Just saw Chinglish, a new comedy at Broadway’s Longacre Theater by David Henry Hwang who won both a Tony and Pulitzer Prize for his play M. Butterfly in the late 1980′s. Since then Hwang has written opera librettos, screenplays and more plays, most of which explore the taught, tangled relationship between Occident and Orient.
I jumped at the chance to see his latest because, like other people who have traveled in China, I got a lot of entertainment from signs in hilariously mangled English. “Chinglish,” as its called is only the most obvious cultural barrier met in Hwang’s play by an American trying to do business in the People’ Republic, where signs advise English-speakers to Take Note of Safety: The Slippery Are Very Crafty (a very rough translation for Watch Your Step). A bathroom that accommodates a disabled person is designated Deformed Man Toilet.
In the play, Hwang takes the theme of miscommunication a step further with scenes showing the American in meetings with a Chinese minister whose words are rendered into English by an inept interpreter, with closer translations shown to the audience in subtitles. In this way, the Chinese for “His hands are tied“ becomes “He is in bondage,” and when the minister says “Travel home safely,” the American is told, “Leave in Haste.”
If it weren’t so funny, it would be depressing, one more instance of fundamental incompatibility between East and West, of Kipling’s “Never the twain shall meet.” When the American embarks on a liaison with the minister’s beautiful deputy, it seems as if hot sex in a hotel room may form a bridge. But that proves even more misleading than language, as in Sofia Coppola‘s haunting 2003 movie, Lost In Translation.
What’s an English-speaker in China to do? Learn Mandarin, of course, but that’s not so easy. With tens of thousands of characters, some requiring over 20 strokes to write, and tone-driven pronunciations hard for foreign-speakers to discern, standard Chinese is the study of a lifetime. Still, more and more students are taking it up. The Chinese Ministry of Education recently estimated that 40 million people around the world are studying Mandarin, and China’s popularity among U.S. exchange students increased more than 100% between 2002 and 2007.
I spent 5 months in 2008 studying at Beijing Language and Culture Institute, a government-sponsored school that specializes in teaching Chinese to overseas students. Three hours of instruction 5 days a week left me with a semi-permanent migraine, a 6-inch stack of vocabulary flash cards and the ability to haggle for fruit and vegetables in the market near my dorm. Alas, I‘ve forgotten most of it now. But I still have a trusty little book, “I Can Read That!” by Julie Mazel Sussman, teaching travelers to identify basic characters and phrases. These are good to know because, trust me, the slippery are very crafty.