In ‘Tiger Style,’ La Jolla Playhouse Plumbs the Best and Worst of Being Asian

In his excellent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell addresses the secret of success. To oversimplify, it’s a combination of opportunity and hard work.

The 13-year-old Bill Gates was bright, yes, but then his high school already had an early computer in 1968, before many universities did, and he was ready to spend thousands of hours teaching himself how to program it.

The young English musicians of the Beatles spent four years and thousands of hours perfecting their music in a Hamburg nightclub with rarely a day off. When they returned to Liverpool, they were ready.

Gladwell applies his theory to subjects as diverse as youth hockey players and corporate lawyers but some examples stick better than others. The superior scientific and mathematical achievements of Asian students, for example, now a bedrock stereotype.

Gladwell points out two factors: Chinese is a much more efficient language with which to juggle numbers. And those rice paddies.

Rice cultivation is one of the most labor-intensive types of agriculture ever, requiring endless care and intelligent choices. Rice farmers never take a day off or go on vacation. The harder and more skillfully they work, the greater the reward, as generations have learned.

In an intensively competitive modern world, such an ancient cultural heritage should be a lucrative benefit, suggests author Amy Chua in her popular book on intense parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  Asian kids should strive to cultivate their advantage, whether they’re interested or not.


David Shih, Raymond J. Lee, Jackie Chung and MaryAnn Lee in Tiger Style at La Jollq Playhouse. Jim Carmody Photos.

David Shih, Raymond J. Lee, Jackie Chung and MaryAnn Lee in Tiger Style at La Jolla Playhouse. Jim Carmody Photos.

In his new comedy Tiger Style, now at the La Jolla Playhouse, Mike Lew (a La Jolla native) brings dispatches from the frontlines of the war for academic triumphs.

(Lew’s parents, a pediatrician and a cardiologist, seem to be good sports. They were interviewed for the LJP program notes and admitted to being surprised that their son grew up to be a promising playwright. While they make it clear that their own successes were built on their immigrant parent’s hard work in a Caucasian country, they didn’t dwell on differences. And the play? “We thought it was hilarious,” said Lew’s mother, “and it’s not about me, thank god.”)

Lew makes the story a wry, goofy fantasy, the sort of thing that used to turn out as all a dream. Now, when magic and realism hang out together, why bother? There are points to be scored and casual fantasy works fine enough.

Albert Chen finds himself unable to break out of his nerd shell even though he’s a successful, possibly brilliant software designer.  He’s never going to go further because he’s too trained to be the humble team player. So others reap the credit for his work. He’s Dilbert from the comics pages but he feels even more handicapped by his otherness, his obvious Asian roots.

His sister Jennifer, the oncologist, is hardly better off. She’s breaking up with her slacker boyfriend, who’s both intimidated by and bored with her competitive drive. With her biological clock ticking and no candidates in sight, she decides to try analysis. But the therapist can’t tell her how long this is going to take and besides, she’s just a Ph.D., not an M.D., so Jennifer wins that one before it starts.

Crunched and battered, the kids agree: It’s time to confront Mom and Dad. Over a traditional Chinese family feast, served from takeout cartons, a border is crossed. The parents, both busy professionals themselves, are only marginally sympathetic and just casually interested in their children’s shortfalls of perfection. “I told you we should have adopted from Africa,” mutters the father.

So, the solution agreed upon by the outraged and desperate siblings? Back to their roots! Back to China!

They don’t speak the language, true, and they’re vague on the geography. But their heritage calls. And they’ve even met a mysterious old Chinese man who is sympathetic and encouraging.

At the airport in China, they’re instantly overwhelmed by the cultural cacophony. Within no time at all, their luggage disappears

Raymond J. Lee, Jackie Chung and Nate Miller in Tiger Style at La Jolla Playhouse. Jim Carmody Photo

Raymond J. Lee, Jackie Chung and Nate Miller in Tiger Style at La Jolla Playhouse. Jim Carmody Photo

, their money and passports are stolen, they’re helpless. Then the old man appears, brandishing solutions. New passports, a pack of local money, a place to stay, a box of opium and a future: Jennifer will get a university fellowship with no patients to see or classes to teach, Albert will join at the highest level the government hacker office.

Does it work out? Are you kidding? Jennifer completely rejects her matchmade husband if she isn’t even going to get to meet the guy. And Albert balks at destroying a chunk of the USA as an audition. In their jail cell, the disappointed old man says they’ll get one more chance: Playing a cello-piano sonata that makes him cry. Well, the main result is that the sibs are amazed how well they play so many years after they last touched their youthful instruments. But it looks like curtains until the arrival of a deus ex machina with forged papers and cheap tickets home. All they have to do is get through the US CBP authorities. That’s all.

There’s much more in the details but that’s the spine of Tiger Style. There’s no way to escape either nature or nurture. Everybody’s a minority of some sort. Some people just spend more time worrying over it.

I like the light-hearted, off-handed staging at La Jolla by Jaime Castaneda. It matches Lew’s knockabout ironies. Raymond J. Lee and Jackie Chung are a brother-sister act in giddy battle with an unfair world but unusually bonded and mutually protective. That’s nice and feels natural.

MaryAnn Hu and David Shih play all the Chinese elders with delicate variation and Nat Miller has a romp with the Caucasians, ranging from a lout who might have flies in his beard to the most nightmare petty official needed to make any points about borders.

Lauren Helpern’s sets are sterile and bold and not more than is necessary. Anthony Jannuzzi helps that with selective lighting of varied sort and David Israel Reynoso’s costumes are the sort that make you say “yes, uh-huh”. And a DJ named Shammy Lee helps the continuity with some mangled melody that certainly sounds cool enough for me.


(Continues in the Potiker Theatre, UCSD, at 7:30 Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 2, 2016.)



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