Crothers talks ‘Chinglish’ with Eikenberry

Oct. 23, 2012, 8:25 p.m.

“Your careful step keeps tiny grass invariably green.” In other words, keep off the grass. “The civilized and tidy circumstance is a kind of enjoyment.” Alternatively, don’t litter.

Sponsored by the Crothers Global Citizenship theme dorm and accompanied by Resident Fellows Stephen Stedman and Corinne Thomas, twenty students traveled to Berkeley this past Sunday to see “Chinglish,” a comedy about cultural clash and the linguistic challenges encountered in Chinese and American relations.

“Chinglish,” which just finished its run at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, is a funny and thought-provoking reminder of the slipperiness of language and the problems caused by intercultural communication (or lack thereof).

For the makers of street signs in China, translation is a tricky business.  Confused English translations of Chinese signs have created a linguistic phenomenon (and a comedic sight for English-speaking tourists) known as Chinglish.  Stanford alumnus David Henry Hwang ‘79 wrote a play of the same name that describes the experiences of an American businessman who travels to China in an attempt to secure a contract for his family’s floundering firm.

The group of Crothers residents, a mix of theme students and others interested in diplomacy, China and the arts, was accompanied by Karl Eikenberry who led a post-performance discussion at a Chinese restaurant down the street from the theater.  Eikenberry served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan for two years before arriving at Stanford, where he is now the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and a Distinguished Fellow with the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Half in English and half in Chinese, with supertitles projected onto the set, “Chinglish” tells the story of Daniel Cavanaugh, an American businessman who travels to the Chinese city of Guiyang hoping to land a deal for his failing family business. Hwang uses mistranslation as a comedic tool, allowing the audience to laugh at the hilarious linguistic knots into which the characters tie themselves. But beyond the lightheartedness of misinterpretation and mix-ups, Hwang recognizes that these challenges are growing in complexity and importance in an increasingly global world. As he notes in an interview in the “Chinglishprogram, “A play like this, just as long as it can get us talking about some of these misunderstandings and laughing together, hopefully is a step in the right direction.”

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