I started a joke

It was an experience I will forever remember with a smile.

It was the last day of an artists’ conference in Shimane, Japan some 20 years ago. Seventy-nine artists from all over the world had gathered together to discuss how artists through their art can help save the environment.

In the previous two days, we had attended many discussions and talks. Speakers from all over the world had shared their expertise and knowledge on the environment with the hope of inspiring us.

Every night after the talks, artists of all types — dancers, singers, actors, poets, writers — took center stage and made each night special. Actually, it was not just special — it was magical.
I remembered a dancer from Indonesia who did an impromptu performance while holding a tree branch. One by one, he slowly took off the leaves… and eventually his clothes followed. Music was played by a koto player from Japan who attacked the strings of her instrument in a fierce manner. I had never heard the koto played like that before. Their synergy was amazing. The music intensified while the dancer’s movements got bolder and faster. Or maybe it was the other way around. They were so in sync with each other that everyone was in awe watching the performance with tears in their eyes. To me, it was a bold statement about allowing oneself to be vulnerable.

There were other performances in the first two days that were also very exciting. Singers who sang ethnic songs. Poets who read their poems in their native languages. There were painters who showed their paintings to the crowd.

On the last night, when all the talks and the scheduled activities were done, some artists called for a “comedy night” in which each participant would share no more than two jokes with everyone. It was to be an impromptu contest as to who could tell the funniest jokes.

Most were excited. We noticed some participants seemed baffled. But they were game enough to be there.

It was quite funny to watch the participants deliver jokes. Some had great timing. Some flubbed their punchlines. Regardless, people laughed. They were happy and in a good mood and supportive of every participant’s efforts.

The Americans and Europeans were mostly predictable, at least in my view. Being exposed to western culture, I knew half the jokes that they were sharing. I had heard them before or read them in joke books.

The Koreans did a performance which involved cutting a pencil in two with a crisp dollar bill. It was not funny but it was entertaining to watch. Many of us smiled in amusement and knew something must have gotten lost in translation when we were explaining what the contest was about.

There were some who did gymnastics, others did card tricks, a few jokes were told that were mostly more entertaining than funny. But we all laughed at the effort. We were having great cultural camaraderie.

A delegate from Bhutan was called upon to recite his joke. He was among the baffled ones I mentioned earlier. He looked at us and said that they did not have jokes in Bhutan. People were astonished at first, and then laughed. They refused to accept what he said. Surely, the Bhutanese people laughed at SOMETHING, they said! They egged him on. The young man thought for awhile and then started to tell a story. It was a long-winded story that lasted three to four minutes. After the last sentence, he laughed very hard. We all looked at each other. None of us got the “joke,” if there indeed was one. But we all laughed at how odd it was that he laughed so hard!

More people shared jokes. There were a few big laughs. Some were funny because they were not exactly funny in the way we were used to. Some were ridiculously funny.

Soon it was down to just two countries: Estonia and the Philippines. I had become close to the Estonians, Tom and Tarmo, who were famous and known as the Urb Brothers in their own country. Their first joke was political. It was about Gorbachev trying to pick up a woman by pretending he was Frank Sinatra. It was a little funny. It was a bit of an impersonation. The other joke was funnier but I can’t remember it now.

It was my turn. The first joke I told was about a supposed contest that was held in the biggest arena in the Philippines. It was a contest between contestants from the US, India and the Philippines on who had the most children.

So during the final judging on the most children, an announcer’s voice came booming from the large speakers in the venue,. “From the United States, please welcome Tom Harrison with… ONE HUNDRED FIFTY-TWO CHILDREN!” The audience roared and applauded as the American triumphantly walked around the stage and took a bow.

The announcer then called out the next contestant. “Next candidate is Aadesh Ghandi from India with… FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY-SEVEN CHILDREN!” Thunderous applause broke out and people rose in a standing ovation. The Indian bowed a “namaste” to every direction of the crowd and took his place onstage beside the American.

Finally it was the Philippines’ turn. The announcer bellowed, “From the Philippines, please welcome Isagani de los Santos…” and before the announcer could mention the number of children the Filipino had sired, the whole coliseum erupted in bedlam with most in the audience screaming, “Daddy!”
“Daddy!” “Daddy!” “Daddy!”

The joke went over very well. I could hear everyone laughing and clapping. I had a big smile. I then followed up with my last piece.

I started by explaining that in the Philippines, a great majority of males undergo circumcision during childhood.

“In my hometown, there is a famous doctor who has been circumcising Filipino children for decades. What he does is he actually collects the foreskin of his patients and stitches them together to make unique wallets.”

Then the punchline: “When you rub the wallet, it transforms into a duffel bag.”

The room went wild. People were laughing their heads off. My Estonian friends knelt and bowed in mock praise. Then every person in the room rose and clapped for everyone who participated. Many gave me a thumbs-up. They agreed the Philippines had won, hands down. It was a crazy, exhilarating evening.

There is no question that art is effective and can be a great driving force that can inspire everyone. But there is something about humor. It can shake a room with laughter and make people feel better instantly. Laughter is truly the best medicine.

As I packed my clothes that evening for the trip home the next day, I smiled and shook my head. “What a night!” I told myself.

And what a unique way to end a conference.

The culture quest

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated February 4, 2018 – 12:00am

I’ve always been curious about culture and languages. When I visit a country, I try to learn a few words and understand why people think and act the way they do. Each country has its own way of doing things. Each one has its own unique traits.

I look at individual cultures as a particular way a people have defined the world and how they must live in it. Culture is a set of myths, beliefs, values, ideals, rituals, rules, signposts expressed and embedded in its language and customs. Each peoples’ shared history and the symbols they have created guide them and shape them into a community where they find belongingness and purpose. Culture is like a road map that tells people where to go, how to live their lives in a manner that gives them some sort of assurance that their lives have meaning and value. It gives people a sense of the universal order and their place in it.

I look at cultures and try to understand how they have handled life’s great questions, imponderables and mysteries like death, the afterlife, the future, God, love, the meaning of being human, sex, eternity, art, politics, ethics, etc. I am also curious about how they relate to the weather, their attitude towards foreigners, and their own fellowmen.

I want to think that each culture has made attempts to make sense and understand and define all those topics I mentioned above. After all, how can a community exist without having notions, ideas, explanations, opinions or some kind of philosophy about what existence means?

Take sex, for example. Have you ever wondered why some cultures are quite comfortable with it and why some have many hangups about it? How is it that there are cultures that celebrate sexual intercourse, sex organs, nudity and sensual pleasures while there are some that suppress all these? In Japan and Nepal, statues and images of phallic symbols are quite common. India produced the Kama Sutra. All throughout Europe, nude statues abound. Meanwhile, in many other cultures, there seems to be some palpable fear about sex which, in practice, has resulted in the subjugation and slavery of women.

Have you ever wondered why some cultures subscribe to just one deity? There is the claim of the one true Christian God who came to save mankind. But there are also cultures with many gods and goddesses who rule their own domains that affect the lives of humans. D.T. Suzuki, a Zen teacher, once expressed his bafflement about some Western religions in this way: “God against man. Man against God. Man against nature. Nature against man. Nature against God. God against nature. Very funny religion!”

There are cultures that are more comfortable with science and abstract concepts, while others make sense of the world through concrete and personal experiences. For example, some express distance not through meters or miles, but by how long certain human activities last while traveling certain distances. A place could be “two cigarettes” away.

Language carries within itself a defined reality, and as bilingual Filipinos, we experience two different “realities,” so to speak. For example, we can have an English Christmas or a Filipino one. We also switch languages depending on who we are talking to, and what the topic is. We can even switch in mid-sentence.

To experience culture, you must adopt its mindset. The Western experience of death means showing a lot of restraint in expressing emotions. Death is looked at with finality. The dead are gone forever. In the Philippines, dealing with death is anything but restrained. We ask those left behind to give a blow-by-blow account of how the departed passed on. During wakes, we eat, play mahjong, drink, laugh, cry and we never leave the departed alone. And after he/she is buried, we have nine days of prayer that follow and we mark the 40th day as special. And every year we take notice of the death anniversary. It is common to believe that when a butterfly is fluttering about, we see it as the dead visiting us. The soul is in a parallel universe. The loved ones may be physically gone but they are still somehow with us.

There are some things visible to one culture but invisible to another. As an example, Filipinos are more attuned to the presence of spirits and ghosts than Westerners are. We have more words for rice. We have words that are untranslatable. Language also determines what we hear. A cock crows a “cocka-doodle-do” to the American ear. To the Dutch, it sounds like “kukeleku.” To the French it is “cocorico.” To the Filipino it is “kukutaok.” As another example, Westerners admire and extoll individuality. We, on the other hand, see more value in belonging.

When I look at countries that were never colonized, I notice with admiration how they seem to have so much character. But when you read their history, you will notice that they also learned much from other cultures through trading and migration. Mahatma Ghandi once said, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” Despite my nationalistic sentiments, I concur. No culture is static. It must continuously grow.

In this modern age, cultures will brush upon each other with ever-greater frequency and intensity. No culture can remain uninfluenced and untouched. If it insists on being “pure,” it may eventually perish.

In the end, the embracing of cultures everywhere can only expand us as human beings. As Jawaharlal Nehru put it, “Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”