Slanty Eyed Mama are a spoken word/electronic music duo comprised of actor/playwright Kate Rigg and electric violinist Lyris Hung whose shows are a fusion of rock songs, stand-up comedy, theater, and video installation. Their new show, Zombie Asian Moms, goes up at Tony Award-winning La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club from November 29th to December 9th.
As someone who grew up in Singapore with my tigress Asian mom and grandmothers, I was curious about the Asian American experience. Extra after-school cram classes, obedience to one’s parents, the helicopter parent—things that are seen as virtuous in Asian culture—how would they translate in America’s macho culture of independence?
I met up with playwright Kate Rigg to chat about our Asian moms.
Elisabeth Ng (Rail): Why Asian Moms, and why Zombie?
Kate Rigg: Well first off—the show is supposed to be funny! It’s not supposed to be a bummer, it’s not supposed to give anyone PTSD—or as I call it, PTAMD or Post-Traumatic Asian Mom Disorder. This show is about the cultural ideas, the influence, the habits, the parenting that endures through generations beyond death.
This is a show based on oral history interviews—recollections, memories, and interviews with Asian American moms. We’re asking all the Asian American moms what they’re like as moms, what their moms were like as a mom. How is it different and the same? And it’s in the context of being American Asian. What is it like now that you are an American mom—but you’re actually an Asian American mom. Do you see any differences?
Within the American Asian community there are—well, I don’t want to call them stereotypes because they’re not stereotypes, but we all have things in common—like tapping a fruit to see if it’s hollow, wearing sandals with socks, absurd disciplinary measures, and the pressure to go to medical school. We explore some of those things that everybody talks about and we deepen it with personal stories.
Ultimately this show is a celebration of our Asian moms while still looking at some of the deeper underlying things that happen specifically to an immigrant. We wrote a song for the show that’s called “Discipline Never Dies.” Another is called “I Shame You Because I Love You.” These are things that I think a lot of Asian Americans can relate to!
Rail: How did you go about finding Asian Moms to participate?
Rigg: I found all these moms randomly. We did it randomly on purpose because I didn’t want to have just one type of person. We worked hard to have different ages, different types of ethnicities. We have a wide range, and we’re not done yet. We’re going to keep on going.
Rail: Were there a lot of differences between the ages and ethnicities?
Rigg: Not significant. I talked to a grandma—who is also a mom, obviously—from the Philippines, whose story about her mom was the same as a first generation hapa Chinese girl. The patterns of discipline. It was different culturally, but the same.
Rail: There also seems to be a common thread of discipline, guilt, and shame.
Rigg: Yeah, but that makes it sound like a bummer. There are also things like food being the center of the household, education being a priority, wanting your kids to be happier and more successful than you. I don’t want to tilt it either way.
Rail: Do you think these traits are unique to Asian moms?
Rigg: Oh no, I think people will watch this and recognize themselves in it, I don’t think it is unique. Culturally there are things that are specific to being from Asia, like the food. But I think a lot of people who are immigrants will relate to this. And I found that in our other shows which have touched on these things, people will come up to us after the show and say, “I’m a Mexican kid, but I can absolutely relate to your story about moms.” So I think to an extent this story is about everybody.
Rail: Speaking of these themes, I think people conflate “Asian Mom” with “Tiger Mom.” Are there elements of that in the show?
Rigg: The show is “narrated” by my Tiger Mom—and I play my Mom. We talk about the lore and the mystery of the Tiger Mom. In our previous shows there is a song called “Me Love You Long Time” that is about a delicate flower turning into a Tiger. And then there’s stand up comedy, and we look at some other moms that I’ve fictionalised from the interviews. They’re not actual reproductions of my interviews but fictionalised by topic.
Rail: What was it like being raised by a Tiger Mom?
Rigg: Our lyricist has two master degrees: one from Columbia and one from Juilliard. You couldn’t get more fantastic for an Asian Mom, and yet, her mom was not a Tiger Mom in the slightest, not even a little bit! My mom was a Tiger Mom, but I went off to drama school so that didn’t work out so great for her.
My mum wanted me to go to medical school—till the day she died! I went to Juilliard, but she said: “It’s still not too late! I’ll pay for medical school. Go to medical school anyway!” She didn’t give that thing up, clutching the phone number of Harvard pre-med in her dying hands. So that was my journey, I had a lot of pressure on me to go to pre-med—and I did actually, but I dropped out after one year.
We have a song in the play called “I Don’t Want to Go to Medical School,” which is a punk anthem, and is dedicated to every single kid who was forced to go to medical school.
Rail: Do you think the Tiger Mom mythology is something born out of white perceptions?
Rigg: I don’t think it’s a mythology based out of white perceptions. Most of that Asian Mom lore comes out of Asian Americans or other Asians. I don’t think white people give a s*** or are thinking about Tiger Moms. They are reacting to media that is put out by Asian people.
How much of it is true? I mean, that’s a tough question for me to answer because I don’t represent every Asian person in the world. So I don’t know how much of that is true. But I do know that there are habits and cultural tropes that seem to track throughout Asian America. We recognize them. We recognize the pressure to go to medical school even if your parents don’t force you to go to medical school. We recognize tough rules, apologizing to the ancestors, saving face, or shaming the family. Those are all very recognizable. Some of these track all the way from Asia, and some of them have to do with the immigrant experience.
But this play is not a bummer. It’s more about acknowledging that some of these cultural habits and behaviors exist and then putting it up there on screen for people to think about, talk about, laugh about.
We are not going deep into the trauma of the immigrant experience. We made this show for two reasons: Firstly, because there is a perception of Asian Americans as foreigners in this country. That we’re not actually Americans. I’m talking specifically about people who were naturalized, who maybe were born here but are still treated like foreigners. Like we came from another country. Which is absurd because this is where we grew up, this is where we pay our taxes, this is where we get all our media information about ourselves. I wanted to bring a story that’s about family and tradition, that is very American from an Asian point of view. I wanted to reframe the conversation about what a typical American family is to include Asian Americans—because the typical Asian American family is American, they just happen to be Asian.
Secondly, when Asian Americans look for information about themselves out in the world, there isn’t much of it. It causes a sense of exclusion and disenfranchisement from American culture at large. And that in return exhibits itself quite clearly in a lack of civic engagement. Asian Americans have the lowest percentage of voting in any election, and yet by 2044 we will be 10% of the population. We are also the fastest growing naturalized minority group in America. And the fact that we are still treated like foreigners—part of that is because we don’t have reflections of ourselves. Nobody really acknowledges us as Americans. That age old question of ‘what are you’ sets you apart. So there is a kind of apathy about being American. You just want to keep your head down, be successful within your little family circle, and make money—but there’s no engagement. And I want to change that as well.
Rail: How do you think we can go about building an Asian American identity?
Rigg: We started the duo Slanty Eyed Mama when we got out of Juilliard, and here’s why: we noticed there are a lot of ancestor stories out there, generations of fisherman on Pearl River and playing mahjong and stuff like that: “Asian-y,” “foreign’y,” “exotic-y” type stories. But there weren’t a lot of contemporary Asian-American stories out there.
Now we have Fresh Off The Boat and that’s about it. Crazy Rich Asians was still a little foreign, since it all happened in Singapore. We are starting to get this idea of a contemporary, cool urban Asian American, but not a lot. So we started Slanty Eyed Mama about fifteen years ago because we wanted to make work that is about the American Asian experience. I don’t say Asian-American, I say American Asian experience. And we want to force ourselves into the conversation about race and representation which is why we chose a provocative name.
Rail: Do you worry that a non-Asian audience might misconstrue the themes of Zombie Asian Moms?
Rigg: You think they’ll misconstrue our show without having even seen the show?! Throwing that back at you! It’s interesting for me, this fear that people have of other people getting offended. This happens a lot with our work. People come up to me after and ask the same thing. And I’ll throw the question back to them—are you offended after watching our show? The answer is always, “No, but we are worried other people in the room might misconstrue it.”
But which other people are we talking about? Other people in the room, or fake other people they’ve made up in their head? And it is always fake people made up in their head.
My answer always is—I’m fine, but how do you feel about the material you just saw? How do you feel about this Asian-centric discussion of stereotypes? How do you feel about what we are trying to do here? Instead of getting offended, we are going to talk about what we saw on stage tonight. And if someone is offended, then that is a good time to have a conversation. The reason our stuff is here, it’s because we don’t want to hide, it is to have meaningful conversation about race and representation. And we are going to have it now.
Rail: Zombie Asian Moms will also be released online later next year.
Rigg: We want to reach a wider audience, so we’re going to film this. We want more people to use this as a teaching tool, and enjoy it and see themselves.