‘Chinglish’ Uses Humor to Demonstrate The Struggles of Overcoming Language and Cultural Barriers

H.Solomon/The Phillipian

The play made fun of bad translations and miscommunications, situations which many students found relatable or humorous.

The crowd erupts into laughter as Danny Levine ’18, playing Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman trying to make a business deal with government officials in China, shows visible frustration towards Lauren Lee ’18, playing Xi Yan, the Vice Prime  Minister of China. The two are trying to converse but continuously misunderstand each other due to the language barrier. Lee’s character resumes speaking, unaware of the suggestions she is making as she attempts to say that she was sleeping but instead tells Levine that she was “sleeping with you.” Levine’s character replies, “No, but only if you want me to,” drawing even more laughter from the audience.

“It’s interesting to see how almost all of the jokes are because of miscommunications. And I think there are also a lot of funny jokes where [Levine] would be trying to say one thing and the translator would say the complete opposite,” said said Kaela Olsen ’18, who also played Xi Yan in a later scene.

This attempted conversation was one scene from the play “Chinglish” performed in the Theater Classroom last Friday night as part of the Chinese-622 class taught by Lilia Cai-Hurteau, Instructor and Chair in Chinese and Japanese. Allen Grimm, Instructor in Theatre and Dance, recommended the play to Cai-Hurteau after working with it at his old school. Written by Chinese-American playwright David Henry Hwang, “Chinglish” follows the adventures of a businessman and his inadequate translator as they try to launch their business in China and overcome language and cultural barriers. While the majority of the play was in Chinese, English subtitles were projected, allowing all audience members to follow along with the interactions between the characters.

“When I read [the script], I felt like it was perfect because it was written from a Chinese-American perspective. The Chinese language was fairly simple, but with a lot of useful structures and useful vocabulary that I felt would connect with the students really well,” said Cai-Hurteau. “I think anybody who has been to China or understands the cultural difference a little bit finds it super funny because the bad English translations are everywhere in China.”

The play found humorous ways to highlight the struggle of translation between two languages and the potential trouble caused by misunderstandings.

“A lot of the situations that came up in the play, I’ve seen happen in my life, too. Just mix-ups with translations, I’ve had experiences with my parents and my grandparents when they come here and they don’t understand what’s being said or when I try to talk to my grandparents and they try to translate what I’m saying to English,” said said audience member Hana Illikkal ’19.

The event also demonstrated the importance of communication especially in the business realm.

“I think it’s important for people to see because it was really interesting to see the ways in which miscommunication can affect business deals, especially for Chinese people… I feel like it’s a fun+ny way to see a perspective on how business is done between Americans and the Chinese and the ways that certain customs or beliefs can clash with others,” said Olsen.

The play allowed students to explore a cultural realm that was not entirely American, prompting participants and audience members to look beyond the American perspective.

“Especially in a place like Andover where equity, inclusion, and understanding are values that are really heavily promoted within the community, getting to perform ‘Chinglish’ shows that we’re all about fostering understanding between different cultures,” said Eliot Min ’19, who played a prosecutor and the minister.

In the future, Cai-Hurteau and Grimm are hoping to make an interdisciplinary course that blends Chinese and theater.

“[The class] is not officially an interdisciplinary, so [the students] just did a reading. Looking ahead, in the future, what Mr. Grimm and I are looking at is possibly making [the play] into a real interdisciplinary class, Chinese and theater. And in this case, we can [have students] audition. And so that is something we’re exploring that I think is super exciting,” said Cai-Hurteau.