By Kevin McCaughey
A traveler to Russia learns he is not allowed to understand Russian humor.
“It’s impossible for you to understand.” That’s what Galina told me. She was head of the university English Department in a city on the Volga river.
Maria, Galina’s sidekick and thesaurus, said: “Unattainable. Russian humor is very specifical.”
These pleasant, fleshy-faced, forty-something professors had joined me for shrimp and beer at what had been in Soviet times Dom Kultury, or House of Culture. Now, in the new Russia of the year 2000, the House of Culture was partitioned into magazine stands, kiosks that sold bootleg CDs, and bars. The black lights in the ceiling of our skinny bar turned our napkins the color of a ripe bruise.
“Specifical, how?” I asked.
In four years of teaching in former Soviet countries, I’d never understood just what was so specifical about Russian jokes. Sure, they came from a specific place, but so did sushi and polkas and David Hasselhoff, and theyhad all crossed borders with success.
“You see, you don’t understand our Russian reality,” Galina said.
“Our actuality. Our orientation,” Maria added.
“Well…” I said, and I tried to explain how I thought all jokes worked. They set up an expectation, see, then turned that expectation on its ear through a punchline. Only a few cultural or linguistic references need be made to allow the foreigner—
“I will tell one anecdote,” Galina interjected.
“Joke,” Maria said. “Our humor.”
“About New Russian.”
Case in point. A cultural reference. A New Russian was a breed of a got-rich-quick businessman, a mobster really, callous and dim.
Galina went on: “On the road there is car. Mercedes with New Russian. And katok.”
“What’s katok?” I interrupted, feeling this linguistic reference would be key to the success of the punchline down the road.
They didn’t know the English term exactly. So together the Russians attempted a verbal mosaic of katok which included the following English pieces: “the press of the road,” “the hot mountain of pavement,” “spread of hot solid,” and perhaps most confounding, “he.”
“Wait.” I asked. Who’s ‘he’”?
“Katok,” they said.
“Katok’s a ‘he’?”
“Larry,” Galina said.
“He’s Larry?” I asked.
“No, lorry,” Maria said. “Transport vehicle.”
“Lorry-truck,” Galina said.
Maria: “He goes very slowly.”
“Okay,” I said. I thought for a sec: Truck. Slow. Spreads hot solid. Maybe… “Steamroller?”
“Yes, maybe, why not.” Galina pushed ahead. “And New Russians. They have money. He tries to speed. But while they pressed, so it was a clash.”
Maria: “They destroyed by this machine.”
Galina picked up momentum: “Yes, and the policeman stopped the driver of Mercedes. He paid him, the policeman, the car driver, yes? He came to the driver of katok, and asked him, ‘Well, so will you tell me how will you speed up? How did you crash this machine? So pay the fine, please.’
That was all.
The two women politely held their laughter, and waited for mine.
“Do you understand?” Maria asked.
Galina tried to clarify: “The katok goes only five kilometers per hour. Weighs two or three tons. It is impossible for him to speed.”
But it wasn’t a question of speed. It seemed to me that the relative speeds of katoks and Mercedes throughout the world are pretty much the same. What I had missed was the over-all complete entirety of the joke.
My only choice was to fudge it.
“Ah,” I said. “The katok goes so slow.”
They weren’t buying it.
“He doesn’t understand,” Galina said.
Could I tell two professors, kind and hospitable women, that the language of this story was just too catawampus to lead me to the punchline? Could I tell them that my incomprehension did not necessarily affirm a notion that was deeply—even proudly—held, that Russian culture was inaccessible to the outsider? That their humor was somehow… specifical?
No, I could not. And it really didn’t seem fair. I’d seen a packed movie house of Russians laugh their heads off at American Pie. Why wasn’t American humor allowed this cultural exclusivity?
Russia has had it very tough the last hundred years or so. Brutally tough. The message is often you don’t know what we’ve been through, even when it comes to something as internationally pervasive as the need to laugh.
All I could do was give them my best village idiot smile.
“You see?” Maria said, giving a shake of the head to Galina. “He doesn’t know our Russian reality. I said it just now.”
In 1996, Kevin McCaughey applied for teaching positions, on a thematic whim, in countries beginning with the letter M. Mongolia and Morocco passed, but a desperate school in Moldova offered him a job. Today Kevin is a wandering teacher trainer who also writes stories and composes music. He has been a Fulbright Fellow in Belarus and has taught in Russia, Yemen, India, Jordan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. His memoir in progress is called Beyond the Iron Skirt: Puzzling Adventures with Russian Girls, and his teaching website is English Teachers Everywhere (www.etseverywhere.com).