Outside People, Zayd Dohrn's new off-Broadway dramatic comedy, highlights the gap between Chinese and American culture by forcing the two closer together. Dohrn's play centers around Malcolm, an American in Beijing whose romance with a young Chinese woman, Xiao Mei, forces him to find his place in the insular world of Chinese social life.
The play has drawn comparisons to David Henry Hwang's Chinglish, but critics have praised the understated tone of Outside People's narrative. The New York Times called it an "engaging comedy of manners" that "derives humor from the dislocations caused by the meeting of two distinct cultures: the comparatively above-board American way of being and the more codified and coded behaviors" of China. Dohrn is married to author Rachel DeWoskin, who has written two books drawing from her experience living in China in her twenties.
Asia Blog spoke with Dohrn via email.
Zayd, how much of this play is inspired by your own experiences as a waiguoren, or “outside person,” in China?
A lot of it. I never had the experiences Malcolm had — never dated a Chinese girl or worked for a Chinese company. But the experience of dislocation and culture-shock Malcolm feels in the play is definitely familiar to me. And the first scene, where Malcolm, jet-lagged and culture-shocked and drunk on erguotou, falls asleep at the table in the middle of a conversation, is inspired by my own first trip to Beijing — and many subsequent trips as well.
David Henry Hwang's Chinglish addresses similar issues with a comical tone. Do you find that entertainment and popular culture are exploring the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship more in recent years? How did such an interest emerge?
Obviously a big part of it is China's economic and political rise — Americans know they have to try to understand China now, because China is becoming such an important player on the world stage. And of course Chinese have known for years that they had to try to understand America. Rachel's novel Repeat After Me explores those complexities better than any other cultural product I know. Other great examples are Phil Pan's Out of Mao's Shadow, Brook Larmer's Operation Yao, and Da Ming Chen's One Foot Off the Ground.
One of the most glaring differences between Chinglish and Outside People is that you leave Mandarin untranslated in your play. What effect were you going for? Have Mandarin-speakers and English-speakers reacted to the play differently?
I don't speak Mandarin, so I'm always a bit out of my depth in China. But I've come to find that being out of your linguistic depth can be interesting — it focuses you on subtle clues of tone and body language and context. It's a bit like being blind — your other senses sharpen to compensate, and that can be exciting and (over)stimulating. I thought American audiences might like that experience the way I've come to like it. And even if they don't, I thought it could be useful for them to be put in the position of outsider — to be forced to listen closely to a language, and a culture, they don't understand.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the cultural divide between the U.S. and China right now? How did you set about addressing that in your play?
I think the challenges are huge, but that many people on both sides are working hard to bridge the gap. Many of our friends in China, both expats and Chinese, make heroic strides every day to understand one another. China and America have very different histories and political systems as well as different languages. And the effort to bridge the gap between East and West has been going on for centuries. Outside People is about the small, personal side of that effort: How young people in the new China are building connections — romantic, social and professional — as they navigate the changing terrain of their shared global culture. I think those connections are incredibly important to both countries, but the play is also about how challenging that effort can be.