are the most offensive ones, because we each know that none of us will get offended,” he said. “For obvious reasons, the jokes I tell with coworkers and acquaintances are more politically correct. Sometimes, though, I do have to make a conscious effort of filtering what jokes I tell depending on the crowd (i.e. race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).”

But what of the times when there aren’t close friends that know your background, do you feel repressed?

“Definitely”, Liv agrees, “I make a certain set of jokes in Norway, a different set of jokes in the US.”

Few are the TCKs that can claim to be able to share the full breadth of their humor with anyone. Kathy Lin, a TCK who spent a number of years in Singapore was often laughing at US television, and found herself alone doing so: “I find American commercials hilarious! I can sit and watch American commercials all day!! […] It seemed really weird to my friends in college when I first watched TV with them, because none of them would find the commercials funny (and many were really bored by them) but I found the commercials just as entertaining as the show I was watching!”

There is also a sense that TCKs have a different sense of humor. Jasmiina Laurmaa, a Finnish young lady who graduated university in France said others often think she has a weird sense of humor. “Maybe I’m just weird” she adds.

Kathy points out that “Family Guy” style humor was never really popular in Singapore, and that she found it absolutely hilarious. But she never saw it on Singaporean channels “I think also this type of humor was often applied to politically sensitive topics that, of course, the Singaporean government would have none of.” Though, she still laughed at Peter, Lois and the rest of Quahog.

Maybe humor is something universal, maybe not so much, but as my venerable Japanese teacher said it’s easier to laugh at your embarrassing situation than try to take it stoically. TCKs, I think, learn that quickly, since every time we step in a new environment we’re bound to make mistakes and embarrass ourselves. And we know that, we expect it. So we laugh when we do blunder, and take note for the next time we need a bar story.

So welcome to the TCK club. We’re not weird – we’re TCKs, and proud of laughing our tails off wandering the planet!

Thanks go to these people for taking the time to sit down and think about what makes them laugh: Liv Halvorsen, Jasmiina Laurmaa, Kathy Lin and Rob Oandasan


  1. Jon Charnas says

    Russell Peters is close to a true TCK humorist – though I find that the core of his latest show’s jokes are a little crass… There are no true “TCK comedians” because each comedian has to either adapt his jokes based on the culture around him, or go to a level that is shared by everyone. Usually it’s the fart-jokes level.

    That’s what Russell and many others have done, and I don’t think it’ll change anytime soon.

    Steph, would you mind linking the article you emailed me a few days ago? I’d rather have a link here than a full on text in the comments. Thanks.


  2. Yes, Jon, that article was the Peekaboo Paradox, from the Washington Post: “At its heart, laughter is a tool to triumph over fear. As we grow older, our senses of humor become more demanding and refined, but that basic, hard-wired reflex remains. We need it, because life is scary. Nature is heartless, people can be cruel, and death and suffering are inevitable and arbitrary. We learn to tame our terror by laughing at the absurdity of it all.”



  3. Russell Peters is hilarious! Did you know that Ursula Pong, from SAS used to have him as a student in Canada? Really crazy how small this world is.


  4. EddieN says

    Russell Peters is good, but I think the closest we have to a true TCK comedian is Dan Nainan. Indian father, Japanese mother, born and raised in America. Check him out:


  5. Cynthia says

    And here I thought I have a weird sense of humor, guess the “weird” comes with the TCK. I laugh at the oddest things that most people don’t really understand why they’re funny. Sometimes I don’t either.

    And I find American commercials funny too!

    And I love Russell Peters…some people might find it offensive but for those that truly understands the cultural differences what Peters is making fun of we see everyday…


  6. SubaP says

    Thanks for the lovely article Jon; your “Z-girl” quip brought back some great memories of my own!

    Dan Nainan is hilarious!…Japan is one of the countries I grew up in, so when i heard Nainan’s bit on “graze” vs. “glaze” I thought it was brilliant….though it seemed to take a good chunk of the audience a while to decide whether to laugh at the joke or not….there is also another comedian, Danny Bhoy, who isn’t a TCK (half Scot, half Indian but born and brought up in Scotland), nonetheless, his humour does involve comparing different cultural idiocyncracies….i dont think he is as good as Nainan or Russel Peters, but worth a watch.


  7. Great article…would you mind if I put a link to it on my website? I still remember the first year I was in the UK and watching with English part of the family a christmas special. They were roaring with laughter and I just sat their feeling rude for not laughing. The next year, however, I was laughing along with them…guess it took me year to get British jokes…some people like me are just slow!


  8. Kathleen – I don’t mind being linked to at all! Nor would most of Denizen I think. (Check with Steph for assurances about that.)
    I replied to you via email, just to make sure you’d get it!


  9. Steph Yiu says

    Hey Kathleen! It’s totally cool to link to this from your website. In fact, THANK YOU for linking to us :)


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