Warning: May contain spoilers.
During a time of heightened racial consciousness for many Asian Americans, Alan Yang’s Tigertail offers a moment of escape by reminding us of the depth of our stories in the midst of a climate that reduces them. It does so by telling the story of Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma), a terse middle-aged divorcee who struggles to connect emotionally with his daughter, Angela (Christine Ko). Though the film aptly portrays several themes common to the Asian American experience — emotional moderation, immigration, practicality, generational barriers—its ultimate strength is in illustrating the complexities of Asian parents and dismantling the stereotypes often associated with them.
Asian parents are often portrayed in American media as some combination of stern, stoic, and steely. In Gilmore Girls, Lane struggles to pacify her overprotective and devoutly religious mother, Mrs. Kim. In Akeelah and the Bee, the father of a spelling prodigee, Mr. Chiu’s only departures from a stony countenance are when he turns down an invitation to socialize with the other kids on Dylan’s behalf and when he lectures Dylan on the importance of winning first place. In Fresh Off the Boat, Jessica Huang is understood to be your classic tiger mom. The list goes on.
Nearly a decade ago, Amy Chua’s memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother popularized the concept of the tiger parent, which has been and continues to be a shared experience that many Asian Americans bond over. During the late 2000’s, various Youtubers amassed millions of views on videos that joked about Asian parenting. In 2010, the High Expectations Asian Father meme went viral. Even today, young Asian Americans are accumulating hundreds of thousands of likes on TikTok producing videos that caricature their experiences with their parents. The strict Asian parent stereotype is not entirely unfounded; it is one that parts of the Asian American community not only acknowledge but also lean into.
Pin-Jui aptly portrays the stern, stoic Asian parent; he is reticent in his interactions with others, lectures a crying young Angela after a stressful piano recital, and fails to comfort her emotionally when she expresses need for his support. Tigertail does not seek to challenge the stereotype by pushing a character free from the stereotype’s commonly associated qualities. Instead, it weaves these qualities into a character with depth and dimension that is able to both honor and challenge the common understanding of Asian parents.
Through a series of flashbacks narrated by Pin-Jui, we learn of a childhood spent in the countrysides of Taiwan, an adolescence passed laboring with his mother in factories, and an adulthood wrought with struggle as an immigrant and, later, father in America. Though Pin-Jui opens up in his narration far more honestly than he does in interactions with others, his own retelling still does not do his younger self and its emotions justice. Beyond expressing the happiness he felt when he first met his childhood sweetheart, Yuan (Yo-Hsing Fan), Pin-Jui never explicitly states how he felt about her or the experience of having to leave behind the only person who ever brought out the liveliest parts of his personality. But when we see the two dance as young adults, dash after eating at a restaurant they both can’t afford, and embrace after he reveals to her the modest home he’s embarrassed of, it becomes clear that they were in love, that they made each other feel alive. And while his narration only explains that he made the choice to move to America, the worry we witness overcome him after his mother suffers an injury at the factory reveals a care for her so strong that he was willing to sacrifice his own comfort to pursue a brighter future for both of them.
Like Angela, I, too, had a rather two dimensional view of my father. As an adolescent, I saw him as nothing more than a living embodiment of the stereotype: strict, traditional, and difficult to please. One of my angsty pre-teen journal entries from 2009 illustrates this:
My father is composed of the following ingredients:
Younger me saw my parents more as disciplinary cyborgs than nuanced human beings. While I had a much larger vocabulary for describing white parents, whose personalities movies and TV shows taught me came in every flavor — sensitive, cold, generous, cordial, uptight, granola, intellectual — I only had three words for mine: typical Asian parents. It was only as a young adult that I began to recognize how limited my understanding of them was.
After graduating from a high school where Asian Americans occupied a majority of the student body to attend a considerably more diverse college, I rediscovered this awareness of racial identity that disappeared during the years I was constantly surrounded by people who looked like me. As I struggled to reconcile what I understood to be expected of me as an Asian American woman—obedient, studious, practical, agreeable—with facets of my personality that didn’t fit this mold, I was reminded of what it felt like to perceive myself as first and foremost Asian, to feel my personality and interests sidelined by my racial identity.
As I began to ponder the experience of growing up as part of a racial majority, I quickly realized that my understanding of my “typical Asian parents” buckled in the absence of otherness. When I began to consider my father without the crutch of the stereotype, I came to see a man who was athletic, active, and outdoorsy, who enjoyed fishing, yoga, and fitness. I came to realize that the woman I only ever recognized as a chronic worrier was also brave, strong-willed, and, quite frankly, badass; my mother’s first unsuccessful attempt at escaping Vietnam in pursuit of democracy and freedom had landed her in jail, after all.
Tigertail manages to encapsulate in under two hours what took me years to recognize: the depth and interiority of my immigrant parents. Even though Pin-Jui behaves in ways viewers may understandably fault him for , such as his reprimanding of younger Angela’s crying or dismissal of his wife’s aspirations and feelings, the film’s profile of a hardened man who was once a boy longing for his parents first and foremost reminds us of the humanity that can become clouded behind the stereotypes. While Angela only understands her father as someone who fails to express intimacy, Yang’s portrait of Pin-Jui demonstrates that so much more can lie beneath the surface: unfulfilled dreams, unexplored love, unresolved pain.
Sometimes, cultural differences obstruct the open communication that can reveal the depths of Asian parents and challenge the stereotypes associated with them. Asian parents’ tendencies to refrain from expressing intimacy verbally have been discussed widely in online media. Even though Pin-Jui begins to overcome these barriers at the end when he opens up to Angela about his past, Tigertail still offers hope for relationships where intimacy is more difficult to foster. By inviting the audience into Pin-Jui’s past, the film manages to illustrate what can otherwise feel abstract: the reality of untold stories. While Pin-Jui points out and describes the factory he used to work in to Angela, we as an audience know she will never get to see what happened in those walls like we did. She will never see the concern that overcomes Pin-Jui when his mother suffers an injury at work or witness the moment he commits to leaving behind his childhood sweetheart to pursue a future where his mother can retire comfortably. Yang reminds us that stories can only impart so much and that sometimes we may need to find faith in a shared humanity.
By highlighting the pasts of Asian parents, whose depictions in American media sometimes lack depth, Tigertail serves as a reminder that our perceptions of them may only be the tip of the iceberg. Though this film can not dissolve the layers of language, cultural, and emotional barriers that can hinder Asian American children from reaching a more nuanced understanding of their parents, Tigertail reminds us that there is likely a trove of history worth digging for.
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