Two perspectives on Asian-American life that riff on fantasy and stereotype: "Interior Chinatown" & "Tiger Style!"

Hate crimes against Asian-Americans have been on the rise. "Some of these cases have made it to national news, but most haven't," wrote Anne Anlin Cheng in a recent op-ed for The New York Times. "The low profile of this wave of violence is a reminder of how racial violence goes unexamined when it doesn't fit neatly into the standard narrative of race in America."

Thanks in large part to the "model minority" myth, Asian-American have been forced to occupy a strange liminal space in a country that's otherwise been hyperfocused on the dichotomy of Blackness and Whiteness. While it's true that the country still struggles to grapple with the complications of its history with slavery and civil rights for Black Americans, things like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act are completely forgotten and ignored.

This is the reality that some 20 million Asian-Americans have been forced to live with. But it's on my mind lately not just because of that influx in hate crimes, but because of two fantastic stories—a novel, and a radio play—that I recently experienced.

Here's the basic setup for Interior Chinatown, a National Book Award winner by Charles Yu:

Willis Wu doesn't perceive himself as the protagonist in his own life: he's merely Generic Asian Man. Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but always he is relegated to a prop. Yet every day, he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where Black and White, a procedural cop show, is in perpetual production. He's a bit player here, too, but he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain. Or is it?

I'd been looking forward to Interior Chinatown for a while, having devoured Yu's earlier novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, and his short story collection, Third Class Superhero. Yu's work often tends towards irreverent metafiction that's somehow still accessible, with a strong emotional core, and Interior Chinatown is no exception to this. Like in a lot of his previous work, Yu takes a central conceit, literalizes the metaphor, and turns it into a fantastical concept built on archetypes. The book is written in second-person (Yu writing about "you"), in a format riffing on a screenplay—Courier font, with all dialogue presented as a center-spaced script. Even the non-script "scenes" are mostly set in "stage directions," fitting with the stylistic motif.

But is Willis Wu actually an actor? Does he actually play an Asian stereotype background role on a cop show called Black & White? You'll find yourself asking these questions as you read the book, but it doesn't really matter. Because Yu is less interested in the mindfuckery unreliable narrator vibe, and more interested in exploring what it means to live a life where you've been typecast against your will, and where the only path to success as you can tell is to embrace that typecasting. It reminds me of a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's fantastic TedTalk, The Danger of a Single Story: "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Yu hooks you into his story with accessible Asian tropes—Kung Fu! Chinese restaurant! Sagely wisdom from elders!—and gradually peels back the layers to reveal a family of characters who are much more dynamic, and much more tragic, than they've been allowed to be.

This is what I mean by literalizing the metaphor: Yu, as the writer, is responsible for disallowing these characters to be fully-fleshed out people for the first hundred pages. But the royal you—as a reader, and as an American—are just as culpable of constricting the Willis Wu's of the real world in much the same way.

Yu wields this rhetorical trick with tremendous success. The book is fun enough for the non-Asian reader to think, "Hey, I get it!" Then Yu twists it around with a pure emotional gutpunch. He knows exactly when to dwell in archetype, and when to hammer it home with specific, resonant details. Anyone can relate on a personal level to being pigeon-holed, to never quite attaining the recognition they've been striving for, regardless of their qualifications or contributions. But not all of us have experienced that on a cultural level. And Yu uses a fantastical story structure to drive that home.

Playwright Mike Lew pulls off a similar trick in his play Tiger Style!, which has just been adapted into a 4-part podcast/radio play by the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. (Full disclosure: my wife was the producer when the Huntington staged the play in 2016.) Here's that synopsis:

Squabbling siblings Albert and Jennifer Chen reached the pinnacle of academic achievement. But as adults, they're epic failures: he's just been passed up for promotion and she's been dumped by her loser boyfriend. So, naturally, they confront their parents and launch an Asian Freedom Tour! From California to China, this hilarious comedy examines race, parenting, and success with wit and sharp humor.

Like Willis Wu, Albert and Jennifer are crushed under the weight of expectations. Maybe it's their "domineering Asian parents." Or maybe it's the expectations of a society that expects them to fill that model minority niche. Albert is a hard worker who is repeatedly overlooked for a promotion; his supervisors would insist it isn't racism, it's just that they can't envision him in a leadership role. Jennifer is also torn between the pressure to be an A-Student and a Doctor, while also being submissive to all of her potential suitors.

So naturally, they decide to become expatriates and move to China. Certainly, they won't struggle to fit in there as American-raised Asians, right? And certainly they'll be free from any kind of repressive social structures or authority, right?

Like Yu, Lew plays with stereotypes and archetypes in ways that make the Asian-American experience resonate even more. Albert and Jennifer portray a meta-awareness of the fact that they're in a play as they prepare to confront their parents, whom they blame for all their problems. "On this night, secrets will be revealed, and nothing will be the same again!" they repeat in various forms. Even as they long to escape the roles they've been forced in, they are literally playing their roles in the story. And they can't escape that, either.

Tiger Style! had its first public reading in 2014, and China—especially America's relationship with China—has changed in some noticeable ways since the Obama years. Lew embraces this by adapting his play not only into an episodic podcast format, but also updating it so it's set in December 2019. The changes are subtle, but the specific timeliness of the story makes it even more relevant (for example, Albert and Jennifer can't possibly fathom people in America wearing facemasks outdoors like they do in China, womp womp). Overall, it's a fast, funny story that plays the dystopian qualities of life in China, and Asian-American life in the US, against each other, effectively skewering them both. Maybe neither situation is ideal; but maybe there's something that we as a society can learn from that, especially at a time when violence against Asian-Americans is on the rise.

Interior: Chinatown [Charles Yu]

Tiger Style! [Mike Lew / Huntington Theatre Company]

What This Wave of Anti-Asian Violence Reveals About America [Anne Anlin Cheng / The New York Times]