Explaining the Joke

I have a weird love-hate relationship with translation jokes. On one hand, that little rift between languages makes me chuckle. I think back to myself in the old days, a clueless kid who only had half of the riddle. It reminds me of how far I’ve come as a person.

On the other hand, how good a joke is doesn’t just depend on the joke. Jokes are inherently social. Whether you’re sharing one on the internet for likes and comments or telling one to a friend, there is a certain satisfaction you glean from being able to cause laughter. Because so many of my friends are American (read: non-Chinese speakers), they don’t get why I chuckle.

All jokes are inside jokes in some capacity. They rely on some sense of community. Translation jokes like this one are only funny to people like me who have hopped between two specific languages, and that reminds me of the weird position I’m in. Instead of bridging the gap between two cultures and languages, I hang between them, suspended, never fully inside of one or the other. I am the overlap of a Venn diagram that doesn’t exist outside of me and a handful of other people. My family, families like mine, and some friends.

Once upon a time, I lived in a monolingual world. It was as long ago as any fairytale. My experience overseas hasn’t just given me another language. It has fundamentally changed the way that I think, the way that I communicate, share, even laugh. I’ve always loved words and how they connect people, but now they are much richer. I can’t even remember what it felt to live with a singular language housed in my brain. Language connects, but it also separates, sometimes even isolates.

In the past, this picture would not have made me laugh. Aside from the fact that I probably have developed a worse sense of humor than I had at nine, there’s also the fact that I have changed in a way that is not quantifiable. In a way, it’s just like a joke–when you explain it, it becomes less funny, less potent, less correct. The exact combination of words always slides out of your grip.

Even so, I try.

The translation here is funny because the Chinese isn’t meant to indicate direction. Many Chinese sentences, such as this one, end with a word that roughly means “to” in order to indicate movement or purpose. English has no equivalent.

When I first saw this sign, I laughed and snapped a picture. I barely thought about it. The thought process had become part of me. There was no purpose in that, no movement of thought. I saw the words and they clicked.

Occasionally, I remember who I used to be. A little kid who was scared of anything foreign, unwilling to assimilate into the unfamiliar world around me. A little kid who didn’t find my thoughts reflected in the new language I was learning. But I don’t think about that so much anymore.

There is a thoughtlessness in languages. In jokes. And that is part of what makes them elegant and beautiful.

Of course, that’s just part of the story.


Xiaoxiao Meng ’19 is a Comparative Literature major and a Translation Studies Concentrator.  She has spent half her life in the United States and the other half in China. This makes for a lot of terrible self-reflection on identity, culture, and the difficulty of explaining how good real soup dumplings are to American friends.




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