Culture and Language in David Henry Hwang’s ‘Chinglish’

I’m no avid theatergoer, but I do love entertainment! Watching David Henry Hwang’s new comedic play, Chinglish, with a few staff was definitely one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had all summer.

We follow an American man on his business trip to China, where he is faced with language barrier, cultural differences, and conflicting values, all of which made signing a contract for his family’s sign-making firm way more complex than he thought. I truly enjoyed the play’s hilarious bilingual script and accurate portrayal of how translation does not equal comprehension, and how comprehension does not equal translation.

Growing up in the States with Taiwanese parents who expected me to converse with them only in Mandarin, I am lucky enough to understand both Mandarin and English. This made my theatrical experience all the more amusing, as I tried to translate along with the actors and actresses on stage. Hearing the characters translate in the literal form from one language to another and watching the confused expressions of those who cannot comprehend the misinterpretation was a “Laugh Out Loud” experience. Yet once in a while, I would rack my brain, searching through all those years of SAT vocabulary, textbook material, and dictionary usage to find the proper word, phrase, or description to explain, but nothing satisfactory comes to mind. Quoting the script, “that word doesn’t exist in English.” I’m glad it’s not just me! It was one of those times when I have to say: I know exactly what you mean, except I don’t know how to translate that.

Beyond just the linguistics, Chinglish did a wonderful job highlighting the differences between Asian and American cultures. Through a series of manipulation and deceit, director David Henry Hwang portrayed the importance of relationship and honor in Asian society. He juxtaposes this Eastern value with the Western value of justice and honesty by developing a complex romance between an American businessman and an Asian bureaucrat. Yet their inability to express themselves through the prominent language barrier presents cultural misunderstandings. In Chinglish, language is a means to understanding culture.

Definitely watch Chinglish if you get the chance. If it doesn’t get you thinking, it will at least keep you thoroughly entertained!

Chinglish is now playing at the Berkeley Rep in Berkeley, California, through October 21, before heading to Los Angeles and on to its international debut in Hong Kong.

An image from after the show with the cast members of David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish.” A lot of the cast members are Taiwanese Americans themselves! From left to right: Ho Chie Tsai ( staff), Kristina Lin (staff), Vivian Chu, Michelle Krusiec, Alex Moggridge, Brian Nishii (front), Larry Lei Zhang, Anna Wu (staff), and Elizabeth Wang (staff).

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