Bilingual Comedian Jesse Appell on his viral clip, identity, and being real

Boston-via-Beijing-via-Los Angeles comedian Jesse Appell caught up with RADII to talk about getting laughs and living between cultures

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6:36 PM HKT, Wed February 21, 2024 4 mins read

A great joke transcends borders and never gets old. On stage, American comedian Jesse Appell was telling one of his favorite jokes to a Chinese audience — in Chinese.

“Did you know in Boston we actually have our own Northeastern accent? [你知不知道我们美国东北真的有个美国东北口音?]

“This is real. [这是真的.]

“We have a Boston accent. We don’t have any Rs at all. [我们那边有个波士顿话。我们那边什么样的特色呢?我们那边没有儿化音.]

“Let me give you an example. [给你们举个例子吧.]

“Normal English, the sentence ‘I park my car in Harvard Yard,’ lots of Rs. [用标准的英语说“我把我的车停在哈佛院”儿化音很重.]

“But that’s not how we say it in Boston! [但我们波士顿人不这么说.]

“How do we say it? [波士顿人怎么说?]

“I pahk my cah in hahvahd yahd.

“Like ducks, AHHH [像鸭子那种.]

“If you see two Americans chatting, AAHH. [如果你看到两个美国人在聊天.]

“‘Hey, Northeasterners! [噢东北人 !])

“‘I’m from Shenyang!’” [老乡啊,我是沈阳的!]

The clip went viral, amassing over 150 million views and 763,000 likes on Instagram.

“This is nuts. Non-Chinese guy doing stand-up in Mandarin about the way Americans in Boston speak English,” reads one comment.

“The extra layer to this joke is that the Northeastern accent in China is the exact opposite. Lots of Rs casually thrown on the ends of random words, so everyone in that room gets the irony in a way that doesn’t translate to a lot of people in the comments,” reads another.

Having lived in China for nine years and returned to America during the pandemic, Jesse, or 艾杰西 [Ai Jiexi], is a master of Chinese humor and performance whose prowess as a bilingual comedian recently took the internet by storm. More than just a comedian, he is also the owner of a tea business and a podcaster who hosts the weekly show Teatime With Jesse, where he converses with guests of diverse cultural backgrounds over tea.

His jokes, told through a mix of Mandarin Chinese and English, charm his audience across the globe. His witty charisma captures the nuances of intercultural identity, enabling him to connect with his fellow culture straddlers while tapping into his true authentic self.

“There’s the idea of truth in comedy. Language is part of the crazy, true nature of living between cultures,” said Appell. “It’s not like bilingual things are funny. It’s like when I say I have these bilingual problems, people really believe it.”

A Boston native, Appell grew up as a jokey kid who enjoyed making people laugh. In high school, he dabbled in improv, a comedy style where comedians go on stage without a script and other preparation. After graduating from Brandeis University in 2012, he landed at Tsinghua University in Beijing to study Chinese and xiangsheng (a traditional comedic art) as a Fulbright scholar.

His fluency in Chinese came with arduous training. As he recalls from his apartment in Los Angeles with a candid laugh, the process was intensive and challenging. In the comedy industry, swiftness is as important as humor. His jobs after the Tsinghua program — a xiangsheng performer, a comedy writer, a chat show cast member, a business owner, and the lead organizer of a Chinese comedy team — required high level Mandarin skills. When writing jokes for Chinese TV shows, native Chinese speakers could deliver excellent first drafts whereas he, writing in a second language, needed to work extra hard to catch up.

“It’s really hard to get there if you’re not a native speaker, but my goal is to out-compete the Chinese comedy writers in Chinese. That requirement is very, very high and I’ll never really get there in the same way other people might,” Appell said.

But language was not the main challenge of performing in China. Instead, a more prominent quandary loomed over his physical appearance as a lăowài (the informal Chinese term for foreigners). As soon as Chinese audiences observe his foreign features, they may begin to view him through a lens of preconceived notions. For example, in response to his setup line, “I was on the subway and I saw something,” they may ponder, “What stood out to a lăowài on the subway?” For a dating story, they may expect “what happens to a lăowài in dating.” Or, for a joke about starting a business in China, they may assume he would make the typical mistakes of a foreigner.

That made him wonder, how does he tell a joke to Chinese people who see him as a lăowài living an alien life? What identity should he set up for himself, not merely as a foreigner, but as a real person?

That comes his viral dōngběi (Northeast) joke, which, in fact, is one of his oldest jokes. In the full version on TikTok, he continued on the “Rs” — “Not until I moved to Beijing did I find the missing Rs from the Boston accent. The whole lifetime of R sounds was waiting for me here.” The setup not only tickles the audience, but also informs them of who he is, where he’s from, and how he ended up speaking Chinese.

Lăowài is not a real thing. Once you leave China, there’s no lăowài,” says Appell. “The idea of being a měiguó dōngběi rén [American Northeasterner] is funny but also real. This dōngběi joke originated because I can’t be a lăowài. I need to find another identity that’s real.”

The explosive success of this video took him by surprise. But other than views, he was more surprised by the politicized comments, where one comment reads, “In order to be funny in China you can just steal jokes and do them in Chinese.”

As a foreigner who does jokes in Chinese, Appell knows the implausibility because, for one, you would need to be very skilled in the Chinese language to steal a joke and translate it; second, what’s funny in one place is not necessarily funny in the other.

To him, the essence of telling jokes is to share life experiences. But political fights are ubiquitous, pushing comedians to take sides. He acknowledged that the market for anti-China or anti-America humor is lucrative, but he sees it as a false dilemma for people to feed the audience what they want to hear.

“If I’m telling about my real life, it’s gonna have good things, bad things, funny things and sad things. It’s gonna have the whole experience of being human. I can’t pick sides on being human,” Appell said.

Having returned to the US in 2020 during the pandemic, he hopes to reunite with his friends in China soon. After a 9-year stint in China, he now stays in Los Angeles and tells bilingual jokes to his Chinese immigrant audience, a group he deeply resonates with. Like them, he has to figure out social security scores, visa issues related to traveling between the US and China, and how much money to keep in US dollars and RMB. Like them, he is greeted by Chinese YouTube advertisements asking him, “Did you just move to America?”

“[These problems] are just not a topic that has anything to do with regular people’s lives. But for Chinese immigrants here, this is what they deal with. They also live between the two cultures. I’m just one of them,” he says.

Banner image by Haedi Yue.

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