Thunderous Silence

This last week I’ve been experimenting with silence onstage.

“When I first got here, I had two Chinese roommates,” I said in Mandarin to a crowd of a few dozen Chinese twenty-somethings. The distracted pack of people had been sucked into the stand-up open mic at a snazzy bar in the Sanlitun nightclub district; at least a third of the crowd was fellow comedians. “One’s from Xi’an (西安, literally, “Western Capitol”) and the other is from Jiangxi Province “(江西, literally, “West-of-the-River”). Of course, I felt really comfortable rooming with them.”

Then, the pause.


As anyone who’s performed onstage knows, a half second beat onstage feels like an eternity, and a full second pause makes you feel completely naked. Somehow, pauses in my second language seem even longer—maybe because no matter how confident I am in my Chinese, there is always the tiny chance I will flub a word—and flubbing the first word out of the pause is the worst.

The words hang in the air. Of course, I felt really comfortable rooming with them…

“Because all three of us are Westerners.”

A quick laugh from the audience, and a few claps. It’s a silly pun in Chinese, not meant to be a show stopper, but nonetheless I am ecstatic. The pause worked. I’ve done this joke twenty times onstage, and the last two nights I’ve slowed the whole thing down. Those two nights have given me better laughs than any show in the last two months.

Recently, I’ve been grappling with silence onstage. I love it, because even in the last week I’ve seen that it simply makes the jokes work better. Everyone is more comfortable—that is, everyone but me, who has to stand onstage blinded by spotlights, having bared myself through the setup and with nothing between me and a possible second, deafening silence of non-laughter following the punch line.

Getting onstage and speaking comes naturally to me. Waiting onstage does not.

I’ve always known since I was a kid that my mind moves fast. I speak fast; anyone who’s ever had an extended hot pot dinner with me knows that if left unattended I can talk on end without pause for hours. My mental dialogue slips from one subject to the next so quickly I oftentimes find myself confused about what I am thinking about. In hindsight, it seems that I would naturally fall into performing comedy onstage—it is, perhaps, the purest art form for someone who suffers from a nearly debilitating case of verbal diarrhea.

Then, to use a hackneyed, obviously segue, China changed everything. The summer of 2010 was a massive shock to my system. I had just arrived in China for the first time and I found myself bound by a language pledge in a country where I did not speak the language. My early Chinese was so terrible that even after extended circumlocution it was all I could do to make my meaning understood. The pyrotechnics storm in my head kept exploding and resounding, but my mouth could not speak the words. For the first time since I had learned to speak as a child, I was forced to be silent.

This, as one might expect, turned out to be a good lesson for me. I learned to listen better; to read body language and facial expression with the same intensity I dissected words and phrases. I learned to feel out the spaces between words, to hear the sentences not spoken. I learned that I had been unintentionally terrifying the daylights out of many of the introverts of the world, wonderful people who in China were tremendous friends and supporters now that we were brought together by the similar manner of engaging the world.

I learned to feel the spaces between people. As an actor, I recognized that mysterious gap. It was the same space as occupies the area between the end of the stage and the front row of the audience. When my words were taken from me, I became comfortable with that space: I had lived there before, in improv scenes and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

And then I learned to speak again, and I BLAH BLAH BLAH’d most of those life lessons into a noisy oblivion.

Yes, my blabbermouth nature won out. Before long, I was spitting out Chinese sentences (mostly long strings of rambling incomprehensible mush) as quickly as I spoke in English. Chinese people ooh’d and aaah’d at the speed of my speech, and it took me a long time to realize that speaking fast and speaking well were different things.

Performing in a country where people are amazed you can even speak the language has the insidious side effect of addicting you even further to speech. A joke with a pause might not get a laugh. But a display of linguistic prowess—even reciting empty lists—gets hoots and hollers, and thunderous applause. The foreigner looking to perform comedy is faced with a dilemma: why journey into that uncomfortable space of silence ever again?

The truth is that I have realized that I need to go there to get better. Real comedy is about timing, about pauses, about playful, genuine two-way interaction with the audience. I can call myself a comedian and spout funny lists, but real comedy needs silence.

I can only hope that one day I can find the cultural space in silence that Tig Notaro so bravely entered when she pushed a stool around the stage for three minutes on late-night television. Like it or hate it, it took balls of steel, and a faith in that space of silence between the performer and the audience I hope one day to revel in myself.

2 27 14

My Mahjong Nemesis

Over Chinese New Year, I took a trip to the countryside of Shanxi province to stay with my friend Tiejun and his family for Chinese Lunar New Years. In the eight days between my arrival (being stranded on the side of the highway after a ten-hour bus ride) and my departure (4 A.M. sleeper train back to Beijing) I met many amazing people, drank lots of jasmine tea, consumed an unhealthy amount of dumplings, and encountered, confronted, and overcame my mahjong nemesis with (an almost insignificant amount of) money on the line. This last experience will be the subject of our story today.

It was clear when I arrived at “Trench-bottom Village”—the actual name of my friend’s tiny village of 800 people—that Mahjong was going to be the nightly entertainment out in the countryside. Trench-Bottom had for hundreds and maybe thousands of years taken its name from the gorge in which it abided, located between two of the endless furrowed hills that make up the jagged topography of Shanxi. The people used to live in arched cave-homes dug out of the stiff loess soil, but two years ago my friend and everyone else in the village was moved to a new high-rise complex in Zhanglan, a far-flung suburb of Jiexiu, a town two hours by train from anywhere anyone might have heard of. Though the buildings are six stories tall, the tallest in Zhanglan, the village still calls itself Trench-bottom.

By subsuming Trench-bottom, Zhanglan’s population rose overnight from 4,200 to 5000, but as there was still no movie theatres, jazz bars, or employment in Zhanglan, the villagers’ time-old way of making the hours fly by remained the same before and after the move: Mahjong. It was clear that I would have to learn how to play if I was going to be able to relate to my friend’s relatives: a succession of middle-school buddies who mined coal for a living and aunties that laughed as they threw money on top of the mahjong tiles.

While these women may not have terrified most people, the speed and vigor of their Mahjong play was quite intimidating. Tiejun enlisted a friend of his, Xiao Song, to teach me how to play. Xiao Song had a mop haircut and a lazy eye; I felt that his advice to “keep an eye on the players and the tiles at the same time” was intended metaphorically in my case.

Xiao Song taught me Mahjong 101. The game is played at a square table with four players and uses thick porcelain tiles instead of cards. At the beginning of the game, you draw thirteen tiles. There are different types of tiles including dots, bamboos, “ten-thousands”, and winds, and most are assigned a number value as well: seven dots, five bamboos, three ten-thousands. Every turn, you draw another one of the face-down tiles and throw one of your own into a discard pile. Through drawing and stealing other people’s discards, you create combos of tiles; three copies of the same tile or three successive tiles (one dot, two dot, three dots) counts as a combo. The game ends when one player accumulates four combos and one pair of tiles, at which point everyone around the table groans and squawks about the one tile they were waiting for that they couldn’t draw and throws crumpled paper money on top of the tiles as they are mixed. 

After one night of training, I got the itch to see some real action. I wanted there to be (not that much) money on the line, to feel (not much of) the pressure. So the next night, I rolled out of the village with my crew—Tiejun and his aunt—and hit up a local Mahjong parlor.

I opened the door and my eyes stung; the room was inundated with cigarette smoke, as about twenty chain-smoking men and women clinked tiles together and yelled out their winning hands.

Then, through the haze, I saw him. My nemesis. My rival. A fifty-year old bespectacled chain-smoking coal-miner wearing a blue Mao cap and a leather jacket inexplicably accessorized with woolen sleeves. His face darkened from years of sun and coal soot. He laughed as we entered, and I saw a glimmer in his mouth from a gold tooth.


I sat down at his table with my crew and he gave me a stare. While to everyone else, he was merely expressing curiosity, we locked eye contact, and in that moment we both knew: he wanted my (almost negligible amount of) money.

“Where you from?” he asked nicely as he lit up another cigarette and blew the smoke in my face.

“America,” I choked. I leaned backwards but jumped back upright immediately; the center of the room was taken up by a massive coal-burning furnace that kept the room slightly above freezing, and I had burned my hand on the stovepipe.

“Well, then, American friend,” he laughed, “Let’s hit it.”

The next three hours were a secondhand smoke-fueled gambling binge that began on an inauspicious note. In the first game, I had maneuvered myself into a position where I was one tile away from winning when my nemesis grabbed a tile I discarded, and revealed his hand. He had won, and not only had I lost, I had to pay him double because he used my tile to complete his hand. I forked over two dirty one-kuai notes as crumpled as my broken ambitions. More than the money—it was only about thirty cents in American money—my pride was at stake. I wanted to show I could throw down tiles with the best of ‘em, or at least with this random man I met at this tiny mahjong parlor. I took a sip of the weak flower tea the lady who ran the parlor had poured for me and vowed to renew my focus.

The second game moved quickly. I had been dealt a bad hand but had some lucky draws early. By this time, a posse of squat women with an average age of seventy had coalesced behind me, squinting at my hand through the smoke and muttering after every tile I played. After picking up a tile and throwing one of my own back in, there was much hubbub behind me. “That was a good move,” they agreed, bobbing their heads up and down. “The kid can play.” Super-cool as always, I made no response, but I saw a glint in my rival’s eye that was either chilling fear or complete amused indifference. I chose to believe the former.

Then, at last! Someone threw down a five-dot tile, and I slid it in between my four- and six-dot tiles. “Mahjong!” I declared, and my squat lady cheer squad erupted. The other players laughed as they fished out change and threw it haphazardly across the table. “Yes, yes!” I cried, grabbing the bills and taking in the dirty crumpled visage of Mao Zedong on the front. “Chairman Mao likes it over here!”


At the end of the night, I stepped out of the thick haze of the mahjong parlor and into the thick haze of the Shanxi night air. My haul? Four kuai, almost seventy-five cents, enough to buy a bowl of noodles from a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that uses gutter oil to cook their food.

Before I left, I shook hands with my nemesis, who had since become my friend. His hands were rough like leather and his fingernails were yellow, thick, and probably sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments in a pinch. I knew that if I had accomplished great things tonight, it was only because he had pushed me to become greater than I ever could have imagined.

2 14 14

Comedy, Face, and Money

Comedy, human relationships, and money are all tied together in one confusing knot when it comes to being a performer in a traditional Chinese art form. Besides the obvious things that influence a performer’s career—their skills, the scripts they know and can perform—there are valuable human connections and a certain type of business wiles that separate those who can perform well from those who make a living by performing well.

Tonight I hit a tangle and sorted through it as best I can. I think it would be fun to write a bit of a “choose your own adventure” about this tangle involving money, comedy shows, and the traditional Chinese Master-Student cultural system. Read the scenario, and think of what you would do!

You receive a call from a comedy show director in Tianjin inviting you to do a Xiangsheng show on the 15th. In actuality, you have already been asked by your Xiangsheng master to perform at this same show, and so you ask to clarify if this is truly the same show or not. When the director hears this, they backpedal, saying they had assumed you were not related to that master, and say that they don’t think your master will be coming, and that they would like to book you separately, and pushes you to provide your rates. They ask you not to speak to your master about the show.

To do a Xiangsheng, show, you need a partner. You know that your Master is the best choice for a partner. There are others that could do the job as well, all students of your master.

Your goal is to get stage time, regardless of who gets paid or how much, without damaging your relationship with your master. What is the way to best deal with this situation?

Do you:

A)            Provide a rate, knowing if your master isn’t doing the show one of his students can accompany you, and you will find your way onstage.

B)            Insist on speaking first with your Master, knowing he might get angry that they have skipped him to get to you after finding out that you are his disciple.

C)            Tell the director that you will only perform with your Master, risking that they have already told you he is not coming and can no longer confirm what was likely a tentative booking now due to the risk of losing face.

D)            Offer an alternative quote for a Chinese-language stand-up show, where you have no Master and can rightfully act as your own agent.

There may be no clear answer, but the answer I chose is: C.

Master-student relationships are at the heart of traditional Xiangsheng, and collisions with the free-market economy of acting are common. Navigating these collisions is a delicate cultural dance, one often executed with money, stage time, and prestige on the line—and with the immediate pressure of a telephone call in your second language from someone who has lots to gain from your lack of understanding.

Let’s look through the cultural reasoning behind each of the responses:

A)  Provide a rate, knowing if your master isn’t doing the show one of his students can accompany you, and you will find your way onstage.

Providing a rate of my own guarantees that if I do the show, I will make money. If my master deals with the event booker, then he makes money, and, as my master, is under no obligation to give any of this money to me. I recall his words after one show earlier this year when he handed out a few hundred kuai to some other students of his and I after a show. Chinese culture dictates that we make a show of refusing the money, but he was firm and strangely serious in informing us, “When I give you money, take it. When I don’t, don’t ask for it.”

            The event planner probably thought that asking me for a quote would lead to a cheaper show than asking my master, an established actor who knows the price of his services from decades of shows. If for some reason I gave a price higher than my master’s, they would simply go to him instead. Also, they know that my master might take the money from the show and so if only market forces are involved, they are giving me an “out” to make my own money and have plausible deniability when speaking with my master: “Oh, they asked me for a price, so I gave them one! Sorry!”

            The problem with A) is that plausible deniability is the sort of lousy weasling that the whole master-disciple system is supposed to prevent. The bond is one of trust, of real trust—trust that places the strength of the relationship over a few thousand kuai from a show. I couldn’t choose A, because it would risk damaging my relationship with my Master to undercut him on the job, whether I could claim it to be beyond my understanding of the situation or not. And if I undercut my master on price, I couldn’t then turn to one of his students for a new partner—after all, those students should be working through him to book gigs anyways.

            B) Insist on speaking first with your Master, knowing he might get angry that they have skipped him to get to you after finding out that you are his disciple.

            This option doesn’t seem bad, though it does require the firmness of will to refuse the director’s direct requests to 1) Give a quote right now and 2) not talk to your master about the show. It is a pretty safe option—after all, I can hardly be blamed that someone heard of me and contacted me to do the show outside of his suggestion—but it also has some prickly issues involved.

Consider that the caller told me they said that Master Ding wouldn’t be invited, and that they would rather deal with me personally and book me alone. To invite someone to a show, allow negotiations on specifics to “falter” and then to go behind their back to hire their disciple would be very low tactics indeed. It might be so low that my master would simply refuse to do the show one way or another (costing me the chance to perform) or to give me his strong professional advice to ignore such directors. That’s the sort of “strong professional advice” that could lead to fallings-out if ignored. It’s probably the best-case scenario for him to not realize the underhanded means that the directors tried to use, in hopes of not upsetting future negotiations for either side.

            C) Tell the director that you will only perform with your Master, risking that they have already told you he is not coming and can no longer confirm what was likely a tentative booking now due to the risk of losing face.

            This choice holds the maximum chance for maintaining good relationships with the master, though it also puts the director in a very uncomfortable spot. By refusing the “make your own money” option and siding strongly with the master, my allegiance is clear. The director will be in permanent doubt as to how much, if anything at all, about our conversation I have shared with Master Ding. What if I told Master Ding about how the director said he was not invited, and the temporary ruse designed to save a few bucks creates a massive loss of face for the director and event planner? After this, they might now need to un-invite Master Ding regardless of whether they were planning to before, or else risk that at any time I could reveal that he was disrespected in the process.

            The other issue with this choice is money. As our negotiations wore on and my cultural shielding of myself from this situation was battered by repeated requests for prices and names of my other performance partners, the director eventually expressed clearly that they had a tight budget for the show and might not be able to afford Master Ding’s price (whatever it is—I have no idea, actually). They wanted me to give them a discount, knowing that I would make the money, and we both win at the expense of Master Ding. Having rejected this offer, I would then put them in a situation where if the price really was too much, then I lose out on the valuable stage time and the money I would have made from being my own agent.

            D)  Offer an alternative quote for a Chinese-language stand-up show, where you have no Master and can rightfully act as your own agent.

            I had been recommended to this show originally by someone in the Beijing Standup Club, a Chinese-language group I have been doing western-style Chinese-language standup with for the past six months. Because of the nature of standup as a one-man show, there was no way I could refer them to my Xiangsheng master for booking information and pass the responsibility off. Therefore, I was asked repeatedly whether I would instead of Xiangsheng perform stand-up, and set my price.

The issues here are several. First, in this situation Master Ding would fully recognize I should serve as my own agent, and if he hadn’t been invited to the show first, then he would likely support my doing so. But as he had been invited at some point and asked me to go along with him, my commitment to the show was now tied with his name as well. If I did the show, it had to be with him, or else he loses face from being cut out of the loop.

There is a second issue here as well. The directors were clearly eager to save a buck, perhaps to the point of hiring me to do standup at a show that was specifically for Xiangsheng. The mixing of the art forms of Xiangsheng and standup is an extremely touchy point for my Master, as he is passing down the art form that he learned from his master and that has been his whole life for the last fifty-plus years. He supports my standup and the process behind it, but anytime in rehearsals I do something too “standuppy”—pacing onstage, mumbling for comic effect, failing to connect with the other performer onstage—he reminds me that Xiangsheng is a special art unto itself, and IS. NOT. STANDUP.

While getting a solid standup gig for an audience of 1000 people at a legit theatre for good money would be a significant boost to my budding Chinese-language stand-up career, in these circumstances it would almost certainly cause a rift with my Xiangsheng master. That connection is worth more to me than the money or the stage-time from this show.

Comedy is innately human onstage, and it is composed and organized by human beings offstage. Being funny and hated means unemployment as a comic here; being connected and supported through the master-student relationship means having the chance to grow slowly but steadily, even though bigger prizes might go by the wayside.

Tomorrow I am going to get a chance to discuss this with Master Ding at a big dinner party we are having for my Master and all of his disciples. I will update the blog on how this show goes; hopefully, my master and I will be onstage in Tianjin in one week! 

A Joke (Not Really) About Ambassador Locke

Wang Zijian is a popular comedian whose “Post-80’s Generation Talk Show” program is one of the closest things that there is to a stand-up comedy show on Chinese television. Many Chinese will bring up Wang Zijian and his show when I mention I do Chinese-language western-style stand-up, and I oftentimes watch this show to see what stand-up might look like in Chinese.

My feelings for the show are mixed. On one hand, I think it’s great that something like stand-up is growing and getting a major TV spot on a network like Dongfang Weishi—Shanghai’s main TV station. On the other hand, the routines—especially the setups—sometimes strike me as overlong, a result of a beleaguered writing crew tasked with producing 45 minutes of stand-up a week. The routines manage to go farther into interesting topics than I expect, though they also clearly stop short of anything that would count as daring by Western standards, but by Chinese standards, it represents a push against what traditionally is seen on TV.

I also pay close attention to any jokes on the show that have to do with Americans or foreigners in general. We’ll skip Mr. Wang’s nickname for his show’s black DJ (Xiao Hei 小黑 or “Blackie”) as an example of one of those “considered-fine-here-but-wouldn’t-go-over-well-in-the-US” things, and instead go right onto the first joke of the night, found at 1:10.

The first thing I want to share with everyone today is about the former US Ambassador to China, Luo Jiahui (Gary Locke). He’s resigned, headed back to America. A lot of people have interviewed him, asking why he quit, and he responded, “Well, I (coughing) was going to back to tutor (coughing fit) my son to get him into Coh-College.”

A lot of people in the media said he wasn’t sincere. If it’s your son going back to college, why do you need to go back with him and help him pick schools? Is that worth giving up such an important job as being the Ambassador to China? Isn’t that a bit insincere? Well, what do you want people to say? He said (coughing)… it’s clear, isn’t it? Can he really say it’s because of the smog?

The smog in Beijing has been a frequent target of jokes here—it’s a bit hack. At this point, actually, to simply make a pollution joke without bringing something new to the mix is a formula for a tired joke.

Wang Zijian goes on to joke about an expert who attributed Beijing’s pollution to too many people cooking at once. He muses on how to fix this problem—perhaps people should only be allowed to cook every other day, referencing Beijing’s automobile restrictions that allow people to drive their car only every other day.

Wang Zijian won’t be making tirades against specific officials, policies, or pollutant spills—that wouldn’t make it on television—but he doesn’t have to. By making fun of the lone “expert” who blames the pollution on cooking, he satirizes someone whose analysis is so far away from the sensitive areas of the issues that it implies clearly, “don’t let people pull the wool over your eyes.”

In doing so, he relies on the audience to realize what’s going on. He lets the audience see themselves as smart, as those un-fooled by those who would blame pollution on cooking. When it comes to sensitive issues, right now the comedian pokes one area to imply a second area he is not poking—look at Guo Degang’s omelet joke—which means that in the end, the audience didn’t hear anything sensitive because the comedian didn’t say anything sensitive, and nobody says anything about these subtextual exclusions. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

I often find that in Chinese culture, the truer something is, the less you can talk openly about it. People waiting for a Chinese comedian who looks like George Carlin might be waiting a while. But a Chinese comedian who addresses similarly complicated issues utilizing subtext might not be as far away as people may think.

My Knight in Shining Armor

I feel like a good bit of my time as an intercultural comedian in dealing with the problems of an angsty teenager. I spend a lot of time looking for that special person. Someone who understands me, who will support me, who encourages me to be the best person I can be, all the while complaining about how there is no such person.

When I first started doing comedy in China, I would spend all day thinking, “Nobody understands me!” because people literally did not understand me. Then, it evolved to “Nobody understands me!” because I did know the non-verbal aspects of communicating with an audience. From there, I moved on to  “Nobody understands me!” when dealing with people in the media, as I always found myself typecast into the types of dopey roles available to foreigners in the Chinese media.

I don’t want to jump too far—we’ve only talked on the phone, and only once—but I think my search might be over. My knight in shining armor? A mid-level director at Shanghai TV by the name of Mr. Yin.

About a month ago, Mr. Yin and Shanghai TV extended a vague invitation to appear on a “Kings of Comedy” type show in February, and today we chatted specifics about what this might mean. Our conversation lasted only about four minutes, but it was unlike any other conversation I’d had with anyone in TV before.

“We heard you wanted to prepare your own jokes,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, defensively. Usually, this statement is followed by an uncomfortable explanation of how China is not the US (really?) and there are things that can’t be said on TV (really?) and that as a foreigner I might not notice (really????) but this means that they want to babysit my process or outright refuse to let me prepare my own jokes.

But not today. “We just want to make sure that the jokes are genuine. Having a foreigner go on TV and talk about being an exchange student was okay ten years ago but we want to get past that. We’re looking for more genuine comedy, where we can see how you view the world, little things from regular life. Joe Wong did that in America, and it brought him all the way to the Washington. While writing your jokes, can you think in that sort of way?”

Um, yes. Yes I can, as a matter of fact.

It was so amazingly refreshing to hear the opposite of the normal frustrating condescension and stale thinking that I remained jazzed up for the rest of the day. Being asked to prepare such a set made me question things I’d been doing in my stand-up for months. Why should I simplify my persona to appeal to the audience? Why should I avoid everyday topics that are not sufficiently “China-West” related, instead of doing what comedians do, and talk about what strikes them as funny?

Of course, creating such a set will be hard. A TV station insisting months from the shoot that this is the set they want might wind up with them losing their nerve if the outcome isn’t what they expect. Jokes of this sort might involve types of comedy that don’t play well on TV. The TV audience, regardless of what the station is willing to broadcast, might not be able to empathize with a foreigner who isn’t here in a simple role, like an “exchange student” or “worker at a foreign company.”

There will be a lot of learning for me to do in the upcoming month to prepare such a set. I need to find a way to explain to the audience, through jokes, who I am and why I am in China doing comedy. Some days, I can’t even explain that to myself. I will need to cut through the jargon and stories that are convenient for making quick (but flat) connections with the audience and get at the truth in my work here, and the comedy that truth contains. And I will need to take risks, go on smaller stages this upcoming month and fail, readjust, and fail again, in order to get ready in time.

But if I’m not willing to take on that challenge I shouldn’t get onstage in the first place. Whatever the final result, the process of trying to create such a piece is sure to be worthwhile.

1 3 14

Thwack, Headshot

Today I spent a good bit of the morning sinking into the back seat of a cab while the driver pummeled himself on the head with a knotted wooden branch, all while yelling, “This is how I keep myself healthy nowadays!”

As you learn about cultural practices, sometimes things strike you as a little strange but quite understandable. Layered upon each other, however, these strange things evolve from “I never thought of it like that” to wooden-branch-over-the-head strange. 

Today I was heading to the northwest corner of Beijing to teach an improv comedy course with two Chinese improvisers. We’d picked up a cab on the way there and one of my colleagues noted the bumpy wooden branch, about a foot and a half long, on the dashboard.

“Oh, you play with sticks too?” my friend Li Jun asked the driver. Which, given that the conversing parties are not dogs, felt to me a bit strange, but I let it fly. Obviously, there is a story here.

“You betcha!” The driver responded, his voice thick with the Beijing “Marbles in the Mouth” accent.

“I’ve got an olive branch and a peach branch,” Li Jun said, as if he were discussing the finer points of which country his favorite coffee blend came from.

At this point, it was clear there was something I was missing. “What do you do with the branch?” I asked. Unbeknownst to me, this was step one down crazy alley.

“You rub it!” The driver replied, taking a hand off the wheel while merging onto the highway. “Rub it over and over, eventually it gets smooth and shiny, so shiny it blinds you. I’ve got a friend who rubbed the same branch every day for three years. By the end it was black. Beautiful.”

The bumps on the branch were not incidental either, I discovered. “They hit pressure points in your hands, and loosen the flow of Qi, which makes your whole body healthier. The good elements from the wood also seep through into your skin when the bumps stimulate them.”

Whereas before you had a simple branch, after the supercharging rubbing regimen, you now possessed a supercharged wand of healing, the only catch being that in order to gain benefit required a certain amount of strength to be exerted. And so we arrived at the portion of the ride where the cabbie took the branch and began thwacking himself on any bit of exposed skin he could reach while keeping the wheel straight. 

“Doctors are mad expensive nowadays,” he told me over the sound of wood meeting skull. “I can afford this.”

12 26 13

Highs, Lows, and Impromptu Shows

Last month, for inexplicable reasons surely having to do with the cosmic vagaries of fate, I watched a four-hour documentary on the voyage of Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark literally headed into the blank spaces on the map. Behind each turn of the Missouri river laid something that may be exciting, devastating, or, at the very least, bewildering. One bend might reveal a fabulous new mountain vista—the next, knowledge the vista surveyed an impassable summit. The difference between elation and despair were separated by twenty-four hours of forward progress.

I am no great explorer like Lewis and Clark, but I am plodding through some unmapped parts of my own field, intercultural comedy. Day by day, I too go through the highs and lows of trying to map new territory in this foreign land.

Consider, the past 24 hours: the time between 6pm on Wednesday, December 18, 2013, and 6pm on Thursday, December 19.

At 6:00pm on Wednesday, I shuffled through the cold air and onto the subway, heading to a gig at Beijing Information and Sciences University. Along with select members of the Beijing Talkshow (Stand-up Comedy) Club, I was going to be performing Chinese-language standup comedy for two hundred students. For ten minutes, my jokes would be the only thing standing between me some pretty awkward silences.

I was up third, and gained some confidence right away by having a joke I wrote on the subway on the way over get some laughs. “My name is Ai Jie Xi,” I said. “Girls hear my name, and they say, ‘Oh, his last name is Ai爱, like “Love.” How romantic!’ But then I have to tell them that no, actually my name is ai艾,the ai from “AIDS” aizibing艾滋病. Not so romantic anymore.”

Even some of my slicker jokes went over well. I did one on current events: the hot father-son Amazing Race-clone show “Where did Dad Go?”

“I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. I especially love that new entertainment show about orphans! You know… ‘Where did Dad Go?’” There was a pause before a nearly audible clunk and laughter. It’s not that he doesn’t know what the show is actually about because he is a foreigner… it was a joke!

After the show, nine of us went out to a Xinjiang restaurant and had amazing food, roast lamb skewers and fried nang bread, a Xinjiang specialty. I chatted, joked, and discussed comedy with my friends. Looking around the circle, I realized that I was a real part of a comedy community in a way that no other foreigners were—a new turn around the bend, a new challenge bested, another step forward.

Another, more established comedian, who goes by the stage name Ye So, approached me after dinner. “I’m working for a TV station on a ‘Kings of Comedy’ show. Why don’t you come by the studios tomorrow and talk to our directors?”

Oh yes! Comedy stardom here I come!

Of course, this was just a turn in the bend, another twist in the river. In hindsight, though, it was a twist backwards.

Things got off to a great start the next day when I couldn’t find the studio. Most TV studios require space, and cheap space at that. Therefore, they shoot big shows with big stars in their fancy city studios but push most of their smaller productions out to other centers in the countryside. After taking the subway as far as I could out to the east of the city, I wandered down countryside lanes looking for the building for forty-five minutes.

I called Ye So and asked for directions. “Head north from the subway… eventually there will be a wall.” Apparently, points of interest are lacking in the countryside, which mostly features empty fields lined by ditches filled with trash where they meet the road and isolated apartment complexes that tower twenty-five stories above the adjacent undeveloped areas.

I eventually located the ambiguously titled “National Music and Entertainment Property Base.” It was 3pm but all the lights were off inside—no show, no spectacle, no reason to waste electricity on employees. Ye So greeted me and ushered me into a small, claustrophobic room with plain white walls. Inside were seven or eight people sitting around playing on their phones or tablets. A man in the corner with five-o’clock shadow and a plump face jerked his head up, looked me over, and continued playing Angry Birds.

If heat is defined as the average kinetic energy of all sample points in a given space, this mean that the room was close to absolute zero—not good for comedy at all. After a bare minimum of pleasantries, I was introduced to one of the directors of the program. I showed them some of my videos, which they loved, but there was a bit of a chill in the air as well. We all knew that some of the material on the videos was inappropriate for television. They knew they hadn’t wasted their time in inviting me, but it meant nothing for my chances to be on the show.

It did, however, get them interested in hearing some of my other jokes. I started telling some jokes, and before I knew it, I realized that even though I had never applied formally to the show, I was at my audition already. But by the time I realized that the performance was more than just a formality to check content appropriateness, it was too late. Really what was needed was the type of performance to change the energy of the room, but I had started trying to show that I had pieces that were appropriate to broadcast. I spoke through my jokes rather than acting them out, and while some got laughs, there was still mostly silence in the room.

When I was done, there was a bit of an uncomfortable vibe. “As a Chinese person,” one of the directors told me, “I didn’t think it was that funny.”

Of course, as someone who has only been doing stand-up for eight months, I could list a whole host of possible reasons for the jokes not working. I was performing in Chinese, the jokes were my own original ones, some of them were newer and I had only performed once or twice, and could still be developed further… and, of course, the terrible room and the not-funny nature being told “Tell me a joke!” in front of eight other people, half of whom were on iPads.

All of those reasons would have been legitimate, but I really upset at the “As a Chinese person,” line. It was the one point that I can never, ever directly address. If someone says a joke isn’t their personal style, that’s one thing. But this reaction, which I run across a lot, takes that personal sentiment and broadly applies it across 1.3 billion people. Culture and national identity takes “I didn’t think that was funny” and applies it as “We—loosely defined by someone not like you—don’t think that’s funny.” Such a broad statement as comedy critique seems like a cop-out. There’s a lot of truth behind it, but the value lies in specificity—and when people can’t express that, it means that more than likely performance preference or content issues are at work rather than cultural ones.

I am discovering that with intercultural comedy, failures of jokes, which result from any one of a thousand reasons, tend to be thrown into the incredibly vague (and, through insidious insinuation, unsolvable) category of cultural misunderstanding. When jokes work across cultures, there is amazing power in them, and it reveals the common humanity of everyone in the audience. But when they fail, I oftentimes sense a sort of catharsis from the audience—at some level, people seem to want to believe that we are different, laugh at different things, and justify holding a wall up between “us” and “them.”

After the jokes, I had to smile result in me smile and nod through a host of vague topics such as, “Chinese people know different things about the West than foreigners,” and “Certain topics Chinese people don’t think foreigners should joke about,” as if each of these issues were not the sort of things that have been in my head almost every waking moment of the last fifteen months.

There were other issues too. Some of my jokes were not specifically about China, which was apparently a problem: “The audience will wonder why you are not talking about being a foreigner in China, if any Chinese comedian could have said the joke you don’t get extra points.”

Also, my use of silence and implication—very effective tactics in my previous shows—was on the firing range as well. Take my “Where’s Dad Now” as an example:

“I liked that joke,” the director said, “but I had to think about it a little bit before it was funny. The audiences you have been performing for, at colleges and bars, these are very intelligent and cultured. The TV audience will not be as smart as them. You should perhaps try making some more direct jokes, where there is no chance of people thinking they are not funny.”

“Cultured” may not be associated with bars very often, but as she implied it, it meant simply that they had experienced western culture—bars are, after all, a Western cultural locale. In America, bars are for drinking beer, but in China, they represent experiencing an international sort of lifestyle. The equivalent might be that Westerners who go to a Chinese teahouse might feel cultured—but Chinese people who go there to drink tea might find it strange to base cultural understanding off of simply being in an everyday locale.

As an example of a more direct joke, she mentioned a foreigner who they had flown in from Shanghai to speak with them. He had made a pun which they all admitted was not very funny but there was zero chance of mis-firing the joke—there was nothing implied by the pun, and the joke would work well with no setup. My joke had made them laugh—but they didn’t trust at the end of the day it would make their viewers laugh. “And in TV, we are in the business of viewership ratings,” she said.

At the end of our conversation, she summarized by saying, “You definitely have a skill at this, and I see from your jokes that you understand how Chinese people think and what they feel. But out show films in two days… what do you think?” she suddenly asked over her shoulder.

The man in the corner with 5 o’clock shadow, who had not said a word the whole time, growled, “Content.” All along, this had been the man in charge, and the verdict was that the content I had shown them didn’t fit the show.

I was thanked for making the trip out and assured the show has very high standards and if I ever have pieces I think match those standards to be in touch and send links to shows. Ye So, ever the gentleman, led me outside and gave some pointers—very valuable coming from one of the few people with years of experience doing Chinese standup. I got on the subway back home. When I arrived back, it was 6:00pm. 24 hours—big ups, big downs.

The devil is in the details. Some television shows have no standards for foreign performers—a friend of mine who accompanied me to a shoot said offhandedly he did “traditional American dancing” and was on TV the next day doing the robot. Going on TV, in the wacko-land of China, is not hard for Chinese-speaking white people. Sometimes I worry that I am wasting my time on such activities, when what seems like success is so easily obtained, and there is so much trash media that good work is drowned in an avalanche of mediocrity. Is it worth spending so much energy on these shows when I go on before my friend doing the robot?

But creating one’s own comedy is hard, and performing on a dedicated comedy show like “Kings of Comedy” should be hard. The long-term positive I took out of my rejection is that today I found a show that has standards enough to not to cave and let me get the result I wanted. If I get better than the competition, there will be a place to show that I am better than the competition.

I think that in front of an audience I would have done well. But next time, thanks to the guidance of my friends and the directors, I will come back with a new confidence. I won’t do well—I will do great. And when I do, it will mean something more than if the doors had swung open before me, because I know it will represent a true step into the great unmapped beyond, and I will have drawn the landscape of that map myself.

12 19 13

'Laowai Style' - One American's mission to share the power of comedy in China

A piece on my comedy journey by the South China Morning Post!! Super excited to get Hong Kong in on the comedy action!

'Mo Money Mo Development': Applying China's economy to P. Diddy

My own piece about my new video as published by PBS Newshour! I want to post more about the various coverage of my pieces so this seems like a good one to do! Take a look :)

Mo Money Mo Fazhan: My new video!

It’s out! My brand new bilingual rap song about the Chinese economy!

Watch it on Youtube, or watch it on Youku!

I’ve been excited about the response to the piece from the community—amongst my key audience demographics of China-watchers and overseas Chinese the video has gotten great receptions. I’m going to have at least one big newspaper piece come out about the video, perhaps several, so keep an eye open for Mo Money, Mo Fazhan, Mo Promotion!

I wanted to share a piece that I wrote for ChinaPersonified, which should be published later this week. Check it out when it goes up; for now, blog readers get it first!


As I study and perform more comedy in Chinese, sometimes I notice my sense of humor beginning to reflect the unusual nature of my experience—spending my time in a country and culture other than that of my birth and upbringing. When I make comedy, it is as much of a chance to learn about myself as it is to make others laugh.

Last year, I made a video called Laowai Style, in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between China and the West through humor. I wanted to make a video that would be appealing to Chinese people and that they could understand. This meant meeting China where it was, not where I wished it to be, and as such, I included jokes about Westerners being able to use chopsticks, and similar themes.

Of course, any foreigner who has spent more than a week in China knows how to use chopsticks, and the lingering impression that we can’t use them is actually an unusually touchy subject. Even if we couldn’t use them when we came, wouldn’t we learn, or else starve?

Some foreigners took the joke about being able to “eat Chinese food without a spoon” as a tacit endorsement of certain Chinese people’s ideas that foreigners are forever unable to learn the most rudimentary elements of Chinese life. My Chinese friends, when presented with this view, saw things differently. No restaurant owner is trying to insult customers by handing them spoons—they are just trying to provide great service by covering all the bases. For me, including the line in the final piece was accepting this point of view, and putting aside my own concept of how China “should” be.

In my new video, I tried a bit of a reversal. This one is called Mo Money, Mo Fazhan (Development), and it was an experiment in mixing China and the West not in the way that most people experience the two cultures, but in the way I experience it. For instance, in the song I sing:

“Then we’ve got my gemenr (Bro) Deng Xiaoping

The man was Yi Mi Wu (4’11’) of ice cold bling.”

This jumbles east, west, and the two comedic sentiments of the cultures together. Chinese people think it’s funny that Deng Xiaoping, a Chairman of the Party, could be called a “Bro” and have his short stature casually mentioned in a song. Westerners love the ridiculousness of the rhyme and image behind Deng Xiaoping/ice cold bling. But myself, and a growing cohort of Chinese and Westerners who have experienced each other’s cultures, got both sides.

Last month, I performed Mo Money Mo Fazhan in New York, for a group of Chinese students at a show I organized at NYU. While the students loved “Laowai Style”, they told me they were more interested in Mo Money Mo Fazhan. After all, there are many foreigners who pitch down the middle in China and make jokes about chopsticks. But these students, Chinese who live abroad and understand Western culture… there is nobody making comedy for them. Chinese media on the whole is still so concerned about reaching the hundreds of millions of people in the developing parts of China that there is little energy devoted to niche markets, and the media sphere tends to be hierarchical to the extent that the day-to-day decision-makers in state-owned television are not a part of the global world in the way these students are. These students are, as I am, odd ducks.

Having finished my Fulbright research and trying to make a living now as an intercultural comedian (whatever that entails), I am realizing that the market will likely never reward such intercultural comedy as richly, with both money and attention, as comedy designed to appeal to the masses. But in making such pieces, I have managed to find in my audience members a group of kindred spirits. Whether they are Westerners like myself who have found that their lives interconnect with China, or Chinese students who have spent time abroad, I have found amazing friends who exist between cultures, and making them laugh while being myself makes me incredibly happy.