The Humor of a Foreigner


Part 2.1

“India… what a beautiful country.” An awkward situation; the flagrant exposition of one of India’s many calamities before our eyes. My friends are Indians, born in this country and they are its foreground actors as young citizens of the democracy. Virtually any mention of one of India’s numerous problems at the social, cultural, hygienic or political levels is meant seriously among them. There is a space for humor, but these young Indian adults are those who will contribute to the development of their country tomorrow. These are serious matters. But the foreigner is around. And his ‘foreign humor’: “India… what a beautiful country.”

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… my foreign background ‘saves’ me. It gives me a space to criticize behind humor, or rather perhaps, to make fun behind the criticism.

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I, as a foreigner, have a larger range of objects to joke about. I can resort to ad personam mockery, like two co-nationals would: making fun of someone’s way of speaking, of a strange thing somebody said. But I can also play with my foreignness. I can establish humor on a semblance of irony, when I pretend to be the “standard foreigner” with all his assumptions, clichés, and touristic expectations from India. This humor is double: it makes fun at the attitude of such tourists, and it relies on a confusion of identity, when my interlocutor, if he is not familiar to me, may assume that I meant what I said, that I truly am such a foreigner. There is also the option of the properly auto-derisive humor. I can make fun at my own expense, insisting on those behaviors or statements that still confirm my foreignness, my gap from this culture that is still not properly my own. Finally, I can make fun at my friends as Indians, as members of this society and culture. There, I do not simply poke at personal features, but I intentionally put the blame of larger Indian serious issues on them. I like to subtly remind my batch-mates, mostly of Brahmin backgrounds, of their participation in the larger caste injustices: “Ah… these Brahmins…” To a friend from lower caste backgrounds, I may insist on how she and her ancestors benefited from reservation rules, etc. Such statements would be outrageous if uttered by an Indian; they would also be seen as insulting by an interlocutor taking them literally. But with ‘collaborating interlocutors,’ my foreign background ‘saves’ me. It gives me a space to criticize behind humor, or rather perhaps, to make fun behind the criticism. My ultimate aim is very often humor, and occasionally criticism. My irony is in fact so permanent that I must insist when I am talking seriously. Very few of my statements are literal criticisms, and if they are, they are clearly subtler. One way for me to clarify the remaining appearance of seriousness behind a humoristic provocative statement, is to make really generalizing and stupidly over-sweeping statements, to invite the interlocutor to realize that this cannot be a serious one. Often come as a support gestures and facial expressions. An utterly scandalous statement meant to poke fun at something or someone will be accompanied by the mimicking of somebody really pretentious and sure of himself. The body comes in help to the humor of a foreigner.

The body, as we mentioned, is a renewed locus of attention for Merleau-Ponty, after two millennia of western philosophy that gave a crushing prominence to intellectual and rational matters. Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of language can be used to analyze the event of the joke in general, irrespective of its specification as coming from a foreigner or not. If one were to investigate a kind of phenomenology of humor, the way humor arises, one would indeed notice that a joke is not simply the transparent vocal expression of a sentence kept in one’s mind, and not, on the contrary, a vocal improvisation with no mental input. A joke arises when an intention, the brief and vague impression that the situation could call for an unexpected and surprising comment, meets the actual utterance of the sentence, that is, the performance, the speech, la parole. Certain jokes may be premeditated and thought before being uttered, but number of them arise in the midst of conversations in which no participant has any idea of the advance of the discussion thirty or sixty seconds later. In such cases, we utter a joke clearly before having it literally expressed in our ‘inner voice’. And it is not rare that, in the case of jokes too, “their actual meaning always exceeds what was meant during their genesis” (Lewis 1966, 27). It often happens that we realize an aspect of a joke – an unsuspected double-entendre, or a punch line that does not work – only once it is uttered.

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… through language I create my identity as foreigner, and my language confirms my identity as foreigner. My provocative jokes are the performances of my foreignness; they are the enacting of my status, of my identity.

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This analysis with the help of Merleau-Ponty could go even deeper in the case of the humor of a foreigner. As we have discussed previously, la parole is in fact what constructs a particular culture. In other words, what makes a particular community of humans is primarily, according to Merleau-Ponty, the common and shared way in which they associate specific mental intentions with particular available linguistic formulas – this rejoining is, for Merleau-Ponty, the fundamental process of language. From culture, singular speakers can reach a sense of individuality, and identity: la parole is what makes our sense of identity; language “presents or rather it is the positioning of the subject in the world of meanings” (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 225). In my case, this would mean that through language I create my identity as foreigner, and that my language confirms my identity as foreigner. My provocative jokes are the performances of my foreignness; they are the enacting of my status, of my identity. It is through my jokes that I can define myself as foreigner, for myself. My foreignness is not simply defined through my skin color or through the official information provided on my passport. It is also defined by my behavior, and here, by my language. And in turn, for the community around me, the humorous statement is a reminder of my identity as foreigner. The only way to see the statements uttered as humorous and not outrageous is by being reminded that it comes from a foreigner.


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Lewis, Philip E. “Merleau-Ponty and the Phenomenology of Language.” Yale French Studies, No. 36/37 (1966): 19-40.

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Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. La Phénoménologie de la Perception. Paris: Gallimard, 1945.

Royle, Nicholas. Jacques Derrida. London & New York: Routledge, 2003.

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