Kung is about to attend a conference on mathematics in Boston, where he’s going to give a presentation. It’s not just a simple talk to present one’s research data, but rather it’s like an unofficial interview. People who appreciate what he says will likely to hire him and offer him a chance for career advancement. He comes to Ivy Training Center for advice on the slides he has made and on how to brush up his skills in the question and answer session that will inevitably follow his presentation. Lulan is the one who’s helping him.
After one hour of training, Kung is finally satisfied. He is leaving and Lulan walks him to the door when he says, “I really want people to like me, you know, not only my work, also me as a person. An Asian scientist, with a good heart, with an accent, from a little island in Southeast Asia, with a…”
“Of course they will like you.” Lulan says quickly, “Look, you can insert a joke or two, or a picture of your cat or dog, to make your presentation more lively.”
“Wow, never thought of that. Yes, I should add a picture of a cat or a dog into my slides. Americans love pets. What a good idea. But I don’t have a cat or dog. Do you think I should get a cat or a dog?” Kung says, his hand on the door frame.
“No. Definitely not. If you don’t have a pet, forget the idea.”
“Forget? What do you mean? You just said it and you want me to forget? I can’t forget. I don’t want to forget. Can I borrow a cat or a dog?” Kung says affirmatively.
“No. A borrowed pet is not part of you. Definitely no. We want to be liked and want to fit in, but we can’t overdo it.” Lulan says.
“OK. I will forget about pets. How about jokes?” Kung says.
Now Lulan starts to hate herself for mentioning jokes and pets. If she had not done that, Kung would have been out of the door by now. She has so much to do on a Monday, and she can’t afford to spend too much time on him.
“Telling jokes is very culturally specific. As immigrants, we have to be careful. A beautiful line in one language can be considered tacky or corny in another.” Lulan says.
“Now you remind me of the seminars and talks I attended. The speakers often tell a joke or two in the beginning to enliven the atmosphere. Good thoughts. I think I should definitely insert one or two jokes. Now show me some non-tacky and non-corny jokes.” Kung says.
Lulan tried to dissuade him: Jokes has to be suitable to the person who tells it, has to be relevant. If he under-performs, people don’t feel it’s funny; if he over-performs, people think he tries too hard and despise him. For a scientist like him, nobody expects him to be funny; for an Asian immigrant, nobody even connects jokes with him. However Kung is stubborn like a mule. He is fixed on being funny and there’s nothing Lulan can say to steer him away.
“OK, here is a book of 5000 jokes. I can lend it to you.” Lulan says in total despair. “However you want to tell jokes that are suitable for a scientist to tell. Look at this one, ‘I met a French guy on holiday and he forced me to drink. Pierre Pressure ran amok.’ This is not suitable for you. Another one, ‘My girlfriend is a great lover…of chocolate.” This is funny, but it is not suitable for you.”
“Let me see.” Kung grabs the book and leafs through,”This one is good, ‘my wife texted me through social media and let me know that I was very condescending. I was surprised that she could spell.’ I think I can revise this joke. One of my colleagues really can’t spell. He always says English spelling is treacherous. I can do a joke like this one and put it in one of my slides. Also this one, ‘if I had a penny for …, I would be a millionaire.’ You know we have a machine in the department everybody hates. I can do a joke like ‘if I had a penny for every complaint about that machine, I would be …”
Kung is so happy that he takes the book and runs.
Lulan shouts at his retreating figure, “Just one or two jokes will be good. Don’t overdo it. Also try to check carefully. Each word has unexpected connotations. We non-native speakers are often unaware of. Some jokes may look clean but not really clean. You don’t want to be misinterpreted. There are a lot of pitfalls that you can fall in without even knowing …”
Kung is already gone, out of earshot.