Killing 'em with gun jokes
What do you think Chinese people make fun of Americans for?
While back home in America on vacation, I asked my family and friends this question. Being fat and stupid top the list, but the biggest trope was something that nobody thought to mention: Chinese people make fun of America’s obsession with guns.
As someone who has sat in far too many small bars listening to Chinese comedians, gun jokes have come up again and again, and I have come to realize that there are few areas where there is such a stark cultural difference between Chinese and American culture than on guns.
My first interaction with Chinese thoughts on guns came during study abroad in 2010. when I visited the rural Hebei countryside. The farmer who was hosting us woke us at six in the morning to feed us breakfast. We squatted outside in his dirt yard, eating mantou bread balls and chatting between the dog kennel where his one-eyed golden retriever lived and a garage stuffed with a ten-foot high pile of dried corn cobs.
“Americans have guns,” he said in a thick countryside accent. A true statement, though not quite a question.
I tried to explain the American gun rights debate as evenly as I could. “Some people see the freedom to have guns as more important than the safety society might gain by banning them.”
He just shrugged. “America is far away,” he said. He did not seem upset about this.
Indeed, across all age groups and in both urban and rural areas, of all the grievances the Chinese I have met have with their government, the lack of private citizens owning guns is not one of them.
Americans and their guns are a constant topic of Chinese comedians, but the conversation never seems to be particularly intense. Despire the heavy subject matter, it is another easy joke about Americans, along with Americans being fat, loud, and having diabetes.
On the surface, these are all fair points, though this surface treatment is itself an issue. I am oftentimes told by acquaintances that I could not possibly be American, as I was not fat, diabetic, and armed to the teeth at our first meeting.
China has reached a point where knowledge of America is broad but not deep; It is heavily informed by Hollywood movies and Chinese media that seems to increasingly view global politics as an epic struggle between China and America for control of the world. An America filled with guns fits nicely into this archetype.
(I should add that my frustration at this lack of intercultural depth is somewhat tempered by the unfortunate fact that many of my own countrymen still consider eating fortune cookies their most common cultural interaction with China. We all have a long way to go on this front.)
My friend who does a comedy bit describing the flags of the world has a joke about the American flag. “The American flag has stars and stripes. The stripes represent gun barrels. The stars represent elementary school students.” As the audience chuckles, I am left feeling torn. Cultural misunderstandings are one thing, but that joke is far too true for me to dismiss out of hand.
Joe Wong also riffed on the same topic at a Chinese open mic last month in Beijing. “In America, there are some places that are actually very dangerous because people have guns. At a lot of these schools, their essays have changed from ‘What I want to be when I grow up,’ to ‘What I want to be if I grow up.’”
Wong previously performed another gun joke, describing how a police officer arrived at his door to reprimand him for setting off fireworks on Chinese New Year.
“Fireworks are illegal?” Joe asked.
“Yes, they are dangerous,” the cop said. “If you want to make a lot of noise, you’ve got to buy a gun.”
Of course, rampages take place in China for many the same reasons they do in America, such as the lack of a solid mental health system. News reporters often report “madmen” attacking children in schools with knives; a harrowing video of a recent knife attack in a McDonalds drew media attention and last March, terrorists in Yunnan hacked several people to death with cleavers at a train station in Kunming. The American media has given more attention to the mental health aspect of this issue than the Chinese, but mental health is only one reason attacks take place.
But while Chinese people rightly decry such terrible occurrences, there inevitably arise comparisons of these events and their American counterparts. The American death totals from gun attacks are much higher than those from Chinese knife attacks. It would be a terrible thing to say one is better than the other, and so nobody does. And yet, the subtext is clear.
China is eager to learn so much about the West and is quickly incorporating many aspects of American culture into their own. But when it comes to guns, Chinese are happy to have guns in their Hollywood movies, and equally happy that their own citizens have so few
The Great LOL of China is a blog that aims to share the topics and themes that make Chinese audiences laugh. Its creator is Jesse Appell, an intercultural comedian who performs Chinese-language comedy all around China.