Albert Chen (Christopher Thomas Pow) is sitting on a park bench eating what appears to be a burrito or a hot pocket when a hunched old man, dressed in an intersection of athleisure and preppie that signals respectability, comfort, and a baseline certainty of invisibility, shuffles in. “Hey! You Chinese?” he hollers. Albert, though he is, in fact, Chinese—rather, third-generation Chinese American—mutters, “That doesn’t mean we’re like bonded.”
“This weird old man was . . . racially profiling me,” he tells white coworker Russ the Bus (Garrett Lutz), who proceeds to racially profile Albert as a diligent robot whose most interesting attribute might be where he’s from (“Uyghur from Kyrgyzstan . . . Tibetan raised by Nepalese monks . . . Vietnamese raised by wolves”), before demanding that Albert, once more, share the code that he worked on while Russ slacked. “I was raised to believe in sacrificing my individual needs for the sake of the group,” notes Albert. “So fine. I will give you my code. Again.”
Through 10/30: Wed and Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; open captions Thu 10/20, Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$90
Racial self-hatred is the subject of Mike Lew’s Tiger Style! in which Albert and his older sister Jennifer (Aurora Adachi-Winter), who are American-born, Harvard-educated, and live together in Irvine, California, blame their upbringing for their shortcomings, and their white (and whitewashed) colleagues are only too happy to let them do it. Albert is a software engineer who can’t get a promotion from his Asian American boss (Rammel Chan, who also plays the aforementioned old man and Albert and Jennifer’s father), who finds Albert “unrelatable” compared to Russ, even if he does all the work. Jennifer is an oncologist who can’t get her deadbeat man-child white boyfriend (played by Lutz), whom she supports financially and who finds her exotic but neither domestically submissive nor sexually domineering enough, to marry her. Could traditional Chinese cultural values, such as humility, collectivity, and hard work, be to blame for their failure to find happiness in white American society? Albert and Jennifer are ready to believe.
“Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy,” wrote Cathy Park Hong in 2020’s Minor Feelings. “Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.” This becomes the unspoken philosophy behind Albert and Jennifer’s so-called “Asian freedom tour,” wherein they attempt to go “full Western” by berating their parents, yelling at their bosses, goofing off at their jobs, and going to therapy. “Instigating a fight with our family sounds like a full and satisfying evening of entertainment,” says Jennifer.
Unfortunately, it is not. The trouble with Tiger Style! (directed for Writers by Brian Balcom) is that it not only illustrates racial self-hatred and its roots in white supremacy, it performs such hatred upon its characters, who are cartoonish, unlikeable, and ultimately act the part of stooges to their own oppression. Albert and Jennifer embody stereotypes of the model minority and abhor themselves for it (“ . . . the Chinese American Ivy Leaguer who went into medicine—you’re the vanilla ice cream of Asians,” scoffs Albert of Jennifer). Despite the reminder that their grandparents were laundry workers and farm laborers who struggled to raise their families from poverty to middle class under drastically more discriminatory conditions, they spend nearly the entire two hours aspiring for nothing better than to become the mediocre white men who dominate them.
When their academic and artistic achievements don’t bring them satisfaction in their lives, and straight imitation fails to transform them into full-fledged mainstream white Americans, they quit their jobs and book a one-way trip to Shenzhen to colonize the motherland like the deluded puppets they are. “How are you going to dominate China?” asks Albert. “I’m gonna ride a panda?” says Jennifer. “I’m gonna bungee jump the Great Wall!”
China, in the form of the Communist Party and their self-sacrificing factory worker cousin Chen (Deanna Myers, who also plays their mother, a matchmaker, and a therapist, if that’s not too Freudian), rightly slaps the two upside the head but, in its depiction, is about the equivalent of Toyland in Pinocchio: parodically gratifying, then horrifying, in which a more mature parental figure who is herself imprisoned within the system sets them free to a freedom conditioned by the constraints of capitalist reality (but I digress).
In other words, Albert and Jennifer not only never transcend white expectations of them—they are those expectations played out like a minstrel show. Rather than offer a narrative that might reveal nuance, dimension, and humanity, Tiger Style! makes no gesture toward an interiority that might suggest that the siblings deserve something better than the life that has been foisted upon them by strict parenting and American culture. The best it can do is offer the briefest flashes of insight as asides (“But what if we’re viewing China as tourists, and everything seems more exotic and vibrant than it actually is? Like in the same way others viewed us as exotic back home,” wonders Jennifer briefly, before succumbing again to a haze of cheap consumer goods and paternalistic government practices).
The satire of Tiger Style!, if it is one, might be too subtle for white audiences, and, as one of three Asians in the audience on October 8, it remains painful to hear others laugh when Albert and Jennifer get bullied by dumb white dudes and otherwise launch themselves into walls. Mr. Lew, as a writer from Irvine, California, with the wrong kind of “Dr.” in front of my name, whose achievements have brought me into the game as long as I remain quiet, hardworking, and dedicated to a position of servitude, I share your frustrations at the limitations of American society. But for whom or what is this play, which does not contradict the stereotypes it claims to challenge but rather affirms them? Tiger Style! certainly holds a mirror up to white American society, but as long as white people cannot see themselves in the faces of Asian folks, the message cannot be transmitted.
I give you back your own words:
Albert: “But the answer can’t be glacial generational progress. It can’t just be family endurance. At some point other people have to change and acknowledge our right to exist.”
Mom: “Yes but we can’t change the world, only you.”