When Ethnic Jokes Can Be Exchanged and Enjoyed

Once upon a time, well before Obama and Trump as we know them, and when pretty much everybody still smoked tobacco, I was having a lunch break with guys from the Lab and Production. And it must be noted that our frontline workforce was more diverse than the United Nations has ever been.

In the end of the lunch break, having nothing better to do, I decided to tell a joke.

Actually, that was not a joke: it was a riddle. It used to be very pretty popular when I was in high school, at the time when the Cold War was officially over but we did not know that yet. My point is, this story and the events around it happened a long time ago, so neither of the two presidents – or three for that matter – may be blamed for my cross-cultural incompetence.

Now, here’s the riddle as it was delivered by me in the smoking area of the warehouse adjacent to the canteen.

“Once, Americans decided to send a spy to the USSR. He was parachuted into Russia in the-middle-of-nowhere village in Siberia. Obviously, he had been properly prepared by the CIA: could speak colloquial Russian and could ID every person in that village better than his own wife and kids.

The spy walked out of the woods and went straight to the well, where the villagers would often meet and chat. An old babushka was there, filling her buckets with water. Of course, he recognized her and addressed her by name, in perfect Russian:

–         God help you, Maria Ivanovna! Could you give me some water? It’s been a hot day…”

Maria Ivanovna looked at him suspiciously and asked, “Aren’t you an American spy?”


The guys were perplexed but genuinely curious. I answered the usual question (No, he had dropped his parachute in the woods), but – of course! – none of the four guys was anywhere near the solution. Everything pointed towards imminent success. We had a few more minutes before the end of the break, and I decided to keep the audience in suspense as long as possible. Deep thinking called for more nicotine, so one of the guys was forced to part with his cigarettes after the usual friendly banter: “You effing immigrants!” – “Tais-toi, Chinois!” but no hate crime ensued.

Here I need to clarify that the guy with cigarettes was Vietnamese and the guy who spoke French and called him ‘Chinese’ was from Brazil. The third guy was ethnic Italian but technically not an immigrant, and finally there was a guy from Ethiopia.

I looked at this ‘apolitical International’ with admiration. And then I realized that I should rather not share the punch line with them. Except, perhaps, with the Italian, and not here. The riddle, originally conceived in a typically all-white culture from my previous life, was inappropriate in my present because at least one of my smoking buddies was, well, a person of color. To give you the taste, the opposite side of the spectrum for him would be someone whiter than Donald Trump…

…On a totally different occasion, at a rather formal lunch in downtown Montreal, my colleagues and I had a striking revelation: of the eighteen gentlemen present, only one was born in Canada. But none of us would have an issue sharing “cross-cultural” jokes at the table, laughing at them or being laughed at. For example, one guy found it very amusing that his assistant had to order a can of white paint especially for him so that he could participate in a team-building event involving body painting. During that lunch I also learned that “only the French would be dumb enough to claim a place like Quebec as their own, but only the English would be dumb enough to contest that,” and nobody was offended. Perhaps, we were oblivious of our differences. Or perhaps we embrace the differences and in a certain way enjoy them, because we respect and love each other regardless of the skin color or accent.

I do have a feeling though that there’s less cross-cultural tension when you take lunch closer to downtown (should apply to Chicago as well), and I think that not sharing the punch line in the warehouse was a wise move on my part.

Would you exchange cross-cultural jokes with your colleagues? Or is this “Only in Canada” experience?

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