Dear Watson Foundation,
First, let me again say thank you for this extraordinary opportunity. Each time I explain my project to new people in a new country, I am reminded how tremendously lucky I am to travel, structure my own days, and pursue something I love. It’s the kind of freedom dreams are made of, and I try to remind myself of that each morning.
My second quarter has taken me to Ireland, South Africa, and Taiwan, each of which has opened new doors and reshaped the boundaries of my project. I’m faced with the perpetual challenge in these reports of wanting to say so much more than I really ought to. So I’ll try to write about a few representative episodes from each place and offer some reflections along the way.
In October, when I last wrote, I was just finishing my time in London. My next stop was Dublin, where I booked a place to stay with a retired Irish couple through Air BnB. I had been feeling under the weather when I packed my bags in London, but somehow the excitement of flying to a new country and a new city rejuvenated me.
I hit the ground running. In 10 or so nights in Dublin, I managed to do 3 shows and watch a few others. Between the shows, I went to readings of James Joyce, leftist political rallies, small movie screenings, museums, second-hand book stores and even a story-telling workshop.
My first week there, thanks to an Irish comedian friend I had met in London, I managed to get some stage time at the Ha’penny Bridge Inn, in the city center. It was a small room with a big, warm audience and a friendly atmosphere. And, much to my surprise, the crowd seemed almost to like that I was American. London crowds, by contrast, had seemed to especially enjoy my jokes when they used Americans as punchlines. In Dublin, I took revenge. I had a couple of British hecklers that night, so I went after them for centuries of imperialism and destroying Native American and Irish cultures, among others. Was it fair of me? No. Did they deserve it? Absolutely not. Was it funny? The crowd thought so.
More generally, I saw in Dublin the way national and cultural narratives could affect people’s comedic preferences. English and Scottish crowds, perhaps annoyed by American tourists and tired of American foreign policy, liked jokes that punched the United States. By contrast, Irish crowds had a friendlier view of the United States; many Dubliners have relatives or cousins who call New York or Boston home. Instead of jokes about Americans, Irish crowds enjoyed jokes that went after Great Britain, which comes as no surprise, given the political history of the British Isles.
Later that week, I managed to get a spot in a neighborhood just outside the city called Tallaght. Here’s a blog post, abbreviated and edited, that I wrote about that show:
“Well, let’s put it this way,” a friend told me, when I mentioned I would be doing a show in Tallaght, “If Dublin is New York, then Tallaght is the South Bronx.” Later he told me: “They call it a working-class neighborhood, Tallaght. But I don’t know why, ya know, because no one there is workin.” He chuckled.
The next night I took a late bus from town over to the Jobstown House, per Google Maps’ advice. I tell the bus driver I’m going to Blessington Road, and he asks me if I’m sure I got that right. “I’m doing a comedy show there,” I say.
“Oh, ok.” He hesitates for a moment, his lips curling in a concerned kind of frown. “I’ll let you when we get there.”
The bus driver shouts as we get to my stop. I wait next to him for a moment as a few passengers file out before me. “You sure this is where you’re headed?” I tell him I’ll be fine, but of course how do I know.
The night is cold and dark and windy. The smell of the water from the city center is gone, and in its place is rough dust. I shield my eyes with my hood and my hands. A couple of lights are on at the other end of the street. I march in their direction, my buddy Google Maps urging me on. Cars whisk past, and for a few minutes that’s the only sound I hear.
I walk into the brightly lit Jobstown House and instantly feel better. The paintings on the walls remind of me of 1920’s American art, but that’s probably because I know so little about art. Here and there between the paintings are signed rugby jerseys with Irish names. People are laughing and shouting and drinking, and they don’t care that an American kid in a backpack has just walked in. But then maybe I’m wrong: as I walk up to ask the bartender if I’m in the right place, I hear someone behind me say, in a thick Dubliny-but-not-quite-central-Dublin accent, “He must be one of the comedians.”
The show gets underway and the host, Joe, does a little crowd-work to warm people up. It’s the night of his 11th wedding anniversary, and he’s brought his wife and some family to the show as a kind of celebration.
In the back, I play over my set, considering jokes and deciding whether to replace them with others. The comedians before me have been doing jokes about drinking. One comedian goes on for 5 minutes about how difficult it is to know if you have a drinking problem in Ireland. “We don’t say he’s got a drinking problem. We just say, ‘he’s fond of a drink.’ I tried to tell my therapist I might have a drinking problem and he said, ‘Well, I suppose we’d better have a talk about this. Meet me at the pub tonight.’”
A few minutes later I’m on stage. I say the word “perform” and someone in the back goes, “Purrr-ferrrm,” making fun of that round American “r” the world loves so much. Some people in the crowd laugh, but not enough that I have to address it. I figure not everyone heard him and I’d just get sidetracked going after him. Plus, he’s enormous and drunk.
I just press on with a little crowd-work, while I still have their attention. “I get a little nervous performing in front of such diverse crowds,” I begin. Then a tense pause. “On this side of the room, we have some white people,” I say, gesturing. “And over there, we have some…white people,” I say. They like it. They laugh.
Next, I take a crack at the venue, making fun of the lighting and the décor. They like that, too: they’re proud of the janky decorations, and they laugh when they hear it described through my eyes. Somehow, after those two jokes, they’re with me: the rest of the set doesn’t go brilliantly, but it doesn’t go badly either. It goes kinda well, and that feels like a big win, because this is Tallaght.
I hang out at the pub afterwards for a while and meet some of the audience. In person, in conversation, they’re not intimidating at all. They’re friendly and personable, and they’re curious to hear why I came to Tallaght and what I’m doing in Ireland.
If I’m honest, though, the pub atmosphere soon got outside my depth. This crowd is known for being able to handle their liquor, even in Ireland. One guy starts asking me if he can get into America with an arrest record, and I don’t know what to tell him. But one of his mates knows, because he got into America with an arrest record. Some of the older women at the bar give me very big hugs, and I can’t really tell if they’re motherly or come-ons. They feel like a mix of the two.
I walk out in the night, colder and darker and windier than before. Thankfully, a cab turns onto the road. I hop in and tell the driver to take me back to the city center. It’s going to cost me about 20 euros, he says. But no buses run at this hour, and it’s too far to walk back, and I don’t want to sleep at the pub, so I tell him to go ahead.
I left Dublin thinking that the scene was charmingly distinct from London. In general, Dublin comedians had a darker, more political, and more story-oriented style. And the scene was much smaller, too: people knew each other, could make referrals, and could more easily accommodate a visitor.
From Dublin, I flew to Milan, to spend a couple of days in a city I’ve always dreamed of visiting, in part to try to reconnect with a city the older generations of my family have spoken so fondly of. It was in many ways, as well, a chance to clear my head and recharge my batteries before shifting continents and entering a whole new world of comedy.
Next, I went to Cape Town. By the time my month was over, I had performed in the city center, at the touristy waterfront, in the student-dominated suburbs, in a township, and even on an improv radio show.
While the scene was initially difficult to crack—there are relatively few stages in the town, and a number of up-and-coming comedians are already on line for spots in Cape Town—I managed to do a few good shows in the first couple of weeks, and then comedians who had seen my sets helped me find more stage time. Also, an American accent is a little rarer and more valued in the comedy scene there, so people were eager to get me on stage while I was in town.
The comedy scene in Cape Town had its own rhythm and political references. I noticed quickly that understanding many of the jokes required a kind of historical, political, and cultural familiarity that I simply did not have.
So my project began to change in South Africa. Whereas in Europe I had less difficulty understanding other comedians jokes, here I had to put some time in. I learned some greetings in Afrikaans (and eventually told a joke about it), and, more importantly, I learned lots of swear words. I would ask comedians, cab drivers, and coffee shops owners about slang and lingo and the kinds of information you won’t find on Wikipedia. I even tried watching some subtitled Afrikaans comedians, to see if maybe I could learn something about the pauses and beats in South African comedy.
And it helped a little. I began to see why the references to Oscar Pistorius, Jacob Zuma, and Hellen Zille were funny, if I didn’t laugh especially hard at them. I began to make sense of the complexities of racial humor on stage and in everyday life. If I had a few years in South Africa, maybe I could have really come to fully understand the intricacies of these historical and political references. But if nothing else, it was fascinating to tap into this new and deep political world, and see how it could shape the comedy.
By contrast, I found that South African audiences had no little trouble understanding me. That is, everyone was thoroughly familiar with my accent (bless you, American television) and people generally have a strong grasp of American culture. At least, Capetonians know much more about the United States than I did about Cape Town.
Here’s an excerpt from my blog about one of the shows there:
At bars, people often ask what I’m doing in Cape Town. And, thankfully, my back story doesn’t go over too badly here. Many South Africans are tired of wide-eyed Westerners who come to do non-profit work. “I was just about ready to explain why we don’t need your help,” one person at this particular bar told me. “I was just lining up my ‘stop trying to save the world’ speech. But you’re just here to tell jokes in danky bars,” she said. “Which is strange, but I guess that’s fine.”
I hung around outside with the other comedians for a few minutes, checking back inside to see if the room had filled up, seeming awkward and not caring as much as I once would have. I’ve grown accustomed to the routine of showing up without friends and with a funny accent and a strange back story, so the suspicious glances and ‘who-is-that?’ vibes bounce off me a little more easily than they used to. Occasionally I remember that I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when I’m alone in a new country and about to perform, and then I do. But then I get distracted and I stop worrying about it.
A few minutes later the comedians head inside. The first thing I notice, about the crowds and the comedians, is the diversity. My last shows had been in Ireland, in front of crowds whiter than printer paper. And even in Cape Town, the more expensive coffee shops and tourist destinations recommended in the New York Times (where I’d spent some time earlier in the week) are disproportionately white—apart, uncomfortably enough, from the staff, who are mostly black.
But the comedy room was different. It was a mix of internationals and locals, as I learned from the host’s questions to the crowd.
I wasn’t sure where in the line-up I would fall, because no one had mentioned that to me. “We just call everyone up, one by one,” one comedian explained. But I was happy not to be called early on. By watching from the back, I could get a sense for what worked here and what didn’t. In particular, I wanted to see how the race jokes would play—or whether they were off-limits for white people or foreigners.
That fear turned out to be misguided. Most of the comedians—regardless of skin color—dealt with race in their jokes. They were freer about it, less worried about offending people than American and European comedians. And the crowd laughed generously, at the comedians, themselves, and each other.
Of course, on paper, I can’t do the comedy justice. To describe the humor would be to suck the joy out of it. But I felt like I was witnessing the kind of open discussion and acknowledgement of racial issues that America sorely lacks. It wasn’t happening in a fancy political forum or university classroom. It was happening in an alternative bar at a comedy show, with a mix of people that probably otherwise wouldn’t be in the same room, listening to one guy after another talk about race and class and laughing about it. Laughing about our sordid past, its painful legacy, and the little racist things that we see every day and can be so hard to talk about.
Despite this, I was nervous about my own political jokes. I had seen white Afrikaners have no trouble, but the only foreigner, a British comedian, had struggled a bit with some darker material.
Of course, though, I had to tell them. The freedom of having a fellowship is that I don’t have to worry whether it’ll get me booked again. And hey, if they don’t like me, I’ll leave the country in a month anyway.
The lighting was intense, as it often is, but I tried to squint and make out the faces of my first South African audience. I never get over the excitement of a punchline, especially in a new place. I love that moment when you hit that twist, and an audience breaks out in smiling eyes and a range of laughters, from bellows to shrill notes.
My absurdist jokes played the same as they did in Europe: maybe nonsense is the same everywhere. My political jokes about empire and colonization played similarly to the way they did in Ireland, as opposed to the way they played in Britain. The South African crowd didn’t go so much for the bits about the colonization of America, but they loved my joke about imperial white people.
Culturally, South Africa was an entirely new experience. I had never been to the country or the continent before. I left feeling as though I had gotten at least a taste of the way politics, race, and comedy can intersect and inform each other, generating provocative and necessary discussion.
Next, I came to Taipei. While I have spent plenty of time in Beijing—enough to feel comfortable speaking Mandarin—I knew Taiwan would require many kinds of adjustment. First, making friends, navigating the arts scene, and generally tapping into the city’s resources would be more difficult in a foreign language. Second, comedy means something very different in Chinese-speaking countries than it does in English-speaking countries. The traditions are different; the cultural references are different; and the very idea of what constitutes a joke is different.
Still, the beautiful thing about the Watson is that I have nothing to lose: I can immerse myself in activities and projects for which I am not fully prepared and accept less-than-ideal results. So my second week in the city, I managed to do a set in Chinese. Here’s what I wrote about the experience on my blog:
I started combing through my jokes in English, trying to figure out whether any would translate. I could quickly remove many of the jokes that relied on wordplay—while sometimes English phrases have Chinese equivalents, they are typically not perfect parallels. In the case of my jokes, the misdirection of the joke either became too great or too small in Chinese. The translated versions of the jokes, in other words, either made no sense or too much sense. They didn’t hit that sweet spot where the audience makes a few quick logical leaps and then laughs.
After that, I had some longer, storytelling bits. These jokes are tricky to tell in English, let alone Mandarin. My first time out, I didn’t trust myself to handle these in a language whose emphasis, pauses, and implications were not natural for me.
Finally, I had a few plain, reliable pull-back-and-reveal jokes—jokes whose humor comes simply from hiding a particular idea or aspect of a situation until the punchline, which casts a new light on the premise and makes it funny. Here’s an example of such a joke (which I tried to translate into Chinese):
I lost my job recently. I was fired for drinking during working hours.
But, in my defense, you have no idea how boring it is to drive a bus all day.
Analyzing jokes is a bad idea, but stick with me for a second because I want to make a point about translation. If the joke works, it’s because the last line forces the audience to reimagine the premises. “What?!?” they should think, “I thought you were drinking in an office, but this is actually a much worse place to drink!” In Chinese, the joke ought to work the same way. Nothing about “drinking during working hours (上班的时候喝酒) in English or Chinese suggests that I was driving a bus. But neither does it contradict the possibility that I was driving a bus. So the punchline in Chinese ought to cast the same new light on the premises, leading to that magical series of leaps we call laughter. “So the joke ought to translate!” I thought to myself.
The joke did not translate.
My Chinese friends agreed it was not funny. “What if you change the order of the joke?” one of them suggested. “What if you first say you were driving a bus, then say you got fired, and then say it was because you were drinking?” To him, that seemed funnier: the audience wasn’t being misguided; they were just being told a funny story, he thought. To me, though, this way of telling the joke sucked all the misdirection and fun from it. I tried it a few different ways in my head and then decided against it.
In general, as I looked through my English jokes, I found that there was at least one issue with them after translation. Sometimes the beats didn’t match up; sometimes Chinese grammar required that I put the punchline in a different place; sometimes the jokes just made reference to aspects of Western culture that a Taiwanese audience might not relate to.
So I gave up. I would have to write all my jokes from scratch.
One week later I sat in the front row at the Siris show. “Next up, we have a friend from New York!” Said the host. “Please welcome Li Rui,” he said, calling me by my Chinese name. I walked up and grasped the microphone. I had about 6 minutes of entirely fresh jokes. I had rehearsed and edited them with some Chinese friends, who had laughed at them—out of politeness, I figured—and made sure they were comprehensible.
I expected to be nervous. I had been speaking Chinese for a long time, but performing would be a different experience. Somehow, though, as I put the mic in my hand, I felt cool and composed. I think, in retrospect, it was probably because I had such low expectations. I think some part of me expected that I would fail, and therefore didn’t mind that possibility so much. And I suppose part of me also knew that the audience would be forgiving—however badly I did, I would still be the first foreigner who got up at that club and did a full set in Chinese.
My jokes were all pretty crude or silly, because I had written them in a week and in Chinese, but I still got a decent reaction. It had been an especially quiet night, but I had managed to win the audience’s attention. Once again, I think this largely had to do with being white and speaking Chinese. I command people’s focus simply by the unnatural pairing of my very European lips producing a very non-European tongue. And six minutes after getting on stage, I sat back down, to an honest round of applause.
It felt pretty damn good.
While I’ve had some really great nights, the opportunities to do performance-based comedy in Taipei have been limited. I’ve done stand-up here in both English and Chinese in front of different communities, but my project has changed in this new climate. Instead of immersing myself in formal shows and the technical differences of comedic performance, I’ve tried in Taiwan to explore what my Taiwanese friends find funny in everyday life—I’ve tried to see what comedy can mean in a broader sense here, because clearly it has a very different meaning than it does in English-speaking countries. So, in a dedicated but hopefully organic way, I’ve tried to see whether I can bond with people not just over common interests, but by making them laugh.
Of course, this process is far from scientific. I don’t walk around telling dozens of people the same jokes and seeing whether they laugh. But I do try to let my sense of humor shine through in a way I didn’t while in Beijing (because, while there, I quickly saw that it was very hard for me to make successful jokes). When I see an opening for a joke, I take it, even if—as often happens—the other person doesn’t find it funny.
Here’s one interesting trend I’ve noticed. After I spend a lot of time with people here, they begin to study my sense of humor, and I begin to study theirs. Or maybe study is too deliberate a word—maybe it’s a more natural kind of absorption. Take my friend Poven, for example. He’s a 40 year old cram school teacher who operates an Air BnB business on the side. My first two weeks hanging out with him, I had little idea when he was joking. By contrast, he often knew when I was trying to make jokes. I have kind of an absurd sense of humor, so my attempts at jokes are at least obviously attempts at jokes (otherwise you’d have to interpret them as evidence of madness.) At first, he rarely laughed.
But slowly that began to change. Slowly, he began to add to my absurdist jokes. Slowly, I began trying to tell puns the same way he would. It isn’t a perfect system; we don’t always laugh with each other and we need to repeat the punchline or explain something to each other. But we do this in Chinese, and I at least the comedic games he’s playing, and he sees mine.
So overall, it’s been another challenging, exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, and delightful few months. This second quarter has tested me. It has pushed my reserve of patience, and demanded that I find ways to look after myself, physically, emotionally, and otherwise. It has deepened my sense of independence, and it has trimmed away at my certainties, forcing me to understand my own identity and those of others in the context of new cultures and unpredictable experiences.
I had a moment on New Year’s eve where I started rapidly playing over some of the memories from this year in my head. From a certain point of view, these memories felt so disjointed—geographically, culturally, socially, and otherwise—that they seem like they could never belong to the same person. But they do. And that’s one part of the madness and beauty of this year that I still don’t really understand.
Thank you again for everything. Including reading this far-too-long but still not nearly long-enough letter.