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China isn’t joking, but soon it will be…

Previously I wrote about how comedy can be an access point into foreign culture. Now, I want to discuss the reverse; sharing my own British humour as part of my current job, teaching Chinese children English.

The Chinese aren’t famed for their comedy. It’s not quite like Germany; Germany infamously lacks a sense of humour, China simply doesn’t seem to have one. But I, as a British person with a liking for the silly and eccentric, find humour everywhere here. For instance last week I tried on a pink fluffy cowboy hat and asked the shopkeeper if she thought I looked handsome. Her face was a static picture of bemusement as she offered me a more suitable brown shirt instead. Not even a smirk.

Language, obviously, provides problems. My joke answer to the incessant “Hello, are you American?” ‘ question, ‘No I’m Chinese, how about you?’ is about the funniest my Mandarin gets (never funny enough to deserve a laugh, mind.) But even fluent English speakers laugh at inopportune moments while silently failing to understand simple humour.

Q: Who is the president of China? A: Hu [Jin Tao] is the president of China!. Hours of my life have been wasted explaining this comic wordplay.

So China seems a serious, straight forward and sober country. It doesn’t feel a sour place – streets are crowded, spirits high, chatter optimistic. But I suppose you couldn’t expect much actual comedy from a country which locks any freedom of speech at dank, dark depths.

And yet my British sense of humour (never deterred by even regular misunderstanding) finds one receptive audience in China; children. The little emperors, empowered with opportunity and education, inspired perhaps by increasing exposure to Western media, can take a joke and tell one too.

Lesson 1: I asked my fourteen year old class to guess where I came from, how I travelled to China and how long it took. The first answer I took was”Iceland / You swam / It took four years.” I was thrilled by this reply for three reasons; 1) I didn’t expect any answer at all from a class described to me as ‘angry and uncontrollable’, 2) It got a laugh from everyone including me, and 3) numerous similar answers followed.


Don’t smile at them, one middle school teacher advised me, ‘If you smile they will think you are joking and will never learn.’ The current generation of teachers, expecting studious solemnity, does not and will not get the joke. In defiance, since my Lesson 1 I have striven to include as much humour as possible in my classes. Teaching the word ‘bra’ with a chalk-drawn picture usually works as a warmer, while the word ‘surprise’ shouted into the ear of an unsuspecting sleeper can be relied upon for a hysterical moment. Songs, games, pictures of animals dressed up as policemen… there’s endless comic potential in the modern Chinese classroom.

I came to China on a TEFL certificate (Teaching English as a Foreign Language, available online or at your local photocopy shop, enabling unqualified people to teach worldwide purely because they can speak English). What I find here however is not a need for English language – most of my students will only ever need it for passing an exam or saying ‘Special price for you’ – but an appetite for comedy and creativity, something I’m happy to feed.

Students here enjoy my lessons. I know because they’ve told me, in English. Teachers here watch my lessons with confused interest. They peer into the class because they heard me singing James Brown, then return to their text books. I’m proud not just to teach English to Chinese children, but to teach them that comedy can play a role in life, learning and work. And I’m proud that this is a truly British quality.

The current generation of Chinese people have worked tirelessly to accelerate their country’s development and make a better world for their children. There was no room for humour, it was not needed. Now, though, with comforts and opportunities there is ample room for humour, and furthermore it is necessary for the creative – rather than purely concrete – development of China.

If you’re interested in how China is already beginning to express a modicum of humour, try American-based Chinese comedian Joe Wong. If you’re interested in how the country will develop in the future, look out for growth not just in its economy, but in its sense of humour. If children are anything to go by (and they always are), changes are coming.

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