If there’s one thing you need to understand about my (and in fact, a lot of Vietnamese people’s) sense of humor, it’s that most things–ESPECIALLY tragic things–are up for grabs in terms of jokes. If your relationships, your career, and your life is falling apart, now’s the time to make a funny, dry comment that poorly masks how dead you’re feeling on the inside. *finger guns*
Looking back on Vietnamese history, you can find plenty of terrible, awful, tragic events: 1000 years of Chinese rule (literally named the “Chinese domination of Vietnam” on Wikipedia), French colonization, the Vietnam War (and its litany of human rights violations at the hands of both the Northern/Southern Vietnamese armies and the American government), extreme corruption within the present government, intense economic inequality…the list goes on. Honestly, what the fuck can you do when you feel and are also made helpless by your current circumstances?
You make a shitty joke about it.
Is this a poor coping mechanism? Not according to psychology. A study from Yale University posits that we laugh and smile through the pain in order to regulate our emotions because oh gee!!!!!, “regulating emotion is important to your work, relationships, and well-being.” My parents lived through French colonization, the Vietnam war, and the loss of their country to starvation and labor camps post-Vietnam war. With that much sadness in their lives, it’s a miracle they managed to stay mostly sane.
The funny thing is, a lot of Americans–mostly Caucasian Americans–are very uncomfortable with the idea that you laugh in the face of tragedy. And some of the shit that I laugh at is dark. Like, very dark. Examples:
- My family and I were visiting Paradise Cave in Vietnam, and it’s situated near this very rural, very poor village in the mountains. All of the workers in the Paradise Cave tourist attraction were from the village, and without fail, worker after worker kept telling us how their lives are khổ, a.k.a. unhappy, miserable, tragic. One young woman told my family and the tour group we were traveling with: “When I was younger, I thought my life was khổ because I was poor, so I decided to get a husband. But then I found that once I got a husband and children, my life was even more khổ.” Cue boisterous laughter from the tour group.
- My tour guide on this same trip was taking us through the city of Huế, and there’s a certain stereotype about the people in this region of the country that you have to understand. In the words of my tour guide: “The people of Huế are very mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and sweet. It’s also very sad in this region. There’s nothing to do here, and there is constant rain for most months of the year. The river floods from the the monsoon season, and people very regularly throw themselves into the river.” Chuckle. “Now if you look over to the right-hand side, you can see the temple that we’ll be visiting!”
The even more fucked up part is that Vietnamese people just loooooovvvvvveeee that tragic shit. My parents and others of their generation are huge fans of French New Wave cinema, which almost always ends with some poignant, ineffable thesis statement on the absurdity of human existence. My dad likes to joke that all of the French songs Vietnamese people like have the words “pleurer (to cry), oublier (to forget), crier (to yell),” without fail. My parents’ affinity for old French singers Christophe and Enrico Macias does little to disprove this statement.
It’s entirely possible that Vietnamese people like tragic film/story/song because it’s an emotionally accurate reflection of their daily lives and not because they actually, you know, like the subject matter. I mean, does any “healthy” or “well-adjusted” or HappyTM person gravitate towards intensely sad media?…I’d have to get back to you on that.
So, I think we laugh at our tragedy partly because we can’t think of any other way of dealing with it and also partly because we relish in it. But if you have a Vietnamese friend, you can probably count on them to cheer you up (and also have you really think about the depths of your despair and pathetic existence) all in one pithy punchline.