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[perspective]The humor gap - no laughing matter

Aug 27,2008
Yu-in Anna Oh
As anyone who has lived here longer than a few days will know, attempts to cross the humor gap - an under-reported area of the wider East-West cultural divide - can result in no end of awkward moments, hurt feelings and just plain old humiliation.

Yu-in Anna Oh, a gyopo from California, has come face to face with this diplomatic dirge in her brief stint as an English teacher in Gwangju. The 20-year-old, about to leave for her junior year of college at New York University, has only been here for three months as an adult. But she has already stumbled across the deep crevices that exist between the two cultures when it comes to humor.

“In America they use humor as a way of expressing something that’s wrong, but in Korea, humor is just humor,” she said. “There are no hidden meanings.”

But, as an ethnic Korean, Oh has been able to bridge the cultural separation with a great deal more ease than your average, garden-variety expat.

For Oh, it’s been a relief to be able to abandon the tension that can result from constantly fending off sarcastic remarks with barbs of your own. She said she’s been loving abandoning herself in the local jokes with her Korean co-workers.

“I think it’s because I have a different set of expectations, so I can go along with it,” she said. “Back home, if someone American did some of the things they do for laughs here, I’d be like, ‘That was really dumb. Why is that funny?’”

Her shift in expectations extends to other, far more troublesome, differences as well, however.

“My grandfather here in Korea said, ‘If Barack Obama gets elected in America, then there’s obviously a problem there because he’s black,’” she said. “If I were in America, I would be really offended by that, but because I was in Korea I wasn’t. I don’t expect Koreans to be as open to the idea of diversity.”

As decidedly questionable as this double standard may be, Oh’s background sheds some light on the separation she makes between the two cultures.

“I pretty much lived a dual life in America,” she said. “At school I was one person, and at home I was another. At home it was Korea.”

But whether or not you’re able to be so objective about cultural differences, it’s clear that the Western brand of sarcastic humor just doesn’t go over here.

And the Korean brand of comedy likely won’t be making any big inroads across the pond anytime soon, either.

“I think the general reaction of Westerners would be like, ‘Oh, O.K., I guess that’s kind of funny - but not really,” she said. “When you’re used to more sarcastic humor, the humor here kind of sounds dumb. Like they wear wigs.”


By Richard Scott-Ashe Deputy Editor [richard@joongang.co.kr]


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