A Cheeky Monkey Lingers in Chinglish

* Source: Global Times * [04:10 October 19 2009]

A cheeky monkey lingers in Chinglish

By Wu Ningning

There were no dazzling lights, no gorgeous curtain rising on decorated stage. The actors wore casual dress, the backdrops were simple. But there was magic nonetheless: light and amusing “Chinglish”patter dotted the play.

Are Beijing’s foreigners splicing Chinese and English to create their own vernacular? Perhaps. Certainly when it streamlines conversation. When one character explained why he had to go out with his boss that night, he described it as “getting my guanxi on.”

In Chinese guanxi is just one word, but in English it expresses cultivating good relationships with people.

Another character said, “You can’t go qingke just because they were rude.”Similarly, qingke (guest hospitality) refers both to an overt strategy employed in interpersonal relationship management and, more generally, to the entertainment of guests. It seems language is evolving to fit our daily lives.

I heart Beijing

In her debut play, I heart Beijing, Elyse Ribbons focuses on the lives of a group of Americans and locals, and on what laowai (foreigners) love and hate about Beijing. The play has everything: laughter, quarreling, intrigue, sex, cute ABCs, multi-lingual pick-up lines, laowai stereotypes, sex clowns and more. However, to most in the audience, the best part was still the unique Chinglish.

“I heart Beijing manages to get everyone to laugh at themselves while mocking a lot of the stereotypes and assumptions. The Chinglish element is spot on and made the show really come alive for me,”said Sarah Weese, an American audience member.

Angel Liu, a local Chinese, also couldn’t resist the way the play “Captured the American style of humor, like in Friends but also used unique ways to express it through combining English and Chinese dialogue.”

The idea to weave Chinglish and the play together was not merely a stylistic one.

“As a huge sinophile and a fluent Mandarin speaker, I often find that there are expressions in Mandarin that simply cannot be translated into English,”said Ribbons. “In my daily life I use them a lot in my writing and speech.”

When she first began learning Mandarin, Ribbons found herself puzzled by the cultural gap of the language. As a playwright, she also found it “interesting that sometimes when watching a comedy only a foreign member of the audience laughed. At other times, only Chinese were chortling with glee.”

Keeping these “language gaps”and “comedic cultural gaps”in mind, she began to explore the way to combine the two “laughters.”Ultimately, her imagination was fired by Chinglish.

“It’s not just a way to overcome the ‘comedic culture gap’but also a way to more fully express myself,”she said. “The word playwright connotes create a play by working the words and having fun with them.”

Bridging the gap

After the success of I heart Beijing, Ribbons decided to start her own theater company, aptly titled Cheeky Monkey, because Ribbons was born in the year of monkey.

Chinglish formed a humorous staple in her plays. With plays such as Lethal English, Green Eyes on Chinese, and Gongbao Shakespeare, from its beginning in 2007, Cheeky Monkey Theater declared itself the “world’s first Chinglish theater.”Today it stages plays in mixture of English, Mandarin and Chinglish.

“One of my goals is definitely to be a comedic bridge between the East and West, using my humor to highlight societal observations, culture gaps and other issues,”said Ribbons. Her deep understanding of Chinese culture and the diverse staff of the Chinglish theater make the bridge possible.

“At first I was often challenged by the lifestyle in China, and the way things worked here, thinking that ‘they do things the wrong way’and actually it’s just that there is a different logic to things in China,”said Ribbons.

Stepping away from her pre-conception of China, Ribbons began to touch the reality. Chatting with vendors, making dumplings with friends in cramped kitchens and reading Chinese classic novels such as Weicheng, the playwright relished each chance to immerse herself in the cultural experiences.

Due to the Chinglish nature of her plays, Ribbons employs actors from China and the US. She stresses the importance of casting her plays with internationally-minded individuals so as to encourage discussion and the exploration of cultural identity both on and off the stage.

“I encourage people to speak up, speak their minds. I have found that communication is the best way to inspire a team of very talented people from very different backgrounds,”she said.

Undeniably, it is this multi-cultural staffing that brings Eastern and Western influences together on stage, a unique feat that has been well received by both Chinese and expat audiences.

“As more and more mixed-up American young people – and their metropolitan Chinese counterparts – start to interact on an interpersonal level, we’ll need more cultural collateral to help us all interpret each other. We need comedy to soothe the culture shock. We need Chinglish to connect the real-life romances. I applaud Elyse Ribbons, the playwright who puts this together,”American Tim Gingrich wrote in his blog after watching I heart Beijing.

“East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,”said Rudyard Kipling. He is wrong now.

With Chinglish they do.

Cheeky Monkey Theater

Website: http://www.cheekymonkeytheater.com/

wuningning@globaltimes.com.cn

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