Does Humor Belong in Diplomacy?

Humor is a tricky thing to translate, which is a pity since humor is also such a good icebreaker.

Last week I gave a talk on promoting tourism in Yunlin (an agricultural county in Taiwan), and while they didn’t bring me there to do a stand up routine I still managed to get a few big laughs (in Mandarin, no less). The quip that got the biggest laugh was an anecdote about coming across an event and seeing a strip-tease performance in the mountains of central Taiwan.  It was my first year in Taiwan, and I assumed the event was a bachelor party.

A Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Taiwanese Funeral Dancer. Photo by Tobie Openshaw.

Actually, it was a funeral.

What made my audience laugh wasn’t the obvious fact that strip-tease acts are sometimes part of a traditional Taiwanese funeral ceremony, which would have been the punchline for a western audience. They were laughing at the idea that a newly-arrived westerner stumbling across a party with scantily clad women dancing on a neon lit stage would think it was something besides a funeral.

So while humor may be universal in the broadest sense, what makes people laugh differs between cultures.

Humor is also unique in that it seems to be a tool that people falling broadly into that somewhat open-ended political category of progressives are able to use more effectively than those on the other end of the spectrum.

This is only partially subjective.

While I find left-wing comic Margaret Cho (whom I interviewed last month for Taiwan Scene just before her first gig in Taipei) funny and right-wing comedian Dennis Miller unfunny, there’s no objective way for me to call one funnier than the other outside of maybe who’s sold more concert tickets over the last twenty years.

A more useful barometer would probably be to look at the fact that the longest running political satire shows in America tend to skew left. Humor shows skewing right tend to go off the air quickly, not for a lack of a right wing audience, but because conservatives (or regressives, as I believe we should call the ethos) seem to have a hard time using humor as effectively as progressives.

Similar trends apply on the international stage, with nation-states steeped in liberal tradition being able to wield humor more effectively than authoritarian counterparts…at least intentionally.

Humor in Dipmomacy

Ri Chun Hee, the North Korean newswoman who regularly comes out to promise death to imperialists is very funny to western sensibilities, though this likely isn’t her intention.

As political entities go, Taiwan falls squarely on the progressive end of the scale.

Taiwan’s government is a parliamentary democracy bearing many of the hallmarks commonly associated with liberalism: Universal healthcare, a willingness to protect gay, lesbian and transgender citizens from discrimination, an overall commitment to human rights that befits a nation with a large Buddhist population. 

What’s more, Taiwan has the sort of commitment to free speech that tends to develop in countries where having been denied free speech is part of the living memory of anyone over 40.  

But Taiwan is also unique, having a “nation but not in name” status that colors nearly every aspect of its relations (diplomatic and otherwise) with the rest of the world.

Though Taiwan very much wishes – and deserves – recognition for its contributions to the betterment of the world at large…and here it gets complicated way beyond the scope of this article, calling into question whether said recognition would come to it as Taiwan or The Republic of China…Taiwan is blocked at nearly every turn from doing so by the government of the People’s Republic of China (which refuses to allow it to be recognized by either name). 

As a result, Taiwan has had to become particularly adroit at using what’s known in international politics as soft power diplomacy. This manifests itself in myriad ways, including (but not limited to):

  • Sending volunteer teams to disaster areas;
  • Providing finance and intellectual assistance to developing nations;
  • Getting the name Taiwan out there in positive ways.

One of the problems with western media in general is that it tends to take a copy-paste approach to complicated subjects, and in the case of Taiwan that CTRL+V shortcut inevitably winds up to be some variation of

“Taiwan split from China in 1949.”

Which is a) an oversimplification, and b) inaccurate.

Writers with academic backgrounds have written about this issue at great length and from all sides, so for my part I’ll just do a CTRL+V of my own from the Taiwan In A Nutshell boxed text from my upcoming book Formosa Moon:

Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Though neither academic nor historian, I do seem pretty good at writing funny stuff (as my presence on the contributor’s list of the highly esteemed American humor magazine Funny Times, in which FUNNY literally makes up half its name proves).

Funny Times May 2018

Funny Times May 2018

I’ve been contributing to Funny Times for three years or so, mostly lighter side of travel stuff, but I’ve also done a few Taiwan-specific articles for them as well.

This one seemed a natural fit. A few months back Taiwan was trending in the international media not for anything having to do with its ongoing disagreement with China (Taiwan believes it should be allowed to chose its own form of government; China disagrees with this), but over the as silly to experience as it sounds issue of an artificially induced toilet paper shortage.

So I wrote The Great Taiwan Toilet Paper Panic for Funny Times.

Funny Times Taiwan

Funny Times Taiwan

(Paper scan is strictly for reference. You can read the full text at My Several Worlds; Funny Times is strictly old-school.)

I wrote this article for several reasons (besides that sweet, sweet Funny Times money, which is the main thing keeping Dave Barry retired).

First, the idea of a substantial portion of a nation’s population going cuckoo over toilet paper was intrinsically funny. And second, I was happy to be able to get the name Taiwan out there for something other than travel related stuff (my day job) or, Buddha forbid, something actually newsworthy that might require me to explain Taiwan split from China in 1949 following a particularly heated argument over the origin of Kung-pao chicken. 

As I mentioned at the start of this column, humor doesn’t always translate.  I showed the article to a few Taiwanese friends. They were perplexed by one part of the article in particular, where I’d included Chinese text:

It was then that Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je took to the airwaves, making a speech that moved the nation to tears.

“全台灣人民是一個家庭” Said the Mayor. “就像是在家裡有人會占用廁所太久. 可是說真的,我們都只有一個屁股要擦。我們可以停止這衛生紙囤積的行為嗎?說真的,我們的鄰居都覺得我們瘋了!”

Translated from Mandarin, what the Mayor said was “Taiwanese people are one family, and like in any family, someone is always spending too long in the john. But we’ve all got one ass to wipe, so seriously people, can we just knock it off with the toilet paper hoarding? Because our neighbors are starting to think we’ve gone nuts.”

“Did Mayor Ko really say this?” One Taiwanese friend asked quite seriously.

“Well, kind of. I took something I heard he had said and exaggerated it for humorous effect. In the context of the article it makes sense.”

But the point wasn’t to make Taiwanese people laugh (By the time the article ran most here had forgotten about The Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2018, because news moves fast in Taiwan). It was to get the name Taiwan out there in a normal, not connected to cross-strait politics way to John and Judy Q Public of Des Moines (my biggest – and only – fans in Iowa), to promote the mention of the name Taiwan in casual conversation. Like…any other country, a la

“I’m thinking of trekking in Nepal this summer.”

or

“Belgium! There’s a nice place to visit if you like beer!”

or

“Where is Canada again?”

Because Taiwan deserves to be talked about for more than just its status as a political anomaly. It should be hailed as a place where people build churches shaped like glass slippers for no apparent reason, an island where three-story high inflatable ducks explode in harbors, a nation where for reasons probably better left unexamined, for a few weeks in 2018 a significant portion of the population suddenly started hoarding toilet paper.

Because these things are funny, and humor breaks the ice. And while breaking the ice isn’t the goal of diplomacy, it’s a good place to start.

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