Humour and Culture

Not everyone understands the Australian sense of humour. Sometimes it’s even beyond Australians. Some of my countrymen have complained about the Prime Minister’s recent video declaring that the end of the world is nigh. In one case, a mother of a young autistic man has had to convince her son that the Mayan calendar can’t influence the physical world and the seemingly authoritative video didn’t help. Aside from a few such cases, most Australians love the fact that our leader doesn’t take herself seriously all the time.

Many other cultures, particularly those in which humour is based on word plays or visual misfortune, just don’t get it. Gillard’s video went viral in China, where the reaction was of bafflement that a world leader could believe in the end of the world. When the subtitled version began to circulate, some Chinese accepted the joke (‘oh no, but I haven’t gotten married yet’), but more were horrified that a head of state could be so irresponsible as to push a false message to her people.

I wish that I could explain, in 500 words, why humour doesn’t translate between cultures, but I can’t. Word plays, at least, suffer from homonyms in one language sounding nothing alike in another, and humour based on political or historical context is doomed to fail outside of the original setting. But I never understood why Japanese comedians must perform in pairs or why Asians don’t understand irony. The best I can do, unless you have the time to read a thesis, is to respect Gillard for understanding her own people and to remind the rest of the world that we’re all different.

By |December 21st, 2012|Australia, China, Japan|0 Comments

Pedestrian Collisions

Until I moved to Europe, I assumed that people randomly chose the direction they moved to avoid oncoming pedestrians. In Belgium, I found myself stepping to the same side of the footpath as my counterpart almost every time. It didn’t take me long to realise that I always stepped to my left while they stepped to their right, and that both of us stepped to the side that we drive on in our home countries (right in Africa, Europe and the Americas, left in Japan, India and the UK).

Looking back, I’d rarely had the problem while in Australia and almost never in Japan, where people also drive on the left. Foreigners were rare in Japan and most foreigners in Australia were immigrants who’d lived in Australia much of their lives. The further I travelled, the more my findings were reinforced.

When I returned to Australia, I began to get annoyed at the number of people who hadn’t worked all this out and persisted in stepping to the right, and even in standing to the right on escalators. I’m only just beginning to realise that Australia is much more multicultural now than it was even 15 years ago when I left.

Rather than keeping to a single suburb, immigrants from each culture are settling wherever they can, and I’m likely to hear Japanese being spoken in almost any Sydney suburb. The same is probably true for other languages that I don’t recognise so quickly. With so many people stepping to the right, most people have no reason to know that we traditionally stepped to the left. I’m just starting to realise that’s a good thing – even if it […]

By |February 10th, 2012|Australia, Belgium, Japan|0 Comments


2011 has been a big year for me. In March, my first book Dragon Bones was released in Hong Kong. In May it was released in the US. In June, I moved into my new flat – the first place of my own that I’ve ever lived in. It’s right on the train line, but it’s large and the sound proofing is excellent. A few weeks ago I submitted my thesis on culture in virtual teams that completes my Masters of Applied Anthropology. And I’ve shared the year with a very special woman.

With so much to celebrate, why then did my friends and family insist on celebrating my 40th birthday? For me, it held no importance, but I was bullied into organising two parties (I chose two to keep them as close to a typical dinner out as I could) for the benefit of others. Whenever I mention my dislike of celebrating a lap of the solar system, people make a comparison to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who apparently also oppose making an event out of birthdays. But I believe that the majority of the world’s people have traditionally had no such celebration.

Birthdays are really a celebration of individualism. The more value a culture places on community, the less likely it is to make a big deal out of an event specific to an individual. Even Christians historically celebrated the name day of their patron saint rather than their own birthdays. Ironically, and perhaps counter to my argument, I have to celebrate my birthday in this individualistic culture for collectivist reasons of meeting community expectations. In my own life, I’ve felt more comfortable […]

By |December 31st, 2011|Australia, Bhutan, Japan|0 Comments

Earthquake Gets Personal

I only experienced one significant earthquake when I lived in Japan. Five years after the famous Kobe earthquake, I was sitting at my desk on the 17th floor of a 30-story office building on a reclaimed island just off the Kobe coast. The building I was in had been evacuated after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, but had been deemed safe for occupation two years later. Wherever I pulled up the false floor to check or run cables beneath, I saw large cracks in the concrete below and wondered whether it had been passed inspection simply because there were too many other buildings that were in worse condition.

My quake hit in 2000. I remember noticing the water sloshing in a jug on my desk before I felt the motion myself. I don’t know how long I stared at it before I became aware of my colleagues screaming and diving beneath their desks. It would have been sensible to follow their example – they’d survived the great quake and had been trained for such circumstances. Instead, I looked out the window to see if I could see – I don’t know – perhaps the ground being torn apart like a hollywood end-of-the-world film. In the mall far below, people ran – for cover or for open ground, I wasn’t sure. Water in the one-foot-deep pond ran from one end to the other in waves.

Fascination overcame fear. Everything in our computer room – heavy equipment which had jumped around in the great quake – had earthquake-proof anchor bolts right down into the concrete, so they weren’t going to fly through the wall and crush me. The […]

By |March 16th, 2011|Japan|0 Comments

Still Learning

My life here has been rich, but the country seemed determined to make me regret leaving. I was drafting a letter – which would form the basis for this chapter – in my head one afternoon on the way into Sannomiya when, on boarding the train, I found that the driver had left the blind up between his compartment and ours. I’d never seen this before and spent the trip watching both the driver and the person standing beside him, who appeared to be a trainee. Every twenty seconds or so, the driver would raise his gloved right hand, making a gun beside his ear, then drop it down to shoot at some undefined target. I might have thought that he was doing it for fun, but the man next to him was only fractionally behind in doing the same thing. As I watched more closely, I thought I could see some pattern – they were doing it whenever they passed a numbered yellow sign on the side of the track. After every third time or so, the driver would check his watch, run his finger down a schedule taped to his window and snap his finger at the air as if mentally checking an item off a list. This, I realised, was their method for keeping the train on schedule, and perhaps to keep the drivers awake.

I wondered if they’d opened the blind for my benefit. It was as if some higher power said “we’ll make him realise he doesn’t know everything about this country!”

By |November 20th, 2001|in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments


Towards the end of my stay, I came home to find a tent set up in the empty block next door. “It’s Takeshi’s punishment,” I was told, though not what the crime was. “He has to sleep outside for three nights.”

‘Cool,’ I thought. ‘Not much worry about curfews if you’re sleeping in a tent.’ It was set up quite comfortably with a futon and a cassette deck, but apparently Takeshi didn’t like it. When I came home the following day, the tent was gone.

“He was too scared to stay outside,” Okaasan told me, laughing, “so he came inside at one o’clock this morning.” Which meant that they’d left the door unlocked for him as well.

By |October 20th, 2001|in a Japanese Pond|0 Comments

It’s Not Wrong

“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”

Three years ago I sat on a plane to Japan repeating that mantra. I was on my way to start a new life in a foreign world – an expatriate Australian in the confused traditional / modern world I’d come to love – and knew that the phrase was essential to my survival. Already speaking the language and having lived there before, I had perhaps a better start than others, but I knew it would be a challenge. This would be my first time working in a company, my first time living on my own, and my first time with money to spend in this strange world. I’m not the sort who is comfortable meeting new people, which made the whole idea even more daunting, but the challenge was what made it worth doing.

“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”

That phrase had been drummed into my head during an earlier trip when I’d spent a year at school in Nagoya. The exchange program I’d joined had wisely brainwashed us with the only tool that could get us through a year of culture shock, home sickness and just plain confusion.

“It’s not wrong – it’s different.”

When moving to a new country, everything’s different – more so when the culture is so different to your own. You first notice the obvious differences – street signs in a different language, sizes of the houses or apartment blocks, and the array of neon lights – but it’s not long before you begin noticing the finer details – the discipline of interpersonal relationships, the nuances in the flavour of drinks, and the – fresh hay’ smell of an unused apartment. I have often said that […]

By |September 9th, 2001|Japan|0 Comments


I pulled up at a set of traffic lights – red, yellow and blue lights laid horizontally – and waited until they turned blue, then began to pull out. Another car screamed across our path, horn tooting, and I remembered that traffic rules in Japan are considered more as guidelines than obligations. Nagoya is famed as the city with the highest rate of car accidents and I recall cowering in the back seat on a number of occasions when Okaasan drove through lights up to thirty seconds after they’d turned red, or drove down the wrong side of the road rather than waiting for the traffic to move forty metres so she could turn right legally. I took the next few intersections carefully and finally we were out on the coastal road winding along gorgeous cliffs, looking out at an opalescent blue ocean.


“It’s so unfair,” said Kayo, breaking the silence. “It’s not my fault that the economy is bad at the moment.”

“You’ve been with the same company for seven years. Maybe it was time to move on, anyway.”

“That’s not the way it works in Japan. We’ve been brought up to be loyal to the company. It’s like joining a new family, and we’re supposed to be part of it for life. We work hard for the company and it looks after us.”

That attitude was changing. When the bubble burst in the nineties, many companies and businesses were shut down, leaving people on the streets. Japanese employers had started to accept the new reality and were less loyal to their employees, but the employees hadn’t lost their loyalty to the companies. It was a harsh reality for many people.


The rock walls rose steeply on either side of us, and the river gently pushed us towards the rapids ahead. There was time enough to get back to the raft and prepare for those when we got closer. For now, the members of the hiking club were free to float in the clear, blue water, looking at the sky, the rocks and the sandy riverbed.

“So this is what a river is supposed to look like.”

I turned to see Okada-san’s wistful expression, and felt my own eyes brim.

“You know,” she continued, “I always wanted to travel overseas, just to see a real river. I didn’t realise we had one just a few hours from home.”

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