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Indonesian misses ability to tell jokes

By Jessica Allen | November 3rd, 2009
 |  1 Comment

[See companion story – Skilled and foreign to job fairs]

Hidden back among piled up boxes and dust, past secondhand clothing racks and arrays of vibrant Journalism - Caroline 009knick-knacks, Caroline Williams finds solace in books.

It is here, among the secondhand book stacks of the Brown Elephant Thrift Store in the historically Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville, that the Indonesian retreats to for a favorite shopping experience.

“It’s like an escape for me,” she said, as she pointed out her favorite shelves, lined with humorous books such as Tales Too Ticklish To Tell and The 12-Step Bush Recovery Program.

Williams left Jakarta for the United States four years ago to be with her husband, whom she met on Match.com, a place she turned to when she was coping with a broken heart after a breakup. She was in college studying physics when they met online, so the two maintained a distant, two-year-long relationship, married, and then she joined him in Chicago after she finished school.

The two bonded over their love of humor. Funny anecdotes of their early courtship include the first time her husband called her.

“He called me because he was afraid I was a guy,” Williams said. She still laughs when she tells that story.

When she came to the United States, Williams gave up more than she realized.

She said that, perhaps like every immigrant, she lost half her life when she came to America. Two of her biggest struggles were leaving her family and learning to communicate in a different language to a different culture.

She said she can’t express herself, and that’s not funny.

Click here for AUDIO: Humor is particularly hard

Frustrated by a language barrier, the Indonesian is unable to convey the humor she finds so vital to her personality.

“It breaks my heart,” she said. “I want people laughing, happy.”

She takes respite from these disappointments by overloading on American comedy shows, such as Jay Leno and Spongebob Squarepants – two of her favorites.

Back home, her family used to bond over their love of humor. They would gather together to watch Spongebob, a show they all thought desperately funny. Such comedy shows would bring her family together, and Williams was able to connect with her mother over their shared love of jokes.

Click here for AUDIO: Spongebob has an audience in Indonesia

Once in the U.S., Williams bought all of the Spongebob DVDs. She says when she watches them she feels like she’s still with her family back home.

“One of the qualities I like of my husband is his sense of humor,” Williams said. “But there’re only two of us.”

She says she suffers if she goes a day without laughing, which is why she’s so adamant about pursuing humor in every aspect of her life.

Click here for AUDIO: To her, humor is survival

Still considering herself a newcomer to the United States, Williams’ adaptation to the culture and language is constantly being put to the test, which is why she struggles in telling jokes. Translating jokes from Bahasa (the language she spoke in Indonesia) to English often doesn’t work because of both language and cultural differences. For example, Americans often can’t relate to Indonesian jokes about people adapting to contemporary life.

Click here for AUDIO: Have you heard the one about the Indonesian couple at the ATM machine?

She also has difficulty telling jokes to her Indonesian friends back home, who don’t understand the new comedy Williams has come to love. She watches the comedy series, “The Office,” and when she’s talked on the phone to friends back home, she’s tried to tell them “that’s-what-she-said” jokes, but they don’t seem to get it.

Click here for AUDIO: Study physics? That’s what she said.

This saddens her because people think that because she studies physics, she’s a serious person. Quite the contrary. She hopes that if she were to have one legacy it would be humor, because she relishes in the ability to make people smile.

Having a thirst for science, she finds it difficult to cope with not having a professional life. Though she received her M.S. in Physics from the University of Indonesia, the most famous university of her country, it has been difficult for Williams to enter this realm. One problem is that, though she speaks English fluently, she becomes nervous in professional settings and interviews because she knows they’re expecting her to speak well. Thus, she ardently continues to search for a position in the field of science and education.

Though she’s been unable to start her professional life, Williams has found other ways to remain busy.

The self-professed cheapskate spends a lot of time at thrift stores, rebuilding her “library.” She had to leave behind all of her books when she left Jakarta, so she treasures the prices and variety of thrift stores and book swap sites. Her favorites are “funny science” books, and a beloved author is Richard Feynman, a physicist she finds very humorous.

Williams has also begun blogging.

She calls her blog, “Space-Time Continuum,” part humor and part science. In May, she was particularly excited to see that Ben Goldacre from Bad Science, The Guardian UK had linked to her blog. He tweeted, “Sarcasm may be in my genes: excellent piece of recontextualisation satire.”

In the entry Goldacre linked to, Williams lists under the subhead “I’ve told you, Ma, It’s not my fault!” a line of links, which blame genetics for everything from why children hate vegetables to the appeal of gambling to love at first site. The result, of course, is the title: “Sarcasm may be in my genes.”

Though it’s been tough at times, Williams has found ways to adjust to life in America without giving up her identity. She says you need to have a connection with people before you can tell jokes, and she’s been connecting with people more. She’s even introduced her husband to Spongebob, and they now bond over the show, which she says he thinks is very, very funny.

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