*Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition!*
[Red rag to a bull—Ed.]
This is one of the classic stories in our Fieldworkers’ joke manual, always coming to mind whenever some formal meeting prompts Chinese people to address me with the honorific nin 您 for “you” rather than the standard ni 你 (for a fine discussion, see here).
Dating from 1980s’ Beijing, the crucial pronouns of the story translate much less naturally into English than into other European languages, which still preserve the distinction between informal singular and honorific plural forms of the word for “you”:
So there’s this factory worker riding his rusty old bike home after his shift, trundling along in a daze. All of a sudden a big shiny Mercedes casually turns right just in front of him [as they do], and with no time to screech to a halt, the worker’s bike bumps into the gleaming car. As the chauffeur stops to inspect the damage, the furious worker leans over into the car and shouts,
“Your mother’s cunt!”
On behalf of the high-ranking Party apparatchik seated in the back, the chauffeur comes back with,
“Hey, comrade! How dare you speak so disrespectfully—don’t you realize there’s a VIP National Leader sitting in the back?”
Feigning an apology, the worker exclaims politely,
“Oh, I’m sooo sorry— I should have said, ‘Your esteemed… mother’s cunt!’
On an Academy of Ancient Music tour of the States around 2002, a couple of my mates enjoyed the story, and wanted to hear me telling it in Chinese. Rodolfo, amazing fiddle player from Brazil, thought it would work well in Brazilian Portuguese, so I talked him through it, and one evening as the band was gathered in an unsalubrious pub after a gig in Nebraska, he did a near-simultaneous translation while I told the Chinese version—which, beautifully, had ’em rolling in the aisles. It’s not the joke, it’s the way you tell it.
Among my Chinese mates this story is such a classic topos that now if I want to swear at one of them, all I have to do is mutter, “NIN…”