Being Chinglish

8 12 2011

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I had the pleasure of watching Chinglish on Broadway in Manhattan while I was there, and it was one of the few times when I enjoyed theatre without people breaking into song in the middle of it.  Chinglish works for so many reasons, in my opinion: because it presents accurate stereotypes of the Chinese while making characters complex and multi-faceted; because it transitions between scenes with Chinese hip hop and rap that seem to capture the juxtaposition of East and West; because it takes an old concept of lost-in-translation and somehow still makes it fresh, hilarious, and extremely authentic.  As the son of two business people who are currently running businesses in China, I found the awkward dialogue and ridiculous business dealings extremely funny because of how shrewdly reflective they are of reality as I’ve heard and seen for myself in China.

That five of the seven actors are Asian (and I think even authentically Chinese rather than Korean or Japanese playing Chinese, which is not absolutely necessary, but nice, I think), gives me hope and inspiration for my own mini-career as an actor.  It’s true that this show was about China, and Jennifer Lim, the amazing female lead in the show, talks in an interview about the double-edged sword of getting opportunities specifically because she’s Asian, but also cautious not to get pigeonholed for the same reason.  However, I think shows like this are extremely positive because they feature Asian actors in roles that allow for depth and range in the performances, rather than casting Asian actors in limiting roles that perhaps reinforce beliefs that these actors have limited range.

But what moved me the most in this show actually had nothing to do with the specifics of race.  Well, I guess it kind of did.

*Spoiler Alert* An American businessman falls in love with a Chinese Vice-Minister of Culture in a (relatively) small Chinese city while working on a deal.  Both of them are married, and after the affair goes on for a while, the American wants to tell his wife the truth about their affair, because he’s in love with her.  The Vice Minister, however, thinks that this is a ridiculous idea, and tells him that if they respect their respective spouses, they would continue lying to them.  She goes on to say, in Chinese, the most memorable line in the show for me, which was this:

“Love is an American religion.”

It gave me goosebumps because I immediately understood the difference between the two.  The Chinese Vice Minister then talked about this word in Chinese (“ching ee”), which I understand roughly as a commitment in a marriage based on time spent together, mutual sacrifices, and dedication even if you are no longer in love.  It’s in contrast to the notion of romanticism and love and passion and chemistry that I’ve grown up with in Canada, and I, in many ways, am a follower of this latter religion of love.

Regardless of whether it was the Valentine’s Day industry that initiated this religion, this line from the show really resonated with me, because I realized what the characters were talking about was a difference of what love means to them.  Words are the best we have, but so often it is unable to capture what people really mean when they use them, especially with such packed words as love, where individual definitions are informed by years of living and redefining the definition of love, so that it may take just as long to understand what the other person is trying to express through that word.

The beauty and tragedy of Chinglish, for me, was the universality of this lost-in-translation idea applied to the concept of love.  When two people’s fundamental beliefs on love and marriage are so different, could the result have been any different?

Surely no two people’s definitions of commitment, love, and marriage are exactly the same, so how far apart is reconcilable, and when is it irreconcilable?

This last question is the one I continue to struggle with.

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