Thursday, 16 June 2011

Getting The Joke

"Very bad news!" Samah confides, her pretty eyes round with surprise. "Did you hear? Prince William already divorce with wife!"

"Prince William is divorced?" I've been busy, pulling my books out of my bag, getting ready to start teaching, but this stops me in my tracks. "That's impossible, he only just got married!"

She shakes her head. "I read in journal. He is divorce already, so soon."

She pulls out her mobile phone, presses a few buttons, and brings it to show me. Intrigued, I put down my books and read.

"I really don't know what I was thinking—we're a terrible match, I don't love her and never have, and, to be honest, I never really had any interest in being married in the first place," announced the now unattached Prince William to a dead-silent British press corps.

I am stunned by this. "I can't believe it!" I splutter. "This is crazy -- they've only been married a month!"

Samah nods gravely. "It is crazy."

The other students, all Chinese, are intrigued now. "What is happen?" We tell them and they crowd around my desk.

"People thought our wedding was some sort of fairy tale," we read, "but I assure you it was all just some ghastly ceremonial farce that got out of hand. I'm just relieved it's over, frankly. And I'm glad I'll never have to see that awful woman again."

"You see?" says Samah, "is true!"

I'm still shaking my head. I can't get over this! "All that fuss! All that money--" But I stop myself. "Hang on, what newspaper published this?" Because on my way to work I passed half a dozen newsstands. All the tabloids headlines were about the sort of dull things nobody wants to read: a football player's illness, city planning. There's no way they wouldn't be having a field day with a story like this.

And scrolling up Samah's mobile, I see that the article we are reading is from The Onion.

I do my best to explain, but it doesn't go down well.

"Why someone write this?" my Chinese students demand. "Why write story not true?"

"It's a joke," I tell them. "The Onion plays little jokes like that."

"Divorce not joke!"

And no, it isn't. But as my father-in-law used to say, some fall on stony ground. Humor doesn't always cross cultures; a lot of it gets lost in translation. Nothing makes a joke less funny than trying to explain it to people who cannot get it. Nothing kills humor deader than repeated attempts to interpret it.

When the class is over, I am finished for the day. I decide to pay a visit to the ladies' room before leaving the building, but the cleaning lady is in the one I normally go to, so I nip into the disabled toilet. There is a long black cord dangling from the ceiling, but I haven't lived in the U.K. all these years without learning a few tricks: generally the flush mechanism here is a lever like we use in the States, but sometimes it's a chain, so why not a cord? I pull on the cord and immediately a high-pitched shriek of an alarm shrills, causing me to jump half a foot. I look for an off-switch, but cannot find it. I open the door. With any luck, the cleaning lady will come and tell me how to turn it off.

Instead, a small, international crowd has formed. The shriek-alarm is so loud, I can barely hear their anxious Are you all rights?, but as soon as they see my able-bodied, shamefaced self, they know exactly what has happened. One of them goes into the toilet and turns off the alarm.

"Please tell me I'm not the only one who has done that," I manage to say, blushing furiously. As I scurry out, they're still laughing.

Yes, the joke is on me. But at least I don't have to explain it.


Dale said...

Oh, dear. And it makes me wonder how many things I'm not getting, every day, only no one who gets it happens to be around to set me straight!

KLM said...

You didn't! OMG. That's...I'm sorry but that's just very funny. That's like pressing the emergency button on the elevator and talking to the nice fireman who answers with this very tired voice because you (or your kid) are the dozenth person who's done that in the last week alone.

Oh, and I can't figure out what's up with my stupid comment box over at my blog. Suddenly the only way to leave a comment is to first click on the post title -- then the comment box will appear at the bottom. I didn't change the setting; it changed itself. GRRRRR.

Linnhe Mara said...


Now if the cord had been red would you still have been confused as to its purpose. Then again do colours and their perceived meaning translate as well as jokes do?

MG Higgins said...

Ha! Wonderful story. The ability to laugh (especially at oneself) is such an asset in life.

Charles Gramlich said...

Frankly. I don't get The Onion either, and I'm a native speaker of English, or a close approximation.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Literally Unbelievable is a blog where people have posted on Facebook commenting on stories that have appeared in The Onion but the commenters don't recognize the joke. Funny stuff.

Vijaya said...

Sigh. I don't get a lot of jokes either. The worst part was learning to tell Indian jokes in English. IN highschool. Ugh. I'd want to crawl into a hole.

Don't even get me started on various types of toilets, with their chains and whatnot ... I'd have been beet red in your shoes.

Carole said...

Funny is in the eye of the beholder. I hate it when I don't get a joke and I have to retell it to myself 5 times to finally figure it out.

Aledys Ver said...

Indeed, jokes not always cross cultures... Funny one!! Loved reading this.

Mary Witzl said...

Dale -- I miss so much myself, it's scary. My poor students: I was so nearly taken in by this, there's no way they weren't going to be snared.

KLM -- I sure did. The nice thing about this is that the people who witnessed my shame all give me big smiles every morning when we meet on the staircase or out on the street. They'll never forget me, and I'm sure my story has made the rounds of the building.

Linnhe -- I'd have pulled on it no matter what color it had been. But from now on, you can bet I'll be on the look-out for red cords.

MG -- Yes, I have this ability in spades. If I didn't, I'd be doomed.

Charles -- The idea of a divorce after all the nonsense of that wedding has a certain comic absurdity. But The Onion is a little unsettling: like April Fools Day all year around.

Robert -- I've heard about this, but never knew where it was -- thank you for telling me! As soon as I have a minute to spare, I'll check out that website. If my students were more advanced, it would be a good place for them to visit. At present, they're still scratching their heads over The Onion article.

Vijaya -- I can blush just remembering my own lame attempts to tell jokes in high school -- much tougher if you're attempting cross-cultural humor.

Even now, jokes are likely to sail over my head, to the point where I am constantly on the look-out for them. I sympathize with my students, who long to get the joke, but are left wondering why it is funny.

Carole -- The beholders need to be trained to recognize the funny, don't they? My parents were famous for missing jokes: I suspect my own struggles are hereditary.

Aledys -- Isn't it sad when jokes are trapped in the cross-cultural net and can't be shared? And isn't it wonderful (although rare) when they happen to translate perfectly?

Pat said...

You would have to explain the joke to me Mary - maybe I'm having a SOH failure but I did find your disabled loo story funny;)

Anonymous said...

I still don't get why there's an emergency cord in a school loo. Isn't that just asking for trouble?

Never have I seen such a thing here in the US except in a hospital or nursing home bathroom!

Marcia said...

Oh, Mary. *Blushes with you.*

I don't get a lot of jokes either. Or I get them but have the urge to explain why they aren't funny to me, or how they could be made funnier -- but of course by now I know not to do any of that.

But I gotta tell you -- I can spot The Onion a mile away. With the very first paragraph of that "article," I knew...