Location: California, United States

There are no random acts. We are all connected. You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind. (the five people you meet in heaven)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Humor Is Cultural

Culture is ingrained in each of us, often without our realization. Whenever you leave your home country, this is something that becomes quite obvious. In addition to the myriad of really obvious things like language, food, transportation, clothing, etc., other things such as references to TV shows, sports teams, stores, etc. are often lost on people who do not share your culture. However, there are other, more subtle, things that make you suddenly realize you’ve run into a cultural brick wall.

The other day, I was buying some donuts for my office. The donut experience in Japan is quite different from the US, and the donut shop you will find most everywhere is Mister Donut. There was a Mister Donut near my house growing up, so this is somewhat natsukashii (懐かしい—nostalgic), but the donut selection is not the only difference. In Japan, donuts are purchased individually; there is no price per dozen. You enter the store, get a tray and a pair of thongs, and as you select the donuts you want, you put them on your tray.

I wanted to make sure that there were plenty of donuts, so I had twenty on the small tray. It looked like a mountain of donuts. As I approached the register, the boy behind the counter asked me, “お持ち帰りですか。” (Is this for take out?) As I started to say yes, I changed mid-stream and said in Japanese, “No, I’m going to eat them all here.” He knew he’d heard something but was not sure what. He looked up at me and repeated his question, “Omochi kaeri desuka?” and then began to say “take-out” with Japanese pronunciation. I cut him off and said, “No, I’m really hungry, so I’m going to eat them all here. Could you please put them on a large plate for me?” He stood there, staring back at me, not knowing how to react. He was frozen. He stared at me, and as the corner of my lips began to turn up into a smile, I told him, “It’s a joke.” He bent over, looking relieved, and got out the boxes to pack up the donuts.

When I later told Sa the story, she first said that the question was ridiculous as it should be obvious that anyone with that many donuts was not going to eat them in the store. However, she added that if I wanted to joke, my initial response to his take-out question should have been, “Yes, for take-out. I can’t eat this many donuts at one time.” Humor often does not translate.


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