I was almost crying. My friend at the bar had just made a bilingual joke, and naturally he believed his superior wit was bringing me to tears. But it wasn’t that. Nor was the opposite true: I wasn’t lamenting the loss of my precious evening to the company of a self-satisfied bore. Not exactly. Like many emotional outbursts, this one was complicated.
But first, the joke in question:
My friend was describing his latest encounter with “the world,” meaning the Japanese-speaking world he often struggles in with his limited language abilities. (I know well the struggle he describes.) He claimed that, during a troublesome verbal exchange that day with a clerk at an electronics store, his frustration suddenly gave way to a calm confidence that nothing he didn’t understand could affect him adversely. At first he described it as “immunization against meaning”—protection against the consequences of not understanding what the other guy was saying.
But as he thought about it now at the bar, he put a bilingual twist on the concept by calling it iminaization (意味ないゼーション), a completely made up word conflating immunization and the Japanese word for “meaningless.” As he came to realize he had made a joke, he launched into a fit of self-congratulatory laughter that didn’t let up until he caught the sad glimmer at the corner of my eye.
I wasn’t crying over the joke itself. It wasn’t that bad. My sadness arose from the realization that the joke was of such a fragile constitution that it was unlikely to survive any amount of retelling. It was like a rare tropical flower in an arctic blizzard. Its background, its buildup, and particularly its language, were so limited in audience appeal that I was grimly convinced it had a lifespan equivalent to those of the bubbles in my friend’s beer glass.
Many bilingual jokes share the same fate: they emerge in a quantum state that decays faster than you can say, “Don’t touch my mustache.” Tell a bilingual joke and most people around you won’t have enough command of one language or the other to process it. There may be only a handful of people closest to you—like the ones willing to undertake an all-night Takeshi Kitano movie marathon with you—who can delve into both languages enough to get the joke. And even if they cross the threshold of understanding, they still might not think it’s funny. After all, most bilingual jokes consist of phoneme-level wordplay exercises known as puns—disdainfully pronounced “pyoons” by some of my highbrow friends.
Here’s another example, perhaps an even rarer one because it was unintentional and (indirectly) involved three languages. Sometimes in class I shake things up by using stock phrases in languages other than English or Japanese. For instance, instead of repeatedly saying “thank you” while collecting papers, I will occasionally say danke, merci, grazie, etc. Once at the end of a freshman class I waved goodbye and said “Hasta luego” (Spanish for “See you later”). As everyone was leaving, one confused student walked up and asked, “What am I supposed to do for English tomorrow?” “What do you mean?” I responded. “There’s no class tomorrow. You don’t have to do anything.” She then turned to her friends and asked, “‘Ashita no eigo’? Douiuimi?” (“'Tomorrow’s English’? What does that mean?”)
She had misheard my (poorly pronounced) hasta luego as ashita no eigo and thought I was reminding her to do something tomorrow for English class. Once I made the connection I couldn’t help laughing—at her expense—for a minute or two. But to her credit she laughed too, and decided to turn ashita no eigo into a motivational slogan for studying harder. And to my own credit, this cute ashita no eigo story has replaced my old, worn-out aho sumaho (smartphone for idiots) joke I’ve been using at bars and parties. We’ll see how long it lasts.