F-u-n need not be a dirty word

At a recent dinner with friends, guests were asked to avoid using suggestive words and to spell them if necessary, in deference to the children present.

Within minutes, we were saying things like: "These p-r-a-w-n-s are delicious, you say you got them online? I must visit these p-r-a-w-n sites!" Yet another great example of how we Asians use safe words for the sake of social harmony. True, we are bound by certain rules yet we can enjoy ourselves freely within these constraints.

Last week, the openly restrained Singaporean sense of humour made international news, thanks to the hashtags #SG50ShadesOfGrey, or #SG50ShadesOfGray for American-English purists.

Participants in the meme, which began on Feb 11 on Facebook, post saucy tales that seem to reference the newly released much-hyped movie about sex, Fifty Shades Of Grey. However, the stories shared are not Twitterotica, but terrible puns on quintessentially Singaporean woes from crowded MRT trains to ERP gantries.

The Singapore thread has inspired social media users of Manila and Hong Kong to share similar city-specific stories. Both BuzzFeed and BBC Trending have reported on this ongoing phenomenon - because the news point is that Asians can take and make a joke.

No, seriously. Asians having a sense of humour is news overseas and eventually explained away by the fact that the posts reek of "social commentary".

For a while, this sucked out all the fun of the trend for me. It proved that despite all the comic Asian sidekicks appearing in Hollywood movies or the international appeal of a thick Indian or Chinese accent in stand-up comedy, people not from the most populous continent remain surprised by evidence that Asians can crack up without someone first needing to slip on a banana peel.

Since when was f-u-n a dirty word in Asia? It must be an international misunderstanding of that other famous stereotype, Asian politeness, seen by many as social reserve to match the stiff British upper lip.

Many countries in Asia include people from diverse faiths and ethnic backgrounds, which means that public discourse should be framed with exquisite sensitivity lest it offend anyone. This can lead to some incredible contortions in social intercourse, starting with the Japanese and Indian habit of offering a gift with so many negative remarks about the contents that the recipient might wonder why the object is being given in the first place.

We Asians have a long tradition of concealing what we mean behind double- negatives and single-word exclamations or headshakes that mean "Yes" and "No" at the same time. Which are further clues that we possess an enlightened, sophisticated sense of humour only understandable to someone who accepts that "My parents want me home to prepare for Chinese New Year/Deepavali/Hari Raya" is serious reason to postpone a work meeting and go home.

Nobody within Singapore is surprised at the thousands of responses to #SG50ShadesOfGrey. We made jokes about Fifty Shades Of Grey during the choking haze of 2013. Many have been panning the franchise ever since the original E.L. James trilogy of novels featuring rough sex began dominating bestseller lists here - reading them was painful, pun intended, punishment felt.

If cracking dirty jokes among friends is a rite of passage for adolescents, signifying their approach into adulthood, I have always thought that learning the rules of intercourse - when to make what sort of joke - is the badge signifying membership in the grown-up world.

Responders to the Fifty Shades Of Grey meme seem to hold the same opinion. F-u-n is not a dirty word in Asia, but we can have f-u-n online without needing to risk obscenity suits. Posts on the meme are cleverly framed, with a typically Asian mix of caution and cockiness. The most popular, from @ErvinHan, reads: "Her legs shook as waves of pleasure rocked her body. Then the salesman asked: "Auntie, you buying this Osim chair or not?"

Note the slow build and burn? First a suggestive phrase to set the mood, then the budding double entendre peters out into a joke lame enough to be read aloud at the family dining table.

Unless, of course, the family includes children below a certain age, in which case the posts will need to be spelt out with parental caution. Just for a few years, of course, which I estimate is how long it would take to enunciate each 160- character post, with repetitions so every listener gets the d-o-u-b-l-e m-e-a-n-i-n-g.

akshitan@sph.com.sg