Chinglish is a play by David Henry Hwan that first premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The play premiered on Broadway at the Longacre Theater. I saw it at the Berkeley Rep Theater, and it was a laugh-out-loud evening.
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.
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 Enron 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 reveals how clueless most Americans are when it comes to other cultures and languages.
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.
“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.”
There is another implied theme in this play, and that’s about 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 known as Guanxi.
Early in the play, Daniel’s British interpreter, a man who 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.
Without understand how Guanxi works, Daniel struggles to cross the cultural divide, but fails until he has the 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.
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