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Jesse Appell

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So, wow it is loud... So, in 2010 I was studying abroad in Beijing. and I was at class one day when all of a sudden as my friends can will attest often happens to me my nose started bleeding for no reason at all. and so I was walking out of the classroom I've got blood on my face My teacher was like "哎,杰西,你还好么?" (“Hey Jesse, are you okay?”) and I said, "没关系,我是留学生。"(“流血生”) ("No worries, I am a foreign student." - homophone of ”bleeding student“ in Mandarin) So, it seems like just a little joke, but actually it was a big moment for me and my life living in China, because I realized that up until that point I was studying the language I was eating Chinese food I was hanging out with Chinese people but I didn't feel like I lived in China I felt like I was studying in China. And I wasn't exactly sure what the difference between the two was until I started to joke with people. And then all of a sudden, when I was saying jokes and I was laughing with my friends, I realized hey, these people actually are my friends. This is what I do with my friends, is we laugh and it was the way that I sort of became active and be able to live comfortably in Chinese society here. So flash forward now, two years. I'm done with school and here living in China and I'm at a bilingual improv workshop. We are all people from a dozen different countries we're all laughing together and the sound of the laughter is coming off the walls coming back into our ears and our bodies are going in and out, our chest going in and out in coherence as we all work together we have this laughing noise together and I realized that this is supposed to be impossible, right? Isn't comedy the hardest thing to learn about a culture? Isn't a culture's sense of humor the last thing that you normally are able to adjust to if you're living in a different culture? and yet, we have people from a dozen different countries in this room all different cultures, Chinese, Western cultures, everywhere. They are not PhDs in Intercultural Communication they are just regular people but they're finding a way to come together and learn about each other and enjoy each others' company through laughter and what I realize is, this is because the laughter is actually tying us together and it is allowing us to connect on a human level. A very deep human level that oftentimes will get obscured by the cultural differences between two different cultures. So, when we go on the street and we say you know, you are Chinese, I am American this is different when we laugh together we are proving that actuallty while those differences may exist there is something deeper than that that we can all connect to So, how do we know that this deeper something exists when on the surface it looks like, you know Chinese humor and Western humor are going to be different? Well, if you look at the performance styles You'll find that while they all seem to be different actually they are using similar techniques to be able to get at the humor on that deeper level So for instance, in China there is a traditional Chinese comedy style called Xiangsheng (相声 "crosstalk") and I've been studying Xiangsheng here with a Xiangsheng master over the last year or so Xiangsheng is like, if you have two people on stage you have a comic dialogue going back and forth. You have this go-between between the two characters. and in the West, obviously we have stand-up comedy with one person on stage, one mic talking. It looks different. If you saw a Xiangsheng performance you might be saying that, "Hey, these two different cultures have two different types of comedy." But in actuality, you can see the techniques they use are going to be drawing on that deeper human level connection. So for instance, in Xiangsheng, we have a technique called "guan kou" (贯口) and guan kou is basically a prepared monologue that will sometimes include a list or some sort of content that's designed to draw in the audience through the way that it's spoken, one word right after another in a continuous stream. And so, (in Chinese) 用中文来讲这个贯口的手段我自己感觉是无论你是什么国家的无论你是什么文化的都可以用上. Any culture in any society and any language can use the "guan kou" 所以比如说无论你是来自什么地方 (So for example no matter where you are from) 无论你来自太平洋,印度洋,大西洋,北冰洋 (be it Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic Ocean) 欧洲,亚洲,非洲,美洲,大洋洲、东亜,南亚,西亚,东南亜 (Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Oceania, East Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Southeast Asia) 韩国、朝鲜、蒙古、日本、越南、印度、缅甸、老挝、新加坡、菲律宾 (Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam, India, Burma, Laos, Singapore, the Philippines) 尼泊尔、印度尼西亚、孟加拉、亚美尼亜、斯里兰卡 (Nepal, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Armenia, Sri Lanka) 冰岛、丹麦、瑞典、芬兰、波兰、捷克、德国、法国 (Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, France) 奥地利、俄罗斯、乌克兰、爱尔兰、匈牙利、南斯拉夫、摩尔多瓦、比利时、爱沙尼、拉脱维、玻利维亚、阿尔巴尼亚 (Austria, Russia, Ukraine, Ireland, Hungary, Moldova, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Bolivia, Albania) 贝宁,埃及、多哥、加蓬、刚果、马里、汤加.喀麦隆,摩洛哥 (Benin, Egypt, Togo, the Congo, Mali, Tonga, Cameroon, Morocco) 冈比亚、赞比亚,赤道几内亚,澳大利亚、新西兰,萨尔瓦多、尼加拉瓜、洪都拉斯、墨西哥 (Gambia, Zambia, Equatorial Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico) 美国、加拿大人都可以用上! (the United States, or Canada... you can all use it!) <applause> If you didn't speak Chinese there, you might be a little confused but hopefully you're still drawn in And that's the purpose of the “guan kou“ is to draw you in. Now, is this something that doesn't work in English? Is this something that doesn't work in stand up comedy? I don't believe that. I think that you can use it. So, I think it's totally realistic you could have a stand up routine that'll be something like this. I'll be a stand up comedian now. Here's my microphone. Uh, so the first day that I went to college I signed up for a chemistry class and that was a mistake. And it was a mistake why? I knew it instantly because the moment I walked in the door I saw the periodic table of elements and my head exploded And there was blood all over the walls, it was bad. I looked at this and said there is absolutely no way that I am going to remember this. I mean look at the periodic table. You've got antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, rhenium nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, and iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium, europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium, lanthanum, osmium, astatine, radium, gold, protactinium, indium, gallium, iodine, thorium, thulium and thallium. There's yttrium, ytterbium, actinium, rubidium, boron, gadolinium, niobium, iridium, strontium, silicon, silver, samarium, bismuth and bromium. There's holmium, helium, hafnium, erbium, phosphorus, francium, fluorine, terbium, manganese and mercury, molybdenum, magnesium, dysprosium, scandium, cerium, cesium, lead, praseodymium, platinum, plutonium, palladium, promethium, potassium and polonium and tantalum, technetium, titanium, tellurium, cadmium, calcium, chromium and curium. There's sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium, and also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium, and argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium, and chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium. No way I can memorize that! <applause> So, what all this illustrates is that while we have different ways, they might look diffrent, of getting each other to laugh actually the techniques that we use to get each other to laugh are similar and thats because they are all able to draw out that sort of human interest that we share as a species rather than the specifics of different cultures of how those art forms progress. So if we have this common human comedic interest, what is it? I think it has to do a lot with what comedy at its essence really is. So a lot of the times when i try to explain what a joke is, I'll say it like this: "A joke is a social or a cultural observation that has a reversal applied to it." So it says something about society or the World and then we have a reversal that creates the comic effect. It's probably the least interesting way of introducing a joke but I think that it's true, so what this means is that there are certain ways how we can get at that without having to be experts in social understanding. For instance , this is why physical comedy works so well across different cultures, because there is no society where people do the funny walk And there is no society where people actually talk like this, so if you talk like this, it winds up being really funny. For the same reason, this is why Mr Bean works just about everywhere. Because nobody in any society, no one actually ever does that. So if you identify what these core common values are Physical comedy is a very easy one. But it's good to remember that anywhere we have these cultural commonalities we are going to be able to draw on these experiences and be able to work together. Now it doesn't necessarily work that anything that's physical is going to be funny across different cultures. Because, for instance, if I were to go up on stage and I were to say something like “主公上马心不爽, 山人八卦袖内藏” All the Westerners would be like "What was THAT? That was weird." But all the Chinese people will say “这哥们要唱京剧。哈哈” (“That bro is trying to sing Peking Opera, haha.”) So it'd be a different reaction Chinese people would be surprised that this guy is even trying to sing Beijing opera Westerners might not even recognize that it's Beijing opera and so we actually have people laughing, but for two different reasons. So this is something we come across and when we see people laughing for different reasons and want them to laugh at the same reason. A lot of times, they are laughing for different reasons because they don't share a common knowledge base. The comedy and the thing that I'm referencing might not be known to both types, both groups of people. So comedy, luckily, also is a great way of sharing information about different societies and different cultures because it is an interesting thing that will draw people in. So I had a joke that I did at a stand up comedy night once that went like this: 大家都可以看我,他们可以看得出来 (When people look at me, they can see that) 我是东北人(I'm a Northeastern fellow.) 当然说的是 (Of course, I'm talking about) 美国东北! (the Northeast of America!) 美国的东北。 (America's Northeast. ) 俺们那嘎的说的是东北口音。(I speak with a Northeastern accent.) 实际上我真的是东北人,我是波士顿人,美国波士顿。 (Actually I am really from the Northeast. I'm a Bostonian, from Boston in America.) 我们波士顿人也有自己的口音,波士顿人的口音有什么特点呢? (Us Bostonians have our own accent, and what are the features of the Boston accent?) 就是我们那个“儿”声音不发。 (We don't pronounce the soft "r".) 所以比如说标准英语有一句话叫做“我把我的车停在哈佛广场” (So for example in standard English there's a phrase "I parked my car at Harvard Yard") 用标准英语那个“儿”声音很重,就是"I parked my car at Harvard Yard." (Using standard English, the "r" sound is emphasized, as "I parked my car at Harvard Yard") 但是因为我是波士顿人,我怎么发? (But because I'm Bostonian, how do I prounce it?) 我发那个"I pahked my cah at Hahvahd Yahd"! 就这么说。( "I pahked my cah at Hahvahd Yahd") 但是我小的时候我一直在想, (But since I was little I always thought,) 那些我没有发出来的“儿”声音都跑到哪儿去了?( where are all the soft Rs that I never said?) 然后我搬到北京来了。 (Then I moved to Beijing.) 我发现我这一辈子的“儿”声音都在这里发了! (I realized that all the soft Rs in my entire life were here!) 比如说在北京可以说 (In Beijing we can say) “我们去那个动物园儿旁边儿的饭馆儿吃一点儿”("Let's go to that restaurant by the zoo to get a bite") 那因为我是波士顿人我怎么发? (But because I'm Bostonian how do I pronounce it? ) 我发那个“我们去那个动物牙旁鼻牙的饭呱吃一点牙!”("Let's go to the nose tooth by the animal tooth to eat!") <applause> So this is an example of using that common knowledge, so if people speak weird, that could be a little funny. Accent humor seems like it should be the sort of thing that we're going to be able to do across cultures. And then we're using half of the joke to get across the cultural information that's needed for one party, and at the same time it's also fulfilling the cultural information that's needed for the other party. So if you are a Bostonian you're going to learn about the Beijing accent, if you're a Beijinger you're going to learn about the Bostonian accent. If you're from neither, well I guess you learn about both. In the process we are doing cultural communication; we are learning about each other's cultures. We're taking those areas where we didn't understand each other and flushing them out. So this can be of great value. A lot of times though you still wind up seeing something and being a little overwhelmed. Sometimes it happens a lot when Westerners try to see a Xiangsheng performance because they go out and they see the Xiangsheng and they'll find themselves in a situation where even if they understand all the language that's being said they still don't get the performance because Xiangsheng often has a lot of literary and historical references involved and so it's not enough to be able to linguistically translate the Xiangsheng piece what is really needed is what would be called a cultural translation which is to say, what is the culture trying to get across when you give this sort of performance. So for instance, when I first came to study Xiangsheng I learned a piece called "Xiaohaizi" Xiaohaizi being "Little Children" what it was, it was a short piece that talked about the little children in Chinese history and children who were known for being famous for having some sort of, for being a very strong thinker for being an ingenious thinker or being able to teach adults things that maybe adults need to learn we can learn all these things from children. So, I'm going to perform that piece for you right now And then you are going to see how exactly we can try to understand it. 在想当初,大宋朝文彦博,幼儿倒有灌穴浮球之智。 (Long ago, Wen Yanbo of the great Song Dynasty realized when he was just a child the knowledge that he could float a ball up from a hole by pouring in water.) 司马温公,倒有破瓮救儿之谋。 (Sima Wengong had the foresight to save a child by breaking the vat) 汉孔融,四岁就懂让梨谦逊之礼。 (Kong Rong of the Han dynasty understood at the age of four the etiquette of how to properly yield gifted pears to others.) 十三郎五岁朝天。 (Shisan Lang met the emperor at the age of five.) 唐刘晏七岁举翰林 (Liu Yan of the Tang dynasty held the post of high minister at the age of seven. ) 汉黄香九岁温席奉亲 (Nine year-old Huang Xiang of the Han dynasty protected his parents and warmed them with his body’s heat.) 秦甘罗十二岁有宰相之才 (Gan Luo from the Qin dynasty had a Prime Minister’s talent at seven.) Zhou Yu from the Wu kingdom was appointed the captain of the navy at the age of ten-and-three,吴周瑜一十三岁拜为水军都督 gathered great armies from all across the land from six provinces and eighty-one states,统带千军万马,执掌六军八十一州之兵权, tricked others by harming himself to create a false sense of weakness, engaged many ploys designed to fool his enemies,使苦肉,献连环, caught the eastern wind, and burned many enemy boats,借东风,烧战船, causing Cao Cao to turn and flee, almost causing him to lose his life at Jiangnan.使曹操望风鼠窜,险些丧命江南。 Even though he had help from Wo Long and Feng Chu, Zhou Yu of the Wu kingdom still counts as a shining example of the ability of children.虽有卧龙、凤雏之相帮,那周瑜也算小孩子中之魁首。 So, this piece, for those of you that didn't understand it. If you're trying to do a linguistic translation of that piece, it would fail it wouldn't fit because you would come up with something that says like: "Long ago when Yan Bo of the Song Dynasty realized when he was a kid the hidden art of pouring water into a hole to raise up a ball." What does that mean? Actually, it's a reference to a story about Yan Bo; he was a kid, lost his ball down a hole, but he realized that when he poured water in, the water level would rise, and he could get his ball back. Again, just saying that children are very ingenious thinkers. They think of these things that adults wouldn't think of, and moreover, this is praiseworthy. But when you say it like that, that seems totally something that would be understandable and accepted in Western culture. We have a very similar idea about what should be thought of when we see a kid doing something like that. They say "oh, that's really good, that's really smart; kid figured it out!" And so this is the sort of thing, that if you saw that performance and try to linguistically translate it. You might think that the Chinese culture is completely different than the Western culture and they do their thing, and we do our thing. But actually this sort of thing is the same. And the reason why it's like this is because you're seeing all these cultural tokens. You're seeing the names, the places the stories from one culture. And you don't know what the equivalent cultural token on the other side of the aisle is. So, I thought it might be an interesting experiment to try to do a cultural translation of this piece. So one part of the piece mentions Zhou Yu, who is a soldier known for leading armies and winning victories at a young age. With someone say, like Joan of Arc, who is a soldier known for leading armies and winning victories at a young age. And such a cultural translation might come out something like this: "In ancient times, King David the Israelite won his kingdom with five stones and a slingshot. The English poet Pope’s five-year-old hand scrawled poems still read today. Beethoven, at the age of eight, performed his own original compositions. Blaise Pascal's first proof was written with chalk. At the age of ten, Howard Phillips Lovecraft conceived of a hidden monster. John Stuart Mill at eight spoke several dead languages. Karl Benz at fifteen became an engineer. Joan of Arc at the age of seventeen picked up a sword and banner and rode to the town of Orleans, where she led the charge, stormed the gates, broke the siege, drove the English out of France even though she was killed in the process. Even though her life was short, still, Joan of Arc should be counted amongst the greatest of children. <applause> So is this the best translation of that work? Probably not. I took some liberties there. But the point was that, when you hear that, you might as a Westerner say "I've never heard something like that before it's a little strange in style, but I get it." I can understand what the Chinese are hearing when they listen to the Xiangsheng performance in Chinese. And moreover I can recognize that it all made total sense. This is not a cultural conflict; Eastern cultures believe differently than Western cultures. It's actually pretty much the same. It's just a little bit of unfamiliarity with the tokens that were used. So here I usually switch one historical token with other historical tokens. But really, whenever you're trying to communicate across cultures it can be useful to try to envision "What is the culture trying to say with this piece of information and what is the best way that I can use my own culture to try to explain to other people who may not be familiar with this token what the token I'm referencing is. So I love doing comedy here because it really pins down the fact that when we laugh together, we learn about each other and when we learn about each other, we live better together. So thank you very much for your time today.

Video Details

Duration: 18 minutes and 17 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
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Views: 90
Posted by: jamesflanagan on Aug 16, 2013

Jesse Appell @ TEDxBeijing July 2013

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