Laughter can build bridges and walls

When I first came to the United States as a college student, I chose a small women's dorm nicknamed "the nunnery" and joined a group of female students who studied seven days a week - even on Friday and Saturday nights when the rest of the campus was busy partying.

For us, Sunday morning was a rare reprieve from our busy schedule, when we allowed ourselves to sleep in a little and take a leisurely brunch at the dining hall. Over our plates of scrambled eggs and bacon we would complain about confusing assignments, exchange gossip about professors and other students, and fight over the "funny papers," the colorfully printed pages of comic strips in the Sunday paper.

Truth be told, the funny papers weren't really funny to me for the longest time - at least not to the same degree they were to my American peers. I went along with the friendly competition over who got to read it first, just so I felt like I was one of them. But for the most part, the punch lines totally eluded me, because of my lack of familiarity with underlying American cultural idioms.

For example, most popular comics among my college friends (including "Garfield," "Cathy," and "Bloom County") feature a readily recognised source of conflict in the lives of American teenagers and young adults: their struggle to establish their own identity against parental intervention. In my Japanese upbringing, by contrast, a person's identity is always rooted in family relationships and dependency on parents was taken for granted.

Sharing laughter bonds people together, strengthens existing social ties and patches over frayed relationships. Ambitious young adult women living together in a small dorm had their own share of interpersonal conflict: Just as much as we complained about the less serious students around campus, we complained about each other's poor habits or undesirable personality traits. Sunday comic strips gave us a reason to laugh together and reaffirm our goodwill toward each other.

But laughter can also separate and draw lines between those who are "in" on the joke and those who "don't get it." It marks the boundary around a social group and a sense of belonging. As a newly arrived international student, I was an outsider desperately trying to get "in."

Anthropoligst Laura Bohannan, the author of "Return to Laughter," realised this decades ago. (She was one of my anthropology mentors.) At the end of a fictional account of her fieldwork in West Africa, the villagers come back together after a traumatic loss through shared laughter. But this laughter is generated at the expense (in Bohannan's mind) of a disabled member of the community as an "other." Sitting among the villagers roaring with laughter all around her, she also realises she is a stranger. After months of fieldwork, living among them and trying to learn everything she could about their culture, she does not, and cannot, truly belong.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I watched with my students a video of a performance by Native American comedian Drew Lacapa. He addresses a mixed audience of local Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglo-Americans (a label applied to non-Hispanic whites), and ethnic identities and cultural boundaries are the main ingredients of his humour.

Lacapa begins his show by identifying himself as an Apache and making fun of the Navajos - the Apaches' tribal neighbours with a less than amicable historical relationship - about the constant changes in their tribal leadership.

As soon as this Apache-Navajo boundary is established, he brings them together with a joke about the Lakota Indians, whose "puppy eating" ways are equally outlandish to both groups. Then the common Native American identity is established against whiteness as he contrasts Native American women - tough, strong-willed and practical - against white women - well dressed and pretty but lacking the strength and pragmatism of Native American women.

Throughout his satire of shifting boundaries, the biggest butt of his joke is his own Native American masculine self. Often mistaken for Hispanic, his male body, once athletic but now overweight and troubled, performs domestic tasks traditionally associated with women at the request of his better-educated wife.

Lacapa's humour was heartily received by his intended audience in rural Arizona, who obviously recognised and appreciated his mastery at poking fun of the complex cultural politics of this region, where Native Americans, Hispanics and Anglos have lived side by side for centuries. I also appreciated his satirical commentary on shifting gender role expectations in the modern world, where his Native American-ness hinders more than buttresses his masculinity.

It was, however, a complete flop for my students. Generally speaking, they are very open-minded young adults who would be the first to speak in support of cultural diversity, yet all they could say about Lacapa's performance was "weird," a shorthand for everything that defies their ready understanding. They were put off by his off-colour jokes and vaguely offended by some regional cultural references, such as a commonly understood stereotype of Caucasian cultural tourists who flock around traditional ceremonies and fetishize Native American culture.

Humor, like that shared among the West African villagers or that offered by Lacapa, exposes discomforting differences and tests our utopian notion of cultural inclusiveness. I hope that one day my students will learn to share genuine laughter with people whose cultural origins and social positions are greatly different from their own, and come to appreciate the wry sense of humour that makes Lacapa's - and his audience's - world of laughter.