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I was talking to a missionary about to go to northern China and work with a minority Muslim people group there. I asked him, “So what is your cultural learning plan?” He replied, “I don’t have one. What is a cultural learning plan?”
So, I explained to him that you need to find out what makes people laugh, what makes them cry, what makes their spirits soar in their own culture and where people get their names from. Names are important but a subject for a different post. People of all cultures make the mistake thinking that, broadly speaking, people are motivated broadly by the same thing. That is not true but there is just enough evidence to make it seem true.
Here is a classic, “The Svan is sitting on a rock watching his sheep. I noticed that he was holding an empty Coke bottle and he kept twisting off the cap looking at it and then putting back on. I walked up to him and said, “Why do you keep taking that cap off and putting it back on my friendly Svan.” He turned to me and grinned, “I want to win!” I could not understand so he showed me the cap and it said right there “Try again.”
In Georgia, Svan jokes are often a version of what we call “dumb blonde” jokes in America and there is enough there to laugh at even if you don’t have a clue what a Svan is. What was interesting to me was not that Georgians laughed at “dumb Svan” jokes but that they make them out of fear. People are afraid of the Svans who are a mountain people with their own language and they live so remotely that they feel free to take a buffet approach to civilization’s laws about smuggling, honor killing, thievery, and murder. People laugh at Svans but the laughter is a little nervous.
On my very first mission trip, I went to the country of Romania and a Romanian expat told me one real Romanian joke, here is how it went, in the version I know, “A Hungarian is riding his horse through Romania. He comes to a large town and visits the blacksmith to shoe his horse, buys a candle from the candlemaker, and buys some beer from the innkeep. He then rides high up to a mountain overlooking the town and surveys the farmland, the villages and the town he could see. He takes a deep breath and declares, “I claim this vast and empty land for all Hungarians!”
When I told that joke to group of Romanian teens, one girl laughed so hard she fell down and had tears running out of her eyes. She begged me to tell it again and again. The joke is a very old and very common one in Romania, at least that is what I was told, but to have an American tell it; now that was funny!
Nearly all Americans I tell that joke to, even the ones that kind of laugh, don’t understand why it is funny. If you know at least a little Romanian, Hungarian, and Transylvanian history you start to understand why it might be funny but that is not enough to quite get it.
Another interesting thing is the comic character and one kind of comic character I always liked to see was the American. I have seen comic American characters from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, Romania, and China. In most cases, the American character is weak and unmanly if a man, and vain and materialistic if a woman, always incompetent at traditional female work and, of course, sexually promiscuous. If it is an African-American they are what we would call a racist stereotype at best and sometimes the characterization is so racist it is deeply shocking, or was to me at least.
The comic storyline is nearly always the same that Americans may be rich but the price they pay for that wealth is terrible. As one Georgian friend told me, “I think Americans are so rich they are no longer quite human.” Americans are often quite famous in other parts of the world for cursing, a lot. In fact, in Georgia, where many Americans are connected with our military, Georgians will fake speak English but just stringing together American curse words. In fact, all “fake speak” English I have heard overseas incorporates American curse words. One place we do not have a trade deficit is in foul language, we manage to spread that everywhere while we import very little cursing from overseas. A big win for America.
One category of humor I always liked was “Heracles in a Dress” humor. I watched a documentary about Pompeii and the excavations there and I learned from the historians Romans loved humor of reversed expectations and so to show Heracles in a dress was really funny to them. Georgians really love, like Romans, “Heracles in a Dress” humor. They had a long-running sitcom about a married couple where the wife was a cross-dressing man pretending to be a woman. In the world of the sitcom, this cross-dressing man was really a woman but everyone watching it knew she was a man, hence the comedy. Her husband was a real straight Georgian everyman and the “wife” was a kind of criminally minded Lucy. Heracles in a dress, indeed.
Georgians have long had a returning character on their comedy show series of a woman of immense strength and masculine attitudes that always dates little mousy men. By the end of the sketch, the woman has usually destroyed the whole set with her great strength. A literal Heracles in a dress.
Gay men feature prominently in Georgian humor and few comedy shows or events ever finish without one or two sketches focused entirely on gay men. Never will you see a lesbian, by the way. Lesbians don’t exist in any Georgian entertainment but gay men are comic gold. Georgians will laugh at the antics of gay men all day and even talk of meeting one and how funny it would be one to have around.
That is, until people stand up for the human rights of homosexual people, then violence breaks out and foreigners are run down and beat up and activists must flee for their lives. One needs to be careful when you make someone else’s joke come to life.
Humor has long been one of the ways that groups know who is in the group and who is out of the group. I don’t think you can really understand someone until you know what makes them laugh and you can laugh at the joke. From the best of humanity to the darkest recesses of our souls, humor reveals it all. To really understand someone, you also have to be able to get the joke.