My wife, daughter and I saw “Chinglish“—a play by David Henry Hwan—on Sunday, September 16 at the Berkeley Rep Theater and we laughed-out-loud many times.
This is not a review of Hwan’s play as much as it is about how different cultures find common behaviors hard wired in our DNA to make connections.
Back to “Sex in NOT Important”, the title of this Post. Of course sex is important, but for thirty-two years, I kept telling myself it wasn’t. My reason for thinking this had nothing to do with sex but more to do with lust and how dangerous out-of-control lust might be. For example, lust has led many a man and women into relationships that do not turn out well. Lust has led to priests/pastors to molest children. Lust is linked to rape. Lust has motivated a few teachers to have sexual affairs with students ruining lives.
Now, thanks to Hawn’s Chinglish, I have changed my mind about the importance of sex.
Before I continue the post, I want to thank Nina Egert, the author of Tracing Anza’s Trail: A Photographer’s Journey; A Place Where the Winds Blow: Men Women Plant New Roots at Oakland’s Original Rancho, and Noguchi’s California: Poetic Visions of a 19th Century Dharma Bum. Without an e-mail from Nina, I probably would have never heard of Chinglish.
After all, the Earth is still a big place and there is a lot going on 24/7.
To summarize Chinglish, this laugh-out-loud play was about Daniel, a former employee of Enron, who almost went to prison with the rest of the crooks. Daniel not only lost his high paying job with Enron but he’s broke due to the legal battle that kept him out of jail.
In a last desperate attempt at success, he goes to China to find customers for his American company (a business that’s been in his family since 1925), but Daniel does not speak a word of Mandarin. At the beginning of the play, he says, “If you are an American, it is safe to assume that you do not speak a single f*****g foreign language.”
That one line tells us how clueless most Americans are when it comes to other cultures.
Chinglish, through humor, teaches us a lesson about the minefield of misunderstanding and manipulation that happens when people of different cultures attempt to do business with each other.
Here’s the synopsis from the Website of the Broadway production of Chinglish: “An American businessman arrives in a bustling Chinese province looking to score a lucrative contract for his family’s sign-making firm. He soon discovers that the complexities of such a venture far outstrip the expected differences in language, customs and manners …”
However, there is another implied theme and that is why sex is important—something all cultures and races have in common that often transcends cultural differences. In the play, Daniel, an unhappily married man has an affair with an unhappily married mainland Chinese woman. Without spoiling the story, this affair provides the link that Daniel needs to succeed in China, and that link is Guanxi.
Early in the play, Daniel’s British interpreter, a man that has lived in China for years and speaks Mandarin fluently, tells him he must stay at least eight weeks to have a chance to develop Guanxi, a system of social networks and influential relationships that facilitate business and other dealings. The British interpreter says that for millennia China has survived without a Western legal system of laws, lawyers, courts and judges, and that Guanxi was crucial for China’s success as the longest surviving civilization and culture on the planet.
Hmm, is this a teachable moment? Do we learn something about the Western legal system compared to Guanxi?
Without understand how Guanxi works, Daniel struggles to cross the cultural divide but fails until he has the sexual affair with the wife of a Chinese judge. The sexual attraction and lust that led to the affair opens the door to the Guanxi network of his lover and her husband.
To discover what happens, you may want to see the play or wait for the movie, which I was told is in production and will stay faithful to the play. The last performance for Chinglish at the Berkeley Rep will be October 21, 2012. Then it will appear at the South Coast Repertory January 25 – February 24, 2013 in Orange County, California before moving to Hong Kong March 1 – 6, 2013.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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