Chinese Siblings Struggle with Cultural Expectations, Sense of Belonging in TheatreSquared Play

The run of Mike Lew’s ‘Tiger Style!’ has been extended through Apr. 10.

three Asian actors on stage look hopefully into the distance
In-person and streaming tickets for "Tiger Style!" are available through Apr. 10. Photos courtesy of TheatreSquared.

Stephanie Shum moved to the Chicago suburbs from Canada as a child and it was there that she discovered theatre. It became her home, a place where she fit in, but it was a “culture shock” for her Chinese parents who wanted her to focus on her studies. 

“My folks were pretty adamant about not doing theatre,” Shum says. “My degree is actually in business. That was what they preferred that I did.”

Her parents eased over time and today Shum is a professional performer. As an adult, she better understands where they were coming from. The challenges they experienced over her career choice exemplify her parents’ Eastern values conflicting with her Western ones, a topic she explores further as one of the stars of Tiger Style! which is on stage now at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville.

Written by Mike Lew, Tiger Style! premiered at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in September 2015 and tells the story of siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen. Both achieved the pinnacle of academic achievement by attending Harvard, but now they’re struggling as adults. While Jennifer can’t maintain a relationship, Albert’s lack of social skills leaves him unrelatable and in a position where he gets passed over for a promotion at work. The play uses humor as a vehicle to explore racial injustice, the myth of the model minority, internalized racism and how to define success.

“It’s kind of zany comedy so it’s really digestible,” Shum says. “I think there’s a lot that people can really identify with and find a lot of fun in and poke at, but I think it’s so intentional that you need the highs of these comedies to really understand at the end the lows of what we’re also talking about.”

Two Asian actors sit on a beige bed on a white stage, a yellow sign hangs behind them with the phrase "I dream it, I work hard, I grind til I own it, Beyonce" is written in black lettering

Throughout the play, the Chinese American siblings struggle with where they fit. At first they blame their failures on their parents not teaching them to be American enough, but later they travel to China and find they also don’t fit there. Hyunmin Rhee connects with his character Albert so well because he says finding a space where he feels at home is a constant struggle. The Korean-born actor moved to the states when he was nine. His family shared their Korean culture, differentiating him from other Americans, but he also feels as though he wouldn’t quite belong in his native country. 

“For me, coming from a Korean background, I still feel like I don’t know where I fit and that’s a genuine and honest feeling that I experience on a daily basis,” Rhee says. “If I go back to Korea, I know that I will not feel this absolute sense of belonging because of the culture difference.”

While some audience members may also connect with this struggle of having a sense of belonging, Rhee hopes everyone who sees the show will gain a better understanding of how much the Asian community needs support because of the increase in hate crimes against Asians in the United States.

“I just want them to know what we’re dealing with, especially [what] the Asian women in our community in this country are going through,” he says. “And so we need their support and we need their care.”

TheatreSquared is extending its run of Tiger Style! through April 10. In-person and streaming tickets are available at www.theatre2.org. Through T2’s Lights Up! For Access program, SNAP benefit recipients can purchase $1 tickets, while students and patrons under the age of 30 can purchase $10 tickets. Free tickets are also available for clients of some local community service organizations. Details can be found at www.theatre2.org/lights-up.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.