David Henry Hwang writes, “Chinglish is about attempts to communicate across cultures and the barriers that separate us, and the most superficial of those is language.” Today, even more than when it opened – and even when Mr. Hwang revised the script in 2015 – Chinglish stands astride the widening gap between US and Chinese cultures. A very funny comedy, it lives up to the Lincoln’s adage, “I laugh because I must not cry.” Because it is tragic that we Americans lack the basic tools or even the interest in understanding our Chinese brothers and sisters.
As Mr. Hwang points out, the language differences we laugh about in Chinglish are only the tip of the iceberg that has frozen our two cultures into alienation. Our government wants to outlaw TikTok, prevent China from acquiring technologies that would advance their economic growth, and aggressively try to limit the advance of Chinese culture. For their part, China sets up independent police stations in our cities, flagrantly disregards copyright and patent laws, and threatens to attack Taiwan which they have never controlled. And so, with Chinglish, we turn to our Empathy Gym to help us see beneath the racism and hatred that infect U.S.-China relations.
Were Chinglish to stop at a hilarious skewering of cultural misunderstandings, it would be a fine play, but Mr. Hwang doesn’t stop there. He layers in a powerful and equally comic story about Xi Yan, the female protagonist, who upends our expectations, especially our Western stereotyping of Eastern women. She successfully reaches for her desires in the physical and spiritual realm. She is also able to best her male admirer who sentimentalizes their relationship, while she is able to compartmentalize between her personal and public life, taking what she wants while at the same time considering the needs and ambitions of her family.
Chinglish is a subversive play. Beginning with its title, a pejorative and racist term that belittles the Chinese culture, through the story of Xi Yan, who turns our orientalist stereotyping of Chinese women on its ear, Mr. Hwang undermines our delusion of Western superiority. And while we are laughing, we’d best beware. Chinglish is a warning. Like the admonition of Sun Tzu, we Americans had best dig deeper into empathy, or our foolish Orientalist tendency to feminize the East is likely to come back to haunt us.