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399 Topics: Famous Playwrights – David Henry Hwang; patent medicines; to get to versus to have got to; weird versus strange; to thumb a ride

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast English Café number 399.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 399. I'm your host Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

This episode, like all of our episodes has a Learning Guide. Go to our website at ESLPod.com to download it right after you become a member.

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous playwrights – men and women who write plays. Today, we’re going to focus on David Henry Hwang. We’re also going to talk about somYou’re listening to ESL Podcast English Café number 399.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 399. I'm your host Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California. This episode, like all of our episodes has a Learning Guide. Go to our website at ESLPod.com to download it right after you become a member.

On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous playwrights – men and women who write plays. Today, we’re going to focus on David Henry Hwang. We’re also going to talk about something that used to be popular in the 19th century and early 20th century called patent medicine. It has an interesting history in the U.S. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let's get started.

This Café begins with a continuation of our series on famous playwrights. Today, we’re going to talk about a Chinese American playwright by the name of David Henry Hwang. Hwang was born here in Los Angeles, California, in 1957. Today, he is considered the preeminent Asian American playwright. If someone is “preeminent” (preeminent), they are distinguished. They are well known. They are well respected, the best in their field. Hwang’s early plays focused on Chinese Americans in modern society. He wrote three plays which he has referred to as a “trilogy.” A “trilogy” normally is a set of three connected stories. However, in Hwang’s plays, the stories are not that closely connected, but he calls them a trilogy – a set of three things that go together.

The first play from 1980 is called FOB. “FOB,” which in Southern California, some people say simply, a “fob,” is actually an acronym for the expression – “fresh off the boat.” “Fresh off the boat” is an expression describing someone who has just arrived to a country, in this case to the United States. “To be fresh” here means to be “recently,” so “recently off the boat.” Of course, most people don't come anymore in boats, but the expression is that this person has just arrived or has recently arrived.

The idea also is that this person still hasn't adopted the American ways, still has some aspects of their own behavior that is more like their home country. It's often considered an insulting term and it's not a term that you would want to call an immigrant, especially an immigrant who is trying to adopt the culture of his new country. The play “FOB” examines the relationship between Asian Americans – those who have been in the United States for many years – and recently arrived Asian immigrants – those who may have only been here for a few years. This, of course, is a real tension, and it continues to this day, even though the play is now more than 20 years old. Those are still tensions that you will find in American schools, in American workplaces, especially in Southern California, where we have a lot of Asian Americans who live here and a lot of new Asian immigrants coming from other countries.

Hwang considers “FOB” to be his first play in this trilogy. The other two plays are called “The Dance and the Railroad,” which is about Chinese laborers – workers working on the railroad in the 19th century – and “Family Devotions,” which looks at what happens when Western religions influence a Chinese family. Hwang’s trilogy gave him early success and it increased people's interest in his work.

Later, Hwang began writing other plays, some of which had non-Asian characters or non-Asian American characters. His best-known play, however, is “M. Butterfly” from 1988. The plot or story of the play is somewhat related to the more famous Puccini opera, “Madame Butterfly.” “M. Butterfly” is about a relationship between a French diplomat – someone who is working for his government in another country – and a Chinese opera singer. “M. Butterfly” became very famous. It won the award for best play in the United States for that year, what we call the Tony Award.

Hwang also became the first Asian American to win that award. After his success with “M. Butterfly,” Hwang began branching out into other types of art. “To branch (branch) out” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to expand outward or to try new things. Often, it means to enter into a new business. Let's say you sell cars and you decide to branch out and sell trucks and motorcycles as well. That would be a use of that verb, “to branch out.”

Hwang wasn't selling any trucks or motorcycles. He was selling his ideas, and he decided to branch out to become someone who was involved in opera, in making movies and in musicals. “Musicals” are plays where there's a lot of singing and dancing that help tell the story. Hwang moved from being just a playwright to also being a screenwriter.

A “screenwriter” is someone who writes the words and the descriptions of the actions of the characters in a movie or a television show. That's a screenwriter. Usually, “screenwriter” is for movies. The more general term his “scriptwriter.” Anyway, Hwang began to write for the movies and for television. He also became a “librettist.”

What you may ask, is a librettist? A “librettist” (librettist) is someone who writes “librettos.” “Librettos” are the words for an opera or a musical. A person who writes librettos – the word is Italian, I believe – is called a “librettist.” Although Hwang’s best known work, M. Butterfly is now a few years old, he has had other successes especially on “Broadway.” “Broadway” is the name we give the street in New York City where there are a lot of big theaters, and you can see plays and musicals on Broadway. To have your play performed “on Broadway” is considered a great success, something that is a great achievement.

Hwang had a couple of Broadway successes. They included “Aida” and “Flower Drum Song.” He also had a few failures, plays that were not very well received – that is, that people didn't think were very good. But Hwang continues to write plays. He wrote a play called “Chinglish,” which is a combination of Chinese and English. He also wrote a play called “Kung Fu,” which is a kind of martial art, a way of using your body to fight to defend yourself.

Hwang also has said that he's interested in working in television, but certainly his most famous work has been for the theater. Here in Los Angeles, there's actually a building named the David Henry Hwang Theater, in the area of downtown Los Angeles we call Little Tokyo. Little Tokyo is the area that was settled mostly by Japanese immigrants to the city. The David Henry Hwang Theater is a theater that shows a lot of plays and productions by the Asian American community here in Southern California.

I’ve been to the theater several times and have seen some of David Henry Hwang's own work. David Henry Hwang is a good example of the, what we might call, the “changing face” of the American art community. Now we have, with all of the immigrants, more recent immigrants to the United States, a lot more variety in the artistic community, at least in some parts of that community – not always here in Hollywood, not always in the movie and TV industry, but certainly in other parts of the art world, there is increasingly more diversity – more people from immigrant groups, from more recent immigrant groups who are becoming involved, and I think that's a good thing.

Now let’s turn to our next topic, which is “patent medicines.” A “patent” (patent) normally is the word we use to talk about the official registration that an inventor – someone who creates something – has with the government. You go to the U.S. government and get a patent for something that you've invented. It could be a drug. It could be a type of phone. It could be anything that is physical, that you can say you invented.

The reason you go and get a patent for your work is to protect it, to make sure that no one else steals it. It's a kind of protection for what we call more generally “intellectual property.” “Intellectual property” is anything that you’ve created out of your own mind. It could be something physical. It also could be your writing. When we talk about writing, that would go under the name, “copyright.” When we’re talking about physical things, then we use the word “patent.”

Patent medicine, however, isn’t patented medicine, so it's something of what we would call a misnomer. A “misnomer” (misnomer) is an inaccurate or misleading name. When we say something’s a misnomer, we mean that it's not really correct – the name that we've given this thing.

Patent medicine for example, is not medicine that's patented, so it's something of a misnomer. What are patent medicines? Patent medicines are medicines that are sold and advertised as being cures, as being something that will solve a medical problem, but typically do not. When you use the term “patent medicine” in the United States, most people think immediately of the 19th century or the early 20th century. That was the time when there wasn't a lot of advanced medical care in parts of the country, in many parts of the country, and patent medicines were very popular – people selling things that they told you were going to cure you, were going to make you better.

The interesting thing about patent medicines is not so much that they were trying to help people with illnesses (often, not very effectively) – the interesting thing is that the development of modern advertising began with patent medicines. In other words, some of the basic principles and ideas of advertising, of marketing, came from people working in the patent medicine industry, in the patent medicine business. If you go back and you read some of the advertisements from the 19th century, and more importantly, you read the writings of the copywriters – the people who were writing these advertisements – you will see that a lot of the basic principles that they developed to try to convince people to buy this patent medicine are the same principles, the same techniques, that advertisers use today. If you really want to understand modern advertising and how modern advertising works, you have to understand patent medicine advertising, because that's where the basic strategies and principles came from.

Now, patent medicines made some really what we would now describe as “outrageous claims.” Something that is “outrageous” is something that is shocking, surprising. A “claim” here is a statement about what something will do, in this case, what patent medicines will do for your body. People who sold patent medicines said that they would cure all sorts of things. Sometimes, the same pill, the same medicine, was supposed to cure everything from being nervous, to curing diseases that you might have in your liver or in your heart, to making you more calm.

Patent medicines made lots of claims about what they were supposed to be able to do. Many of these medicines were considered a panacea. “Panacea” (panacea) is supposed to be one substance, one drug, that cures everything. Many of the patent medicines had similar ingredients. Often, these are what we would call “herbal ingredients.” Some of them were just colored water. They were just liquid that they put a different color in and said that it was medicine. Most, however, of the patent medicines had some sort of exotic ingredient, or they said it had an exotic ingredient. Something that is “exotic” (exotic) is unusual, is rare, is not common. An “ingredient” is the substance that the medicine is made from. We use that word “ingredient” in cooking as well. We talk about the ingredients for a recipe, for a set of instructions that tells you how to make food. You could have tomatoes and garlic and onions. Those could be ingredients for a certain dish.

Many of the patent medicine said that they used the roots of plants grown in swamps. “Swamps” (swamps) are very wet, muddy areas that typically have a lot of vegetation, a lot of plants. Other patent medicines claim to be using Native American, or American Indian, medicines since many people believed that the Native Americans had some sort of special knowledge about medicine. It is true that some of the plants used by Native Americans had medicinal properties; that is, they actually did change something in your body, although often not the things that the people selling patent medicine said they did. Other patent medicines tried to reap the benefits of technological advances. “To reap (reap) the benefits of something” means to get the benefits or to get the advantages of something. Technology was changing, especially in the early 20th century when it came to medicine, and so some of the patent medicines tried to adopt those changes in order to say that their medicine was more effective.

I defined patent medicines as medicines that didn't work, but that's probably not completely true. Some patent medicines probably did help people who were sick for some things. The problem is sometimes they caused more problems than they cured. Several of the patent medicines contained opiates. Opiates are addictive narcotics – drugs that when people start taking them, they can't stop taking them. Often, they relieve pain but they cause other problems. In the early 20th century, the United States government decided to stop the sale of many of these patent medicines. In 1906, the U.S. government enacted or made into law, the pure food and drug act. Today, we have something called the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, which protects people or tries to protect people by making sure that people are not selling these kinds of patent medicines and saying that they do things that they don't in fact do.

There were some now famous common medicines that started as patent medicines but then became, we might say, “real” medicines. Bayer Aspirin, for example, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia – these are examples of brands that started as patent medicines but eventually became, we may say, real medicines. Some of the early kinds of soda, including Coca-Cola were also sold originally as being a kind of patent medicine. Now of course, people don't say that drinking Coca-Cola will make you healthy, although maybe it will.

Now let’s answer some of the questions that you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Danial (Danial) in Pakistan. Danial wants to know the difference between “get to” and “got to.” “He gets to go.” “He he got to go.” What's the difference?

“Get to” means to have permission to do something. It means that you are allowed to do something, usually by someone in authority, such as your parents or your boss. “My boss said I get to go to the conference next week.” I am allowed to. He is giving me permission to. Or, “The boy gets to go to a rock concert with his friends.” His parents have given him permission to do so. Maybe that's not a good idea, but that's what his parents said and I'm not going to argue with his parents. Not that all parents are always right, of course, many times they're not…but anyway, it's just an example.

“Got to” is the past tense of “get to.” So, I could say, “I got to go to the conference last week.” I was able to, I was given permission to go. “Got to,” then, is with the past and “get to” would be for the present and possibly near future.

“Have got to” is different than “get to” and “got to.” “Have got to,” like, “I have got to go to see this movie,” means that I am required to do it. I have to do it. There's really no difference between “have to” and “have got to.” “Have got to” is a little more informal, not as formal. You won't see it in writing very often, but people will say it often in normal conversation. In fact all of these expressions we’re talking about tend to be more informal, more conversational English than written English.

Our next question comes from Nikolay (Nikolay). I’m not sure what country Nikolay is from. We’ll say he's from planet Earth and leave it at that. Nikolay wants to know the difference between two adjectives – “weird” (weird) and “strange” (strange). Let's start with weird.

“Weird” means unusual. More often, it means bizarre, really unusual, really different. “He's a weird person.” He’s a very different, unusual person. “Weird” is almost always considered a negative way of describing someone or describing something.

“Strange” has a couple of different meanings. One of them is similar to weird, which is unusual. “That's a strange noise I hear.” That's an unusual, uncommon noise. “Strange” can also mean simply unknown. “I heard a strange voice” means I heard a voice that I did not recognize, that I did not know. We have the noun “stranger” with an “r” at the end, which means a person you don't know. “Strange” can also be used a little less commonly to mean “foreign,” not from where you're from, not from your country or your city. “I am in a strange city.” That means “I am in the city that I don't know very well.” It could also mean that “I'm in an unusual city.” That's possible. You have to understand the context of the sentence or the paragraph to understand what the person is really saying, because both “strange” and “weird” can mean unusual – very different. You will hear them in the same sentence or being used one for the other. Some people will say, “That's a weird television show.” “That's a strange television show.” They mean really the same thing. That's an unusual television show.

Finally, Dmitry (Dmitry) in Russia wants to know a little bit about hitchhiking in the United States, both the expressions associated with hitchhiking and some of the customs. “Hitchhiking” is standing along the side of a road so that someone will give you a ride to where you want to go. This someone is, of course, going to be for most cases, a stranger, someone you don't know. A stranger gives you a ride to the next city or the next town that you want to go to.

There are a couple of expressions that are associated with the idea of hitchhiking, to describe that activity. One is to “thumb (thumb) a ride”. “To thumb a ride” means to hitchhike. The reason we use that expression is that if you're standing on the side of the road and you want the cars that are going by you to know that you want a ride, you put your hand out and you stick your thumb up in the air and you point in the direction the cars are moving. This tells cars going by you that you want to get a ride from them, that you are hitchhiking. The other two expressions you may hear are “to hitch a ride,” which means to hitchhike, and “to bum (bum) a ride. The verb “to bum” is used generally to mean to borrow from someone else. You might say, “Can I bum a pencil from you?” It’s a very informal but very common expression. “Can I bum a piece of paper from you?” Sometimes when you use it, you’re really saying, “Can you give it to me?” not just “Can I borrow it?” We might say “Can you bum me a cigarette?” Well, you're giving the person a cigarette. You don't expect him to give it back to you when he's done smoking. Nut in general, “bum” means to borrow from someone. “To bum a ride” means to hitchhike. You’re “borrowing” a ride from that person.

Hitchhiking is no longer very common in the United States. I can't remember the last time I saw someone hitching a ride along the side of a road. You will still see people do it in some places, but it's not very common. It was common in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, perhaps during the early part of the 80’s. Even when I was in college, it was already less popular than it was, for example, 10 years earlier.

I have a brother – an older brother – who used to hitchhike from St. Paul, where he lived with my family, to Mankato, which is a city in Minnesota where he was going to school. He would hitchhike back and forth every weekend from the university to our house. But that was in the early 1970’s. It's not something that people do very much anymore today.

One reason is that in most places it's illegal to hitchhike. It's against the law to hitchhike. Another reason is that, it can be – especially, for example, if you're a woman – dangerous to hitchhike. So, you won't see a lot of people hitchhiking, at least not as many as you might've seen earlier in the U.S. history in the 20th century, or perhaps in other countries. I would say if you are thinking of coming to visit the United States, you should definitely not rely on hitchhiking as one of your primary means of transportation. In fact, I would recommend that you not hitchhike here at all. It's illegal in most places, and usually dangerous in most places as well.

If you have a question or comment, even a strange one, you can e-mail us. Our e-mail addresses eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I'm Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast English Café was written by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2013 by the Center for Educational Development.

preeminent – distinguished, well-known, and well-respected, having done something very well; being recognized as having done something better than anyone else

* We need the preeminent researcher on skin cancer to look at this new drug.

trilogy – a series of three connected stories that have the same characters

* Did you see the original Star Wars trilogy when it was first released in theaters?

fresh off the boat – recently arrived in a place; a recently arrived immigrant

* These criminals try to take advantage of people who are fresh off the boat by offering to help them find housing for a small fee and then stealing their money.

to branch out – to expand outward; to try new things

* Originally, our company just sold paper, but we’ve branched out into cleaning supplies.

librettist – a person who writes the text used to create an opera or musical

* The librettist’s words are more like poetry than song lyrics.

misnomer – an inaccurate or misleading name

* These are called “Giant Shrimp” on the menu, but that’s a misnomer because these are very small.

cure – a solution for a medical problem; a successful treatment for an illness or disease

* What is the cure for bad breath?

panacea – one substance that can do all things, especially one that solve all problems or cure all illnesses

* The new CEO is seen as a panacea for all of our financial problems.

exotic – unusual and exciting, usually from another country or culture

* The store called this fruit exotic, but we eat them all the time in my country.

swamp – a low area where water collects and is very wet and muddy with many plants

* Don’t try to build a house on a swamp because the ground isn’t firm.

medicinal properties – the medical and health benefits that the substances in a plant can offer to humans

* My grandmother collected this herb and made it into a tea, recommending it for its medicinal properties.

to reap the benefits – to get the benefits of something; to have the advantages of something

* Staying is school may be difficult, but you’ll reap the benefits when you get a good job with your college education.

to get to – to have permission to do something; to be given the opportunity to do something

* The children are excited because they get to stay up late on New Year’s Eve.

to have got to – to be required to do something; to feel a personal responsibility to do something

* You’ve got to talk to her and change her mind before she makes the biggest mistake of her life!

weird – unusual; bizarre

* Quentin woke up in the middle of night and heard weird noises coming from the attic.

strange – unknown; unusual; foreign

* Who is that strange person you were talking to earlier?

to thumb a ride – to hitchhike; to stand by the side of a road and hold out one’s thumb pointing in the direction one wants to travel, used to indicate that one wants a ride

* Thumbing rides was popular in the 1970s, but most people don’t think it’s safe to do today.

What Insiders Know
Snake Oil

The term “snake oil” today is used to refer to any type of medicine or cure that is “fraudulent” (fake; not real) or “unproven” (with no evidence showing its effectiveness). Similarly, a snake oil salesman or “peddler” (seller, usually one who travels from place to place to make sales) is someone who may have fake medical “credentials” (evidence of professional training or qualifications), sells fake medicine, and talks about “questionable” (not reliable or real) science.

No one is certain where the term “snake oil” comes from, but some people believe that it comes from the Western United States and the Chinese “laborers” (workers doing physical work) who worked there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the United States “expanded” (made its area larger) west toward the Pacific Ocean, it required transportation from east to west and “vice versa” (the other way around). The “back-breaking work” (difficult physical work) of expanding the “railroad” (transportation of train cars moving along metal tracks) was done by “imported” (brought from elsewhere) workers, many of them from China.

One of the “remedies” (cures; medications) used by Chinese laborers for pain is a “topical” (placed on the skin) medicine made from Chinese Water Snakes. Salesmen who traveled from place to place began selling their own “concoction” (mixture of ingredients) of “so-called” (not real) snake oil medicine. Many of these salesmen were dishonest and tried to fool people into believing that their “medicine” had special effects. Some even used “accomplices” (people who help criminals to commit a crimes) to get people to believe in the effectiveness of the medicine. The accomplices would pretend to be a member of the audience and “proclaim” (announce publicly) the usefulness of the medicine for their own “maladies” (illnesses). Over time, it is believed that people realized that snake oil was not beneficial and the term began being used to refer to something fraudulent.