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|Categories: Australia, China, Japan|Tags: , , , , |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 does take me slightly longer to

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

Found In Translation

Language has always fascinated me. I love the way we can get the same message across with entirely different combinations of sounds and/or gestures. I love that I can have a conversation with a Japanese person that no one around me can understand (though that's less likely these days). I guess it was this 'secret code' idea that excited me when I was young because my parents used it against us. If my parents wanted to discuss the idea of buying ice creams without getting us kids all worked up, they had their own code. They'd add a nonsense syllable before every vowel so that a conversation might go: 'DELLo yELLou thELLink thELLat wELLe shELLould bELLuy ELLice crELLeam nELLow?' 'WELLe'll bELLe hELLome sELLoon. ThELLey cELLan hELLave ELLone thELLen.' This is where I'd jump in, simultaneously pointing out the ice cream shop to my siblings and complaining about the heat. 'ELLit wELLon't bELLe ELLas nELLice.' 'ELLokELLay. ELLif yELLou ELLinsELList.' I learnt to understand the code long before I could reproduce it, which is the way I learn languages. First I understand bits, then I try to use them and make lots of mistakes, then finally, I pick up the pattern. Real languages are made more interesting by the culture and different thinking behind them. A literal translation of 'good luck' to Japanese might work as a description ('It was good luck that found your wallet again') but not as a directive ('Good luck in the exam'). Instead, Japanese people say 'Do your best.' My French lessons and conversations covered many aspects of courting including, 'What's your name?', 'What's your phone number?' and 'Are you married?', but wedding protocol was never covered. I guess it was assumed

By |August 16th, 2011|Categories: Language|Tags: , , |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 building had been designed with a counter-balance to withstand earthquakes

By |March 16th, 2011|Categories: Japan|Tags: , |0 Comments