“You and your sarcasm,” my dad often said with a huff. He had no need for it and never understood how essential using it was in American society. Sarcasm roughly refers to saying a statement about a person, situation, or object but meaning the exact opposite.
For example, if you go to a party that’s dead, you might say to your friend,”Fun party” then both of you head for the door. Even though you are saying “fun party”, you mean the exact opposite (“It’s not a fun party”). Given all the criticism President Obama receives, he even made light of it with this short video:
Unable to fit his cookie into a glass of milk, President Obama appears serious and says, “Thanks, Obama.” He is making fun of himself and the saying that many of his critics use on him. (Explaining jokes…sigh).
Having lived in America and even Ghana for so long, I assumed that sarcasm was a normal aspect of human interaction. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way what it feels like to constantly “put your foot in your mouth”.
A while ago, I went to a barbecue and met someone from a small country in Europe. I made some sarcastic comments like “Is your country famous for anything?” and “Do most people even know where it is on a map?” Apparently, sarcasm does not exist in this country and this person immediately thought, “A**hole” and politely excused themselves. Lucky for me a few months later, I discovered this person is in the same the daily Chinese class I attend at NTU. (Again, using sarcasm in my writing without even knowing it.) Honestly, I didn’t understand why this person was always mad at me.
Then earlier this month, I met a Japanese person and said something similarly sarcastic about their abilities along the lines of, “I’m surprised you could do that.” Instantly this person responded with a huff and made it very clear that this comment was not appreciated. I spent a LONG time apologizing. Immediately I checked with some friends living in Japan and they assured me sarcasm doesn’t exist in Japan.
I read articles on why this is so but the only important thing to acknowledge is that I can’t bring my sense of humor to this part of the world.
In a related note, Taiwanese and Chinese people have a habit that, I believe, Americans have a hard time getting accustomed to: straight-up honesty (sometimes) at your expense.
“You’re so dark.”
“You’re not as skinny as I thought you were.”
“You can’t figure that out? My six-year nephew instantly knew the answer.”
These comments can be made to your face or in front of a large group. As my teacher explained, anything said in front of family and close friends “doesn’t really count.” Just like you’d want someone to tell you that you have broccoli wedged in your teeth before walking in public, Taiwanese/Chinese people think that your family and friends should tell you these things lest you be in a job interview or a date and you think you’re hotter than you actually are.
My parents still stay these super direct things all the time. Americans generally can only handle effusive praise, hence “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” among millenials. Essentially the younger generation have been raised without criticism so that when they hear anything negative they freak out.
A Japanese friend recently told me that even among Japanese, these direct statements are not allowed. She said you cannot make fun of others unless you are very close friends; most jokes are made at the speaker’s expense.
Realizing that Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, and heck, even Koreans do not relate to each other similarly makes my brain hurt.