Tag Archives: Nina Porzucki

Why What’s Funny in China Might Surprise You

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

BIG improv group rehearsing in Beijing (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki

Jesse Appell will do anything for a laugh.

“Food poisoning is funny. I got dysentery once. That was funny.”

Well, not quite that funny the moment we sat down to talk over dumplings in Beijing. Appell has lived in Beijing on and off for several years.

Recently Appell has been studying what’s funny in China, which he admits has not been easy.

“When I came to China I initially didn’t have the language ability to make a joke. I would try to make a joke but I didn’t know the cues that you would use to make jokes so when I said stuff wrong people just assumed that i was speaking wrong,” said Appell.

But as Appell’s Chinese language skills have developed — he’s now nearly fluent in Mandarin — so has his understanding of what’s funny in Chinese. He remembers the first day he made a successful joke in China.

“I got a nose bleed in class. The word liuxue means to flow blood but it’s a perfect pun for the word exchange student,” explained

So when Jesse left class to take care of his nose bleed, he called out to the class in Chinese, ‘Don’t worry about me I’m just an exchange student.’ His classmates erupted in laughter he says.

Word play is an essential element in the ancient Chinese art of comedy. There is a centuries old tradition of Chinese stand-up called xiangsheng or crosstalk according to linguist David Moser who has has studied crosstalk in China.

“Crosstalk is a folk verbal art form that similar to beloved classic skits that we know of like the who’s on first routine,” said Moser.

Much like Abbott & Costello in traditional crosstalk there’s the funny man and the straight guy. Crosstalk began in Beijing where some comedic skits go back to the Ming Dynasty. Modern times and modern politics have altered what can be funny in China and crosstalk has adapted. The humor is rather vanilla; this is the opposite of political satire.

“After 1949 they had to clean it all up. They had to get rid of country bumpkin jokes because the peasants were the heroes of the revolution. Of course, all the sex and bawdiness was gone. The one thing you can’t do is do political humor at all,” said Moser.

But according to Moser that doesn’t mean that Chinese people aren’t dishing out the political jokes.

“I almost feel that there’s two layers of humor. One is the public media labor. It’s very prudish, polite; it’s not rambunctious or impolite. Then there’s this other layer which is the average person on the street which is just how it is in any country. It can be really outlandishly anti-authoritarian or smutty or absolutely outrageous,” said Moser.

This other layer of humor takes stage on the internet sometimes inspired by humor from unexpected places like the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Chinese netizens have taken to translating Stewart’s show. He’s actually Jiong Situ in Chinese.

“Very often the subtitles show they didn’t understand the joke, but some of the jokes do translate and that’s good enough,” said Moser.

Good enough that in April of this past year a clip of a joke about North Korea went viral in China. Turns out jokes about North Korea are funny to both Chinese and American audiences. Jiong Situ is still a long way off from gracing Chinese prime time. His jokes are far too politically sensitive.

There are other forms of comedy bubbling up in the bars and clubs of Beijing: improv for one. Fulbrighter Jesse Appell is part of a bilingual improv comedy troupe called BIG.

The troop rehearses in a makeshift theater with tiny stage. If you’ve ever been to an improv show, it’s a pretty familiar scene. The audience shouts out suggestions, the players improvise a scene. Except that here players mix English and Chinese.

The topics were rather tame, nothing bawdy or political. I kept waiting for something controversial to come up. But this is China after all. As I was reminded when a sudden discussion ensued just as I pressed record. Jesse approached me:

“You can record whatever but if we say anything about the government we need you not to use that,” said Appell.

It was a surprising request and as it turned out unnecessary. No one said anything about the government. However, it seems Jesse has learned much more about China then just comedy.

Jon Stewart taking in his Chinese celebrity:

Comedians Guo Degang and Yu Qian:

Jesse Appell performs stand-up comedy in Chinese:

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Jewish American Students Reimagine Yiddish Europe

Hannah Efron at the gates of the old Jewish cemetery, Indur, Belarus (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

[This post from Nina Porzucki]

Forget Lonely Planet. Forget Fodor’s. When Rob Adler Peckerar plans a trip to Eastern Europe he goes straight to one guidebook publisher, the Baedeker—the 1907 Baedeker to be exact. “You can’t beat the maps,” says Peckerar.

It doesn’t matter that the sites on the maps, written in German, are just a bit out of date. They show just what Peckerar is looking for. “It indicates the Jewish spaces [that] are still active Jewish spaces. You can look on the map and see here’s a synagogue and here’s a synagogue.”

For Peckerar, the executive director of Yiddishkayt, a non-profit Yiddish cultural organization, these guidebooks point to a past that he wants young American Jews to know.

“The past thousand years of Jewish life is what’s missing from Jewish education,” he says. “Kids don’t know about Jewish life in Europe, they learn today mostly about Israel and they learn the destruction of Jewish culture.”

Instead of visiting concentration camps and mass graves like many conventional Jewish student tours this summer, Peckerar took eight students to the hometowns of Jewish poets and novelists. This was a tour more about life than genocide.

More than anything else Peckerar wanted to take students back to the villages where their families came from sometimes hundreds of years ago. “Most Jews don’t know the name of the place where their family is from,” says Peckerar. What they know instead he says, is a vague picture of shtetl life in Eastern Europe – or a musical like Fiddler on the Roof.

Hannah Efron, a 21-year-old, comparative literature major at UC Berkeley, was one of the students who went on the trip in search of her family’s origins. Growing up, Efron always heard “Oh Hannah you’re such an Efron.”

‘Being Efron,’ meant having her grandfather’s sense of humor and his stubborn streak. But she never really considered where that Efron-ness originated until Peckerar helped her research the first member of her family to take Efron as a last name. In a small Yiddish-speaking town named Amdur, in what is now Indur, Belarus, lived her ancestor, Motte Tsennes. Motte was his first name and Tsenne was his mother’s name. As was the tradition he was Motte Tsennes or Tsenne’s son, Motte. Motte was the first one in the family to choose the last name Efron.

The group of students took a bus ride to what is now just a tiny village. They knew two things: Motte Tsennes was the town baker and he lived on the corner of the old market square. The bus stopped at the old market square. The town as Efron describes it, was just two streets and a smattering of houses. Peckerar, Efron, and the tour guide exited the bus, and approached an old woman watering her neighbor’s yard. They asked her if there were any Efrons in town. Much to their surprise, the woman started to talk about the Jewish history of the town. The old woman told Efron that long, long ago the town had been about 80% Jewish. Today, there were just a few remnants of Jewish buildings left.

The old synagogue (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

The group walked down the road, snapping photos. People came out of their houses to see the commotion, says Efron. They pointed the group in the direction of what was once a synagogue. During the Soviet period it had been used as a music school but had since fallen into disrepair. “We would try and peek in the windows and it was full of garbage,” says Efron. Eventually someone in the group found an open doorway and one by one they jumped into the old synagogue.

The space was enormous, Efron says. This was one of nine synagogues in this town but this was the main one. Walking around the enormous, empty building drove home just how big the community had been. “You could picture it full,” says Efron. “On the high holidays you could picture everyone gathered there. You just had to close your eyes.”

The group left the synagogue in search of the cemetery. Efron describes it as a wild place. Weeds and grass hid the headstones, which had turned to tiny stone nubs on the hill. Horses out to pasture wandered between the graves. A rusted gate with two Stars of David was the only real indication of what the field had been. “I was secretly hoping in my heart of hearts that we would find a stone of Motte Tsennes,” says Efron. But she didn’t find that first Efron’s tombstone. However, as she walked around the cemetery she felt the presence of Motte Tsennes and her family.

The gates of the old cemetery (Photo: Helix 2012/Yiddishkayt)

“I felt like my family knew that I was there to visit them, to mark them and to honor them. And they were like, ‘there’s our Hannah; she’s going to graduate from Berkeley next year; still no boyfriend.’ That they knew I was there and I knew they were there.”

Hannah Efron is back in Berkeley, hanging out at her parent’s house until the school year starts. Was she changed by the trip? Yes and no. She is still, according to her family “very Efron.” Only now she has a place to put to the name.

[Patrick Cox adds: Listen to the podcast for more scenes from this Eastern European trip, including Yiddish and English recitations of poems by Morris Rosenfeld and Moyshe Kulbak.]


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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.

Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:

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