I guess I grew up lucky. Charlie-boy, Chas — my nicknames were rarely more exciting. Well, of course, the intelligentsia of my high school sometimes got really clever, transforming my last name from Hayward to Gayward. Get it?
More often, I got what were apparently hilarious question and answer exchanges that always risked the asker cracking a rib, so effective were they at “busting a gut.”
“What’s up, Chuck? Get it? Upchuck!” Seinfelds, every one of you.
The most abused joke, though, has to do with a certain character from Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.
“Your name is Charlie? Charlie Brown?”
None of this was terribly egregious. Very few things I was called were homophobic or otherwise too hurtful. No, my nicknames were so dull and unimaginative, they could only be rendered offensive by frequency.
I haven’t heard any of these jokes or names in years. Charlie-boy is an exception; it’s a term of endearment used by my family and, occasionally, ex-girlfriends who think it’s an acceptable moniker. Imagine my bewilderment, then, when that wonderfully comical Charlie Brown joke made an appearance, here in Japan, a full 6500 miles from where I first heard it.
The chances of meeting someone able to speak English well enough to crack the joke are virtually non-existent here. Japan’s population features a very low percentage of English-speaking foreigners. Add to that that, for a number of reasons outlined in this post from GaijinPot, English education, while a growing priority here, is ultimately abysmal, leaving very few Japanese competent and confident enough to attempt conversation. Despite the minuscule chance, my very first experience with Japan’s amazing summer festivals found me face to face with a wisecracking gentleman with just enough skill.
He took shape out of the cloud of barbecue smoke that obscured many of the cooks working beneath a canvas tent on the festival grounds. A straw hat sat precariously angled on his head, a crooked smile painted on his face. My first thought when I saw him? Why is Luffy from One Piece walking toward me with that grin, and why is he carrying that freshly poured beer?
Maybe the beer was a preemptive apology.
“Sit,” he said, pulling a short gray stool through the gravel with one hand, shoving the beer toward me with the other.
“I am Kobayashi. Nice to meet you.” He jerked an outstretched finger roughly into his own chest as he crouched down low next to me.
“Nice to meet you. Charlie. Thanks for the beer!”
But the gratitude couldn’t make it through the explosive fire lit behind his jubilant eyes when he heard my name. Elements fused in unholy alchemy.
“Charlie? Are you Charlie Brown?”
I was so surprised by the joke being lobbed at me in Japan — in Japan — that I choked on the head of my beer. My body betrayed me. My brain betrayed me. I found myself laughing at the crusty old joke as though it were genius. I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed at it before.
The night went on. Kobayashi repeated the joke a few more times as I introduced myself to some of his friends. I can’t say I found it funny after that first surprise shot to the giggling kidneys, but I also didn’t want to scream. I guess that joke does have some novelty left in it.
That doesn’t mean I want to hear it again. Ever.
What nicknames and terrible jokes about your name have followed you around? Let me know in the comments below!