Humour is a funny thing. Often it’s based on cultural references and isn’t universal.
As a third culture kid, I’m used to being that person who doesn’t get the joke. Everyone is laughing and I’m there going: “I don’t get it. What happened? What’s the joke?”
People don’t get why I don’t get it. Deep down, there’s always a tiny voice inside me that says, “Hey, I want to laugh, too. Explain it to me.”
Explaining a joke is not funny.
I’ve known loads of Russians over the years. I can never tell when they’re telling a joke.
“Russians have a deadpan sense of humour,” Vitaly said to me over Skype. “Solemn and philosophical. If you saw them talking on the street, you wouldn’t even guess they were joking with each other.”
I laughed. It wouldn’t be the first time the St. Petersburg native would have that effect on me. I met Vitaly Terekhov at a Toastmasters meeting in Montréal. He was welting out an animated rendition of Alice in Wonderland. I was smiling throughout his five minute delivery.
The first thing I noticed about Vitaly were his eyes. Clear. Kind. Serene. Warm. Regal. He’s a Leo, by the way.
(Image Courtesy of Vitaly Terekhov)
“There are fewer smiles in Russia,” Vitaly said.
I never would have guessed. Vitaly’s got a warm heart and it shows.
“When I first moved to Vancouver,” Vitaly said. “I found people relaxed and kind. People take a walk. They just live. It’s got a nice atmosphere. It’s safe. In Russia it’s more of a fight.”
Vitaly moved from Russia to Canada at the age of 31.
“I wanted to try myself in a new environment,” he said. “So I applied to countries that accept professional immigrants. It was easier to come to Canada cause Australia and New Zealand have strict rules for an economist. Job prospects in Canada were good.”
“Economics is math applied to real life. Economics is not about money, but about choices.”
Vitaly did his PhD in Game Theory: something I vaguely remember studying and then conveniently forgetting after my exams ended. He studied English for 10-15 years before immigrating to Canada.
“But when I got here,” Vitaly said. “I had to learn it again.”
It’s incredible the number of redundant things we study. I will not go on and on about how much I hate unrealistic and outdated curricula in schools.
“The pronunciation was difficult,” Vitaly said. “English teachers only really teach grammar. I couldn’t understand what people were saying. And there were all these idioms that were not taught in courses.”
If there’s one thing more difficult than public speaking, it’s public speaking in your second, third or fourth language.
Vitaly’s won numerous speech contests. Kudos to Vitaly. And respect, too – for doing it in his second language.
“I initially joined Toastmasters to improve my teaching skills,” he said. “But like most people, I joined for one reason and stayed for another. I met a lot of interesting people. Like you, Dipa.”
I smiled. See how he flatters me.
“I also like competing,” Vitaly added.
I laughed again. He’s good at competing. He wins.
(Image Courtesy of Speak with Style Toastmasters Club and Vitaly Terekhov)
Vitaly is very matter-of-fact about his choice to live and work in Canada.
“I moved to Montréal because I got a job here,” he said. “The rest of Canada has this very American style. Residential area plus mall. Residential area plus mall. Montréal is more European. You don’t need a car. If you have one, it’s a hinderance to your life. They also have two orchestras for classical music. And they speak English.”
(Image courtesy of Vitaly Terekhov)
“How’s your French?” I asked.
He laughed. I did, too. French is the language I’ve least enjoyed learning.
Qu’est-ce que what?
I didn’t have good teachers. I also didn’t have the patience.
“Where’s home?” I asked Vitaly.
“Canada,” he answered.
Can’t say I’m surprised. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time in Montréal, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.
“What do you miss most about St. Petersburg?” I asked.
“People in St. Petersburg are much more into culture. We’ve got the best ballet in the world. Museums like the Hermitage. Opera, architecture. You can talk about Shakespeare, Chekhov and Picasso. In Canada, if you talk about these things, they will say, ‘who are you?’
“Beethoven is well-known in Russia. Even people who are not into culture know about these things. In Canada, culture is considered elitist.”
(The Hermitage Museum. Image Courtesy of A.Savin)
I know this notion all to well. I became familiar with it during the five years I lived in Australia. Intellectualism is shunned for some strange reason.
“Favourite authors?” I asked.
“How much time have you got?”
I laughed again. Oh why is there a 13 hour time difference.
“Pick three,” I said.
“Shakespeare. Tolstoy and Marukami. You know Mukarami, right?”
“I loved 1Q84.”
I did, too. It dawns on me that I haven’t read fiction in a long time. My current reading list consists mainly of non-fiction. My time in Japan has made me a very practical person.
“Favourite food from Russia?” I asked.
“Great candy,” he said
“Yes. Small chocolate candy.”
I laughed again. Vitaly really knows how to hit that sweet spot. I am not a fan of chocolates in Japan. Most places just don’t do cocoa right.
“In Canada it’s mostly cookies,” Vitaly said. “If you enter any coffee shop in Russia, there are a large variety of chocolates and different cakes. But in Canada, it’s just muffins and muffins.”
“And doughnuts,” I added.
So what is this thing about humour? What really makes us laugh?
The Brits and Aussies are famous for their sarcasm. The more they like you, the more they make fun of you. My mother’s side of the family is British; I spent 5 years in Australia, but I still never got used to it. I’m too Asian. That kind of stuff is a knife to the heart for a vast majority of us.
“I like observational humour,” Vitaly said. “When you find something strange, something you disagree with. Humour is a good way to vent about everything you disagree with.
“Many jokes are not jokes – people actually tell you these things, but it’s ridiculous.”
I laughed again. Humour is a good way of dealing with life.
A Kyrgyz friend of mine said sometime back: “Russians are like walnuts. Hard on the outside and soft on the inside.”
Perhaps there is some truth to that? I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been to Mother Russia, but I would love to go.
Humour is a funny thing. We don’t always laugh just because something is funny. We also laugh because we enjoy someone’s company. Because something about them makes us smile.
I’ll always be that third culture kid who doesn’t get all the humour based on cultural references.
But if you’ve got me smiling the way Vitaly does – laughter’s not too far away. All it takes is a warm walnut heart.