PCS Blog

An American (who looks Chinese but is actually Filipino) in China

Posted by Alice Hodge | 06 January 2014

A few months ago, PCS sponsored Chinglish director May Adrales on a trip to Guiyang, China - the city in which the play takes place. Adrales shared with us her thoughts, experiences and tips on what it was like to travel in China as a Filipino-American. 

Chinglish director May Adrales in Guiyang, China.

To be mistaken for a native Chinese person, but actually be a Filipino-American, is a unique hardship when traveling alone in China. You look Chinese, therefore it’s assumed you speak Chinese. The more you try to explain in English or use the 30 words of Mandarin you tried to teach yourself on the plane, the more people shake their heads and walk away. You’re expected to hold your own when navigating through crowded airports, securing your place in line despite aggressive elbows and blatant shoves. You are expected to know how to order a meal, hail a cab and certainly how to find your hotel, which you have only walked 1,000 feet away from, but is somehow dauntingly confusing to find again.    

Desperate to find my way back to the hotel through a series of crowded, stupefyingly similar looking streets, I pulled out a scrap piece of paper where I had written the address to anyone who might meet my distressed gaze. I cursed myself for losing the hotel card, the address written in Mandarin, the only key to survival. Filled with thoughts of dying, alone, calling fruitlessly for help on a crowded street corner in Guiyang, just minutes away from my hotel, I managed to walk in circles, through underground passageways and finally found myself across the street from my hotel. In an international city like Shanghai or Beijing, Westerners would not be so unusual, but in a city like Guiyang, it is extremely rare. In this city of nearly 4 million people, I saw only one Westerner, who looked just as lost as I felt.   

Walmart is below this plaza.

I came to Guiyang to specifically research Chinglish. I wanted to see for myself the city, experience the sights and sounds. I pushed beyond the limits of what was actually wise for me to do: Eat copious amounts of sour fish soup, a delicacy in Guizhou with a healthy dose of the notoriously hot peppers. I forced myself to take the bus, which redefined my notion of “personal space.” I braved the perplexed looks as I went for a morning run around the city. I watched some sort of dance/exercise class in the plaza at 7 a.m. before going to the Walmart, which is in a plaza underneath a huge statue of Chairman Mao. I ordered food by pointing, found the bathroom by miming, asked for directions by emphatic desperate game of charades. I resigned myself to playing the role of “village idiot,” one who looked Chinese but could neither speak or understand. I wanted to give myself the same experience as Daniel Cavanaugh in the play – a helpless Westerner in China. Like Daniel, I arrived with the same winning confidence and naiveté and departed China, humbled, with stomach pains and with a confused wonderment that left me hungry to understand more. 


A common sight in China: formal dancing and all forms of exercise in public parks.

At every turn in China, I marveled at how David Henry Hwang was able to write about this “confused wonderment” with such exacting detail.  There are a few prominent themes within the play that I experienced firsthand.

  1.  High roller: I was just an average, ignorant Westerner who didn’t speak the language until I was introduced as May Adrales from Yale. Name and brand recognition carry a lot of weight in China. I could see facial expressions change the instant someone said “Yale” in association with my name: I was a nobody who became a somebody. For a brief amount of time, I was esteemed and respected. Just for a brief moment, and then I was back to miming, pointing and emphatic charades. 
  2. Guanxi: Guanxi is defined as relationship in the play.  Used often and everywhere, it is the building and maintaining deep, complex interpersonal relationship over a long period of time, in many cases without a specific need or use for that relationship.  When a problem arises, then that relationship comes in handy.  For instance, a theater colleague got a parking ticket just before dinner.  She calmly tucked the ticket in her purse and said simply, “this is not a problem.” Later I discovered that she knows someone in the traffic court system that would somehow exonerate her.  This same colleague took me to an extravagant dinner with a few special guests who showered me with gifts. I was May from Yale, and these were parents who wanted their children to go to Yale.  Throughout my stay, my hosts’ guanxi allowed me to enter the “back door” of museums and parks, cutting lines, bypassing fees.


  3. Mian zi:  Mian zi  -  Simply, defined as “face,” is equally important to guanxi within Chinese social settings.  Face is the ability to maintain respect, authority and social acceptability.  Face is fundamentally about perception, respect, and appropriate deference.  I attended a dinner with the Guiyang Minister of Culture, with the help, and guanxi, of Joanna Lee, a Chinese cultural consultant.  He had seen the Hong Kong production of Chinglish.  I asked his opinion of the show – “ The play was…. Amusing.” Amusing? –  as it was translated to me with tepid caution – was it really more of a euphemism for terribly offensive?  He then stated stiffly, “It is amusing to poke fun of Guiyang for a little while”    He then stiffly and pointedly defended Guiyang as a beautiful, historical city that will embrace both Eastern traditions and the modern Western world.  I had challenged his authority – indirectly.  Since the play paints the role of Guiyang’s minister of culture in a compromising manner, I had inadvertently offended this Minister. 


    A perfect example of Chinglish.

  4. Translators: Translators have a tough job – they have to reconcile the difficulty of translating from Mandarin to English, but also must understand context and social mores.  To translate well, one needs to understand the cultural mores of the United States, which is difficult as many people learn English in China or in other Asian countries.  Direct translations can sound extremely critical and harsh.  I learned to take abrupt phrases like “Leave now” in context.  Translators must also be assertive, they must insert themselves in the conversation.  My translator was far too polite for this.  At the dinner, my host passionately and animatedly spoke, waving his hands and pounding on the table.  After about 2 minutes of non-stop speech, my translator would say, “they are talking about Karl Marx.” After another round of drinking, more fervent speeches, more toasting, “ganbei!” and “chin chin” and still the translation would be “they are still talking about Karl Marx.”
  5. Drinking:  This aspect of the culture isn’t highlighted in the play. But if you are watching the play to learn how to do business in China, then take note.  Handle your liquor. J  Or if you don’t drink much, invent a medical excuse.  Or make sure you always keep some drink in your glass -- this will keep it from getting graciously refilled by your neighbor.  If your drinking partner who moves to clink glasses with you is superior to you in some way (age, position, etc…) be sure to clink his/her glass with the rim of yours below theirs.  Make eye contact and also toast to the person paying the meal.  Most importantly, never drink more than you can, or more than you think your dinner compatriots can.  I inadvertently drank one of the fellow guests under the table; she kept up with me toast after toast so as to not lose face…  

Spending time in China is certainly not a vacation, at least for me.  It’s work.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s exhausting and confounding. Will I ever understand why a worker must always sweep under your feet every twenty minutes at a state park? Why getting in line at a store becomes more like a wrestling match? Why a coffee drink is translated to “Good jade breasts”? Or why a Roasted Duck is translated to “F#$k! a duck until it explodes.” I may never know.  But like Daniel Cavanaugh, I have come to love the mystery.  The beautiful mystery. 


Chinglish runs January 11 — February 9. Tickets available HERE.
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