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

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


Good morning everyone. I’m writing this at 5am, but I’ll leave the ‘why’ until later, and start at the beginning. I was going to continue the ‘day in the life of’ by writing about my trip home, but there’re other things to tell.

There’s a well-known disease (do they call it that? – well, it’s a well known cause of death anyway) that kills Japanese salarymans (er – salarymen… salarypersons?). It’s called ‘karoushi’ and means death by stress. I won’t claim that I’m dead, but I think I caught the early stages recently. I’ve been getting steadily more stressed for the last year, and a couple of weeks ago I got to the point that I was knocking things over all day, I was forgetting what the conversation was about halfway through my sentences, finding I didn’t understand simple Japanese sentences, and felt that my body was twice as heavy as usual. Knowing that I had to pull an all-nighter later that week I chose to take a day off and lie in front of the stereo with the air conditioning on. It worked wonders and the all-night set up for the Company Meeting went very well.

Other things had to be changed. I had never been particularly interested in voice technologies and decided that the huge success of the wireless phone deployment was the right high to go out on. I was surprised, but very appreciative of the speed with which someone else took it up. It seems that while I’ve been killing myself, a number of others in the department have been lacking work recently. The transition is slow, and I still have the wireless phone project to go (everyone seems to think that […]

By |July 24th, 2000|Japan|0 Comments

Customer – Supplier Relations

It must be five months since I wrote now. I’ve been through a lot of stress at work and have had an early mid-life crisis. I figured it would be better to spread my mid-life crisis out into a few minor crises and get one of them over with now. The stress was caused by trying to manage 3 areas, 2 of which were coming to peak work loads at the same time, and then having to find the time to train someone to take the more mundane tasks off my hands. The solution was to head home for 3 weeks, visiting old friends and forgetting about work entirely. It worked wonders – until I walked back into the office and found it all waiting for me again. To keep up my fitness and sanity, I’ve been letting the sun wake me up at 5am and using the additional hour to cycle up the mountain. It must be working because the cutover (from wired phones to wireless phones) was completed in record time this morning – 2500 phones in 1 hour. Yesterday I was told that I looked very relaxed compared to a couple of months ago, especially considering I was about to undertake an extremely sensitive cutover that would be a company first for sheer size. Now it’s all paid off and I can sit here babysitting for a few more days.

Thanks to everyone who put me up, took me out, or just took the time to catch up while I was in Oz. It was great to be back, despite the feeling that I was a tourist in my home town. The bike ride was definitely a highlight, though I found 2 […]

By |May 3rd, 2000|Japan|0 Comments

Working Holidays

Happy New Year to all!!

What a fizzer. Still I expected as much… well, maybe not quite so globally. We actually had someone here dragging out a PC they’d saved for the occasion, and running it in DOS mode just to have something to shout ‘it FAILED’ about. I checked out of the hotel this morning knowing that I don’t need to be here at 4am any more. My body is even over the jetlag of a 17 hour shift at the wrong end of the year(s) and I would feel like working if there was anything I could do without anyone around to influence or support.

Santa delivered the promised wheat-bix as well as a few other missed foods and homely items. I topped that up with my own purchases of books, CDs (Australian of course) and DVDs, but unfortunately, they haven’t arrived yet. Here’s to a second Christmas in January. Hope you all got what you wanted, and had a great time watching Sydney’s best known landmarks going up in fire.

Looking back over the year, it’s been more ups than downs, especially if you consider this whole event as a holiday as the title suggests. Unfortunately, the lack of a real holiday has taken its toll. I only managed to take 4 days off during the 2 weeks my parents were here and spent those evenings doing email. I also lost about 12 public holidays to work on projects or Y2K, and a number of annual leave days ‘expired’, so am feeling pretty bitter about that. It’s left me with a determination to get back to Australia for the Big Ride in March, despite that being the worst time for about 3 of my […]

By |January 3rd, 2000|Japan|0 Comments


I’ve decided that you can only say you’re ‘too busy’ when you can’t even find the time to write to friends. After watching so many of you go through phases of silence, I guess I finally passed that point. It’s coming up on 3 months since I wrote and I think it will have to be short. I have 5 large active projects and am told that I need to improve my prioritisation skills. Hmm. Which do I drop? One of the 4 ‘must do or significant pieces of the Japanese business fall over’ projects, or the other one that is my department’s ‘number one priority’? I’ve already had to let go of all the ‘these would really make my job easier’ smaller projects. And of course, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’, so I’m the representative for our floor in the Employee Association.

Otherwise, life is good. Damion, Michelle and Janelle have been in Japan since I last wrote. Damion made a name for himself in the IBM region office and looks like moving over permanently. He came down to Kobe once and I made the trek to up to the crowds. I visited my first ‘onsen,’ hot springs, with Damion and his mates and found that it’s not the best place to go if you’re not used to scalding water and definitely not if you’re homophobic. I’m both, but it’s part of the Japanese culture so I’m going to have to get used to it. Caught up with Janelle on the phone, and spent an evening in an Izakaya (restaurant where you order your food by the mouthful and your alcohol by the jugful) with Mich getting all the goss […]

By |July 31st, 1999|Japan|0 Comments


Well, once again I revert to writing this when I’m at work in obscure hours. This time I might as well call it ‘what I did on other people’s holidays’. The sun is shining, not a cloud in the sky. It’s about 20C on a perfect Spring day. At least that’s what I see on my rare toilet breaks – through the window next to the trough that overlooks the main pathway into the plant from the gatehouse. I’m not game to actually go outside because I know I won’t want to come back in.

I’m working at a local plant doing some of that work you can’t do when real people are around. Actually, in my case it’s called baby-sitting. Someone else is doing all the work, but I have to be there for the look of it. Too many times I’ve had to be on site to make sure there are no stuff-ups, but the others on my team are going to be more use for that this time. (ed – there were stuff-ups, but I still didn’t feel particularly useful because every time the customer, me, comes near, all 10 contractors stop working to make sure I’m happy – in that way I was more hindrance than help)

So anyway, outside – in the real world – it’s a weeklong holiday and a large chunk of the other foreigners have shipped off to Korea for the week. All the other people I know are sitting at home playing with their babies. I’m spending 11 hours a day in a factory and another 4 in transit. Still, the money’s good.

As I said, it’s Spring. That means that we’ve just had the flower-viewing season. Having […]

By |May 15th, 1999|Japan|0 Comments

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