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Lessons Learned
You don't make jokes about chopsticks

November 1, 1999
Web posted at 11:30 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11:30 p.m. EDT

Warning: The following column may include attempts at humor.

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There I said it. And I guess I should have said it before the previous column, which generated approximately 1.3 billion pieces of hate mail from Chinese studying in the U.S. (For added clarity this week, I'm also labeling any potentially amusing lines with footnotes explaining the precise intended comic effect.) A little background: the earlier column was meant to poke gentle fun at Western misconceptions of China, a topic of interest since I've lived most of the past two decades in China. The stylistic approach: mildly absurdist satire, a mode immediately discernible to, well, most people. Thus when a writer makes an assertion, as I did, that "The Great Wall is a mere metaphorical concept representing China's historical desire to keep unwanted ideas and individuals from penetrating its borders. There is no actual 'Wall'...", one assumes that everyone will see it for what it is: Satire! Jolly good!

Unfortunately, the people I get mail from figure I have to be an idiot. (For two "mistakes," actually. In another bit of off-the-wall hilarity*, I "explained" that the Chinese didn't actually invent chopsticks; Charlie Chaplin did.) The implications of the reactions are interesting, and probably get to the heart of the earlier piece, which ultimately was about East-West misunderstanding. I interpret the responses to mean this: Non-Chinese/Journalists/Guys named Adi are so prone to stupidity that statements like these confirm the tendency--as opposed to, for example: Foreigners/Journalists/Guys named Adi are generally clever, so if they're saying things like this it must be for a reason: Satire! Jolly good!** The fully accredited international humorist Dave Barry occasionally writes of getting angry screeds from, say, fans of Barry Manilow each time he teasingly disses the singer. I always figured he was kidding, or at least exaggerating. No longer.

Don't get me wrong. It's a thrill that the Internet is so empowering, enabling readers to have a voice. It's so thrilling, in fact, that I'd like to share some of my fan-mail:

From Bin Liu: "Most American people like to sit home to comment the world. We all hope you can go to China..."

From Lu Chunyi: "Mr. Ignatius' article is full of basic mistakes. If you really want to write something, please work on it..."

From Lee Song: "Dear Stupid Author... jokes [about chopsticks] are not acceptable to Chinese."

From pvb: "Who is this Adi Ignatius? Why do you allow his crap to be shown on this prestigious site? If you want to insult 1.3 billion Chinese all over the world, you will pay!!"

Heavy stuff. So, to clarify: I don't mean to insult any Chinese anywhere. And I certainly don't want to "pay." This is a vow: I will never, ever again make jokes in this column about chopsticks***.

* self-deprecating humor
** repetition for comedic effect
*** a joke about chopsticks

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