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Struggling With Humor in a Foreign Tongue

Misunderstandings and Jokes: An Immigrant Struggles with Humor


This is a part of a series called, “New American Stories” produced by Erika Lorentzsen. Communicating in English, when it’s not the mother tongue, can lead to misunderstandings. A person’s innate sense of humor may get suppressed when one learns a new language. Overcoming stereotypes can, also, be difficult with the language barrier.


Dirk Ockhardt is from Germany. He says just basic knowledge of English sometimes isn’t enough.


The most difficult thing for a foreigner is to understand jokes. If you understand irony or humor in a foreign language you are an advanced, advanced speaker. So for me it’s sometimes very hard to understand jokes, but it’s ever harder to makes jokes. So I always fail in that part too.  


When Kina Wong arrived in America from Cambodia, she knew no English. She says she had a hard time understanding things that came easy to her American peers.


When I was young we didn’t have milk that nutritious stuff.

My teachers telling me when I was young and I didn’t speak English. I save the milk and put it in my locker. And they was wondering what happed to the milk. They walk by my locker always smelled stink. So spoiled milk.


Shamsi Sheikuna is from Somalia. She says immigrants are not always the ones misreading a situation.


My mom went to a retail store, and the way that she was dressed, this other lady who worked at the store assumes she needs to be in the clearance section. She comes to my mom and she looks at her and she says the clearance section is on that side. Why do you automatically assume that I need to go to the clearance section? But she doesn’t speak English, so she couldn’t defend herself. She went and bought something expensive and left. But if I was her I wouldn’t have bought anything and have given her a piece of my mind about it. Another story personally about me, I was in middle school working at McDonalds. She was probably around 35 -40ish. Her mother was with her. She gave me a 20 dollar bill. Now looking at it to me somehow that looked like a 10 dollar bill. Mam, you owe me 3 more dollar. Look, it’s a 20 dollar bill. You don’t belong here. You need to go back to your country. She kept saying it loud so that everyone could hear her. I need to be professional and working still and just taking what she said. And I know if another chick, girl was a white girl. I’m pretty sure she’d never say something to her. She automatically assumed you’re dumb; you need to go back to your own country.


Eric Bisimwa is from the Congo. He believes African immigrants struggle with understanding something very important - following the law.


Some tradition you think you’re doing a tradition, but you’re breaking the laws, or rules here. There’s no excuse like me I’ve been here long enough I know reading, writing. I have no excuse to say I don’t know. When the refugee come and they break the law and they don’t speak English. I know the big problem is people come, buy a car, start driving. Cuz Africa don’t care you have driving license or insurance. When police stop you you’ve already broken the law. Or maybe the apartments in some country some people talk loud. They’re shouting. The neighbor think we’re fighting. The neighbor will call the police. Police will come. So in the street the same thing. I can say the difference in that area, or the way they treat women is different. Women down men up. America is not the same way.  


Standing out and being different in a new country can lead to unexpected hassles. Adjusting to life in the US takes tenacity, even in a place which claims to celebrate difference. This is Erika Lorentzsen for Prairie Public.


Next we’ll hear a story about a looking for a place of worship and a Bhutanese wedding in Fargo. This series was made possible by the support of the Humanities Council and FM Area Foundation.

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