When I joined the Peace Corps in 2005 and my recruiter told me I would be stationed in China, I was shocked. "I thought Peace Corps only went to really poor places," I remember saying. "Doesn't' China own us?"
She smiled, nodded, and spoke her response slowly. "You don't know China."
She was right. I knew the story the New York Times and CNN had told me -- a story focused only on the boom of the coast and the repression of Tibet.
As for the billion people in-between the coast and the Tibetan plateau? They were invisible.
The misunderstanding, danger, and humor that come out of this invisibility are major themes in the hilarious new Broadway show, Chinglish, written by Tony award-winner David Henry Hwang. I was drawn to the show because it takes place in the very city where I lived during my Peace Corps service (Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province). But as I sat and watched, I realized how much the show can teach any viewer.
Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Hwang to discuss Chinglish. I was particularly interested in his decision to push audiences away from the familiar parts of the Chinese story (Communism; factories; Kung Fu; Tiger Mothers) and into the Chinese interior. "Guiyang is part of the China most Americans overlook," he told me over green tea. We were sharing a quiet moment a few doors down from the Longacre Theatre where rehearsals were in full swing. "And what is overlooked is, of course, usually misunderstood." Hwang went on to recount a summary from one of his great-uncles: the Western media make China's success seem too successful, and its failures seem too profound. The truth lies somewhere in between, buried in the details of real life.
Indeed, audiences will find a pitch-perfect portrayal of daily life in Guiyang, a city trying to shake off the effects of Maoism and embrace globalization, but with no real sense of how to leap into the 21st century. As I sat and watched, I was transported back to Guizhou University, where I taught English, and the joyful struggle of living in central China. The Longacre echoed with the same pop-music I heard while walking China's streets. I felt empathy for the main character in the show -- an American businessman trying to make it big on the Chinese frontier -- as I watched his Chinese hosts reduce him to a series of reifications: to his hosts, he was money; sexual freedom; Enron.
As a result, he is forced to reinvent himself while solving a series of mysteries, some related to his money-making scheme, some related to his attraction to a stern-yet-nubile Communist Party official. He is as richly drawn a protagonist as I've seen on stage in a long time.
Thus, Hwang succeeds in capturing both China and the American experience of China. He nodded as I asked him if this was part of his intention. "China is obviously far too complex a place to sum up in an article in a magazine or a segment on the news," he told me. "And once you start writing you necessarily two-dimensionalize to a certain extent. But a play can let us see the setting, let us hear the language, let us feel a connection."
I only wish Chinglish had been around in 2005, because this was not a connection I was able to find as I prepared to leave for China. I read what I could, but none of it was as emotionally rich and honest as Hwang's play. Thomas Friedman, Fareed Zakaria, and press releases from Human Rights Watch were all worthless preface to my actual experiences on the ground as a Peace Corps volunteer.
For two years, I lived in a place totally divorced from Western coverage of China. There was no boom. There was no repression. There was just life on three dollars a day. My preparation for China was the equivalent of a Chinese person watching Beverly Hills 90210 and reading the cover of the Wall Street Journal. And then moving to Topeka, Kansas.
The Western media have completely marginalized the vast majority of China's people. Some authors (from Peter Hessler to Michael Meyer) are trying to correct this vast oversight. David Henry Hwang has added his powerful voice, as well.