Cultural Advice: Go See 'Chinglish'

There's not much time left in the Broadway run of David Henry Hwang's Chinglish. I understand that a West Coast tour will happen later this year, followed perhaps by a movie. Whenever and wherever you might have a chance, my advice is: See it. My wife and I went with friends last night, at the Longacre Theater in New York, and thought it was great.

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I mention this both because of a bias in favor of giving deserved compliments whenever possible, and also because I think the most influential review of the play really missed the point. Last fall, in the NYT, Ben Brantley said that the play was "sporadically funny" and had this complaint in particular:
But what makes "Chinglish" easy to follow is also what makes it hard to embrace with enthusiasm. It's so conscientious in leading us through the maze of cultural confusion at its center -- with "you are here" signs at every new twist in the labyrinth -- that we're never allowed to feel lost ourselves.

Which means that we never feel what the characters onstage are feeling. While we laugh at their linguistic blunders, the empathy they inspire is only abstract. Despite the likable people playing them, the inhabitants of "Chinglish" are about as personally involving as the brightly colored, illustrative figures in a PowerPoint presentation.
I understand his point: because English subtitles -- preposterously mistranslated, as in the screenshot above, or precise and colloquial* -- are provided whenever the actors are speaking in Mandarin, which is frequently, English-speakers in the audience are never in the predicament of the one non-Chinese-speaking character on stage, Gary Wilmes in the role of an American businessman named Daniel. He sits befuddled as long passages of Mandarin are reeled off at him, with explanations for us but not for him.

But unlike Brantley, I found the Daniel character engaging and 100% recognizable, as were the various Chinese and expat characters he deals with. The action takes place in the podunk Chinese city of Guiyang, where the dreams, ambitions, insecurities, and intrigues of the civic boosters reminded me immediately of things I've seen in second- and third-tier cities throughout China's interior.** My sense is, the more experience you've had in China and with the Chinese language, the more you will enjoy the play. Ben Zimmer had a similarly more-enthusiastic-than-the-NYT reaction at Language Log. (And the NYT did a followup.) Congrats to Hwang and the cast for feats of real linguistic dexterity, which will be obvious to you if you see the play. As you should do.
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* During a "talk-back" session in which he and the cast members took questions from the audience after the play, Hwang said that he wrote the non-mistranslated, "good" English subtitles first, and then had Chinese advisors translate them into good Mandarin for the characters to speak.
 
** In-house log-rolling department: the half-crazed, half-impressive, half-thought-through, and wholly engrossing plans of regional boosters are a big theme in my upcoming book, China Airborne. The language problems in going back and forth between English and Chinese are a big theme of my wife's book Dreaming in Chinese, including the treacherous terrain of wo ai ni -- "I love you" -- which plays a pivotal role in Chinglish.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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