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Posted on February 24, 2012 by
on the road at
Curtin Springs Roadhouse
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Translated literally from the German, Schadenfreude means shameful pleasure. More loosely it is joy in another's misfortune. Like watching a vegan being told the macrobiotic rice was cooked in the same water that rehydrated the beef jerky.

As I drove from Uluru to Alice Springs I encountered another Schadenfreude moment. In a separate vehicle I followed Aboriginal elder Alison Hunt and her grandson Damien. Out the front of Curtin Springs Roadhouse a stray bull was lingering on the highway. Damien slowed in case he hit the beast but the beast had other ideas. He rammed the car thus creating a massive dent in its side and in the process knocking himself out.

Now Curtin Springs Roadhouse has history with Aboriginal people so I had to go in and tell them they had a mad bovine lying unconscious or dead on the highway.

The owner wasn't there but a blond horsewoman and a Chinese chef came out to inspect both the damage to the car and the bull.

You've heard the expression ... charge like a wounded bull ... it's pretty much spot on. The still groggy animal was slowly rising from the tarmac when the blond and the chef joined us. For reasons best known to himself the very short Chinese man decided to take things into his own hands and examine the bull's condition. It is likely that the closest he'd previously got to a bull was a sirloin steak.

Within 10 seconds the enraged beast was chasing him down the embankment. Had it not been for a swift bit of footwork he would have ended up looking like the spaghetti bolognese he was preparing for lunch, before it was cooked.

People being chased by scrub bulls isn't rare in Central Australia, about on par with crocodiles chasing fishermen in the Top End. Thing is, when the Chinaman was perilously close to becoming chop suey, everyone laughed. The Aboriginals laughed, I laughed and the blond horsewomen laughed so much she risked internal damage to rival that about to be dished out to the chef.

I used to lead regular trips for walkers into the Blue Mountains. On one walk a large woman slipped into a freezing creek and her mates laughed almost as much the first time as when she slipped again and fell deeper in the second time, clambering out as gracefully as a 3-legged water buffalo on sedatives. It was my first clear awareness of Schadenfreud.

Was it particularly funny that it was a Chinese chef escaping? It think it helped. Something about being small, wearing a hat and with the flapping apron. Perhaps just the incongruity of it. Maybe the looming headline. Ling Low gorged by Raging Bull or an underlying suggestion of A Bull in a China Shop.

I know if it was me being chased, the blackfellas would have been beside themselves. Nothing funnier than seeing a whitefella run for his life.

Thankfully the bull couldn't match his prey's sidestep and the chef escaped behind the cattle grid. The horsewoman was still in stitches and then more so when the bull revived to send the blackfellas scrambling back into the relative safety of their bull-damaged Toyota.

I laughed as well but not as much as the chef whose hilarity was probably fueled by his still heightened adrenalin levels.

I like to think this blog attracts people with inquiring minds.

So can anyone illuminate me? Why does watching a near-death experience when its not yours tickle the funny bone. Why is it even funnier when it's another ethnic group? Because lets face it it is.

Anyway, the Chef and the Bull both survived. Our cars headed out to Alice Springs and drove through a dust storm, lightning strikes and torrential rain, arriving into Alice Springs whose roads were steaming with evaporation.

Electronic Swagman Big Lesson No 1 - always ... always ... have the video camera beside you. You just never know when a bull will chase a Chinaman.

PS. I drove back to Curtin Springs and took images of the Chef and the Blond. The bull had long since disappeared. Mind you ours was a LOT bigger.

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Can't answer your question, but wonder if it a bit of "there but for the grace of God go I" - we turn our fear into laughter. Or is it intrinsically human - think kids in playground from day 1 laughing at what they don't understand....hmm I think this goes deeper into what makes us laugh and why.
Its probably all that. But I think there might be just a touch of malice in it as well that has a moment to seep out. I saw the chef yesterday and he is still shaken. Raymond
German psychologist Manfred Holodinsky did an experiment on this with four to eight year olds. The children were allowed to exchange apple juice with lemon juice and serve it to adults. All children were aware what apple juice and lemon juice tasted like. The four year olds warned the adults, the five to seven year olds started to laugh before the adults tasted the juice, therefore gave it away, the eight year olds showed no emotion and started to laugh after the adults tasted the juice, pleased that the trick succeeded, i.e. getting back at people in authority. Personally, I did not see the funny side at all in the potentially dangerous situation of the bull chasing the man. I don't think it has anything to do with him being Chinese. Falling into icy cold water and having trouble getting out of it is not funny either. I think people who laugh when there is a risk of serious injury, or the person is clearly distressed, are out of touch and lack empathy. This is not really ˜Schadenfreudeâd™, it is sadism. I agree with Raymond; a touch of malice may have played a part. Why people laugh at the misfortune of others is beyond me, especially when the ˜victim™ does not think it is funny at all or the situation is dangerous. Had I been the chef and I would have had the opportunity to cook a meal for any of you I think I would have put a dash of castor oil in the dish. The question that may need to be asked is why nobody tried to help him and distract the bull. I have seen people laugh after wrapping their car around a tree outside my house and escaping injury, but I think this was due to shock. Have a safe and enjoyable journey, Raymond! :)
Hi Cecilia You are perfectly right on one level except it was funny. The women who laughed when their friend went into the icy water drove her to the walk each week and stayed at the back because she was so unfit. There was no sadism involved. It was just funny. Maybe at a deep level everyone knew the chef would escape. Maybe we didn't think that far. There was certainly nothing we could do to distract the bull. Especially as everyone was laughing so much. Remember chef though it was funny when Alison was chased. The blackfellas have told everyone in the community. Old Alison is a deeply spiritual person who leads her community and she still finds it funny. She went to Hermannsburg after this and got chased by bees and as she ran all her family, who are not sadists, laughed. Nope I think its complex. Maybe an escape valve, some sort of relief. The Tibetans laugh when someone nearly falls of a mountain. Maybe laughing in the face of death. I don't know. I remember I fell into mud on the South West Cape walk in Tasmania. Up to my waist with an extremely heavy pack. Everyone thought it was terrific. I did the wrong thing and got upset and they laughed a lot more. It looked even funnier. Anyway, I am writing from outside Port Augusta where I am bogged in mud after this incredible rain. I've kicked Tom out of the car and I am in the back. I'll worry about it in the morning. C ya Raymond
Julia Rowntree
Is there a difference beteen laughing "with" someone and laughing "at" someone, perhaps the latter being a sign of discomfort or insecurity at whatever issue(s) the situation throws up?
I think that might be the closest answer yet. Some things are just funny whether they SHOULD be or not. At a deeper level, I wonder if its our vulnerability and false hopes we are laughing at. With the chef and the bull, see the Bull as DEATH and the Chef as MAN. We can run and maybe sidestep for a while. Its funny in a bitter/sweet way.
Life is just bloody funny. The less we take seriously the better. We are all so full of our own "important problems" that to laugh is divine. I don't think it is sadistic or lacking empathy. Heavens above.... lets laugh and be merry 
I agree Annie.