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Laughter is Universal--Humor is Not

New York City is home to thousands of manicurists from faraway places. Normally there is little conversation between people having their nails done and the people doing the job. For one thing, manicurists often have limited English, but in addition, many people prefer to read, listen to music or just stare into space while in the relaxing environment of a nail salon. I broke through that wall last week when I accidentally said something ungrammatical to the manicurist and then quickly corrected the mistake. She scoffed at me and told me grammar was the last thing on her mind. "I just want people to understand what I say," she told me. As though a dam had burst, she then described how painful it was not to understand subtle things in your second language--subtle things like humor. "I'll be watching a TV show, and people are laughing, but I don't see what's funny," she said. "I'm a humorous person in my country (Korea), but here I never see the joke." This gave me new insight into the experience of living in a new country--even one you have been in for years. It takes a long time to soak up the flavor of the language in order to understand the humor of the culture. Body language, after all, goes only so far.