Two weeks into my study abroad in Costa Rica, I fully understood a joke that a native Tican — the local slang for Costa Rican — told to other Ticans. It had been a kind of depressing journey to that point
I’ve been trying my hardest to spend as much time as I can conversing in Spanish with my host family and the relatives who come over to visit, and while I am generally able to follow the conversation, humor often slips by me. Maybe it’s the timing of the delivery or the play on words that jokes normally entail, but several times, I’ve found myself laughing politely at what I knew was a joke based solely on the reactions of the others in the conversation. And let me tell you, laughing awkwardly at a joke you didn’t actually understand is really uncomfortable (less uncomfortable than just sitting there looking dumb, but that’s beside the point.)

To be honest, the inability to understand and share humor is probably the biggest way I’ve encountered culture shock since I arrived in Costa Rica. While no one in my family actually thinks I’m funny, I derive immense pleasure from bad puns, gentle sarcasm and generally terrible jokes.

Unfortunately, my current grasp of the Spanish language is barely enough for me to make it through an entire mealtime conversation, much less demonstrate my — not very — sharp wit. Because they can’t roll their eyes at my bad jokes, I feel like my host relatives are missing a significant aspect of my winning personality. I’m sure they’ve realized how much of a nerd I am based on how much time I spend doing my homework every day. (They also assume that all the time I spend on my computer is time spent arduously working, although that is simply just not true.) I fear, however, that they will never truly understand how much of a dork this American exchange student is. And I’m weirdly proud of mydorkiness. I assume it’s endearing.

My inability to share a sense of humor with my host family is also what has made me miss my immediate family the most. While I’ve never been considered particularly witty by my relatives, my younger brother is known for his rather ludicrous sense of humor. This normally manifests itself in telling me dumb jokes, trying to get me to participate in skits and, my particular least favorite, making up half-hour-long nonsensical raps. Still, none of these things annoy me nearly as much as I pretend they do, and I don’t really know what to do with myself without someone to bother/entertain me with constant laughs in my native language.

Sure, the other American students in my program and I partake in our share of chuckles. In fact, one of the other kids has defined his role in the group as the designated teller of bad jokes. Yet there is a very noticeable difference between humor among friends and humor shared by one’s family. I can see and hear the reactions of my host family members when one of them says or does something particularly hilarious. The laughter they share reflects not only the humor of the moment but a deeper sense of joy and love for one another; that’s something I really miss about being at home, and something I really want to be a part of here.

Two weeks in, however, I got to laugh with my host family for the first time, and it was awesome. As my host parents, who are both in their 60s, and I prepared the table, my 31-year-old host sister regaled us with how her 9-year-old son woke up this morning with a crick in his back. She told him to stretch himself out by sitting in a chair and pivoting around his spine. When he turned one way, some of his vertebrae cracked. When he turned the other way, he farted, apparently pretty loudly.

And because flatulence is funny in every language, I finally understood what was going on. Nothing brings a family together like a well-timed fart.

Mariah Byrne is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. SURVIVING ENDLESS SUMMER appears every other Friday in the guide.

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