Jennifer Chen sees a therapist for the first time. And she comes prepared: a list of her phobias, one of her shortcomings, another with her attributes. She can’t simply explore personal issues. She must be “the best at therapy!”
Motivated? Driven? Oh, come on. Jennifer’s a control tower. She has micromanaged her entire life: school (Harvard, natch...), med. school, internship — no, skip that — residency, oncologist at Irvine, California. Find a man, but hurry. Biology’s winged chariot draweth nigh. Have children. Win the National Medal of Science. Retire. And? Have fun? Relax? She’d be a rookie at both.
Jennifer and her equally brilliant brother Albert (Harvard, software programmer) are a mess. She overachieves, just lost a hastily chosen boyfriend (and complains she invested three years in him); Albert’s a “pushover” with a genius IQ. He defers to authority and puts the team first, even when a coworker grabs the credit and steals a promotion, even though he couldn’t program his way out of a parking lot. Jennifer and Albert look around and ask, “What the...what?”
How can they ace every test, stride magna cum laude through higher education, excel as concert musicians (Carnegie Hall, even), and not awake to the American Dream? Race has been a barrier. Incessant profiling and cultural biases inhibit them from being like an insensitive white “American Idiot,” entitled “to all that privilege entails,” thanks to a “supreme confidence.”
Another factor: life skills; they have “substituted professional growth for personal growth.” Itself a stereotype, but may apply here, in part. Instead, for the burden of blame they choose their successful Chinese parents, who live in posh San Marino, and their strict, “tiger-style” parenting.
In 2011, Amy Chua, Yale professor of law, published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She was one, she says. And in order to succeed, her two daughters could never “attend a sleepover, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play...get any grade less than an A.” Although she claimed the book was a “self-mocking memoir,” it became controversial: are strict Chinese mothers superior to lax Western ones?
The xenophobic generalizations are overblown, Maya Thiagarajan points out in Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting for the Global Age, published this year. The book offers “how-to” suggestions for children’s development “inside and outside the classroom.”
Chua and Thiagarajan use statistics. Mike Lew’s Tiger Style!, at the La Jolla Playhouse, takes a personal look at the subject. Lew’s Chinese-American parents were strict, he went to Yale and was meant to excel. In an interview he recalled asking his father, “Why didn’t you tell me life would be hard because I’m Asian?” To which his father replied, “I didn’t think I had to.”
The play doesn’t take sides. But Lew shows that the debate is less one-sided than many believe.
Using humor as an analytical tool, Lew has a genuine knack for making serious points through humor. As when Jennifer and Albert have a “reckoning” with their parents. Instead of the stereotype, uncaged tigers, it turns out they meant the best for their children, and still do: Jennifer lived with a slacker? Fine, as long as she was happy. Albert “only” makes $70,000 a year? Cool beans.
So, what to do? Jennifer and Albert go on an “Asian Freedom Tour,” first through America, and into more barriers, then to China where, even though they don’t speak the language, surely they’ll discover their true identity.
Even if Tiger Style! must sacrifice its own. Sending them to China works for the scheme: compare their lives in America and China, where they don’t fit in either. But getting them out requires one deux ex machina device after another: saved by a party member; saved by a distant relation. The quest for identity dwindles into a cozy sitcom fable. The play’s as adept at knocking down barriers as Jennifer and Albert are not.
On opening night at the Playhouse, the cast almost to a person sprinted through their lines. The speed made several jokes unintelligible. It also cut against the playwright’s two-fold dialogue. Albert (Raymond J. Lee) and Jennifer (Jackie Chung) are so smart they speak from the heart, often in shorthand, then analyze themselves from afar. The latter tack is more formal and calls for a different voice. Running them together erases a key texture from the script. Instead of hectic/intelligible, it’s just hectic.
The production values underscore both. Lauren Helpern’s set’s a stage-wide brownish rectangle: severe, straight lines and sharp edges — save for a rounded, down-stage inlet. The design makes for appropriately hectic scene changes (as do DJ Shammy Dee’s kinetic, wicky wicky wah scratchings). Combine a painting of stars with suggestions of white neon streaks across the wall (designed by Anthony Jannuzzi), and you have an American flag in Act One and China’s in Act Two.
Directed by Jamie Castaneda, the production moves with today’s “right this instant,” tweet/text speed. Which might be another reason why Jennifer and Albert ran an academic marathon in record time yet found undiscovered territory at the finish line.
Tiger Style! by Mike Lew
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
Potiker Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse
Directed by Jaime Castaneda; cast: Jackie Chung, Maryann Hu, Raymond J. Lee, Nate Miller, David Shih; scenic design, Lauren Helpern; costumes, David Israel Reynoso; lighting, Anthony Jannuzzi; sound, Mikhail Fiksel; DJ, Shammy Dee
Playing through October 2; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 7 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. lajollaplayhouse.org