'Chinglish,' a new play about China, deftly tackles tricky cultural terrain.
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In "Chinglish," Daniel's business consultant, an Englishman named Peter who also teaches in China, advises his client on Chinese ways, such as the important concept of guanxi (personal connections). Peter also instructs Daniel to "criticize yourself, but make sure there's someone else in the room to contradict you."Skip to next paragraph
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That line struck Qian Yi, a Shanghai native in her 30s who now lives in New York. "Exactly!" she laughs. Normally she doesn't notice Chinese cultural quirks because she grew up with them. But the play was "like a mirror to me," she says. "I see what's going on with my own culture."
She was also struck by a line in "Chinglish" by Yan, a female Chinese official: "Love. It is your American religion." Ms. Qian agrees. "Americans are a little brainwashed about love. They think, 'We'll live happily forever.' Chinese people, especially women, are [more] realistic."
The play eventually reveals Daniel to be not quite the Midwestern rube he seems. The blunt assessment? "He's an American loser coming to China trying to make it," says Mr. Sun of the Shanghai Theatre Academy.
"Chinglish" plays on other misconceptions, too. Chicago TV anchor Yu applauded the playwright for going beyond stereotypes about Asian women. When the comely Yan teaches Daniel about business, Chinese-style, she upends his expectations with her brazen ambition and hard-nosed self-interest.
Where are the stereotypes?
At the Q-and-A Yu moderated in Chicago, she recalls, "One audience member was flummoxed because he didn't recognize any beautiful, delicate, compliant, soft-spoken Chinese women in 'Chinglish.' "
Yu adds, "As a Chinese-American woman, I can't help but appreciate what David [Henry Hwang] has done with the 'white guy falls for the beautiful, delicate Asian woman' stereotype."
Those doing business in China also saw their experiences reflected in the play's fun-house mirror. The character of Daniel "touched a nerve vis-à-vis people I've known who came to China years ago and got close to snatching the gold ring in business, but somehow never did," says Joe Simone, an American lawyer based in Hong Kong who has been doing business in China for 23 years. Mr. Simone saw the play with his father in New York. "I felt embarrassed at the shenanigans, most of which had their roots in reality."
While Pottinger covered business in China as a reporter, his current role as an entrepreneur gives a different perspective. "You're always trying to figure out people's motives ... you don't know why things aren't working out for you. And there are unclear rules about what businesses can and can't do."
Issues such as corruption presented in the play are not new in China, observes Sun. "Chinese all know about these problems." "Chinglish" reflects the early stages of foreigners doing business in China in the 1990s, he says. Foreign corporations got a lot of leeway, but in fast-changing China, they are losing those privileges as government regulation tightens.
"What's portrayed in the play is slowly becoming passé," Sun says. "Guanxi still works a lot, but just guanxi is far from enough. Now it's much more complicated."
As a character in "Chinglish" astutely explains, "you're trying to understand the words, which cannot be translated."