Growing up without knowing a lot of people who looked like me, I always felt like I was “too” loud for a Chinese girl. I had a rambunctious, talkative personality as a kid, but I quieted down as I got older and became more self-conscious. I already felt distant from my heritage; being the loud one didn’t do me any favors when it came to interacting with other Chinese Americans. Instead, I tucked away that version of me, only letting it come out to play when I had to break the ice or where I thought it wouldn’t bother anybody.
In the absence of other East Asians, I took my cues from the books I read and the East Asians I saw on both the little and the silver screens. This only made me feel increasingly alien, because these characters tended to be either awkward and docile or wildly mysterious and exotic. I wasn’t “Chinese enough” to associate with the latter, and I didn’t feel comfortable in the former because I’m a big personality in a big body. It’s hard not to make an impression like that. It wasn’t until I discovered Asian-American comedy that I saw people with whom I could relate.
The first time I ever watched Asian-American comedy was by pure accident. In middle school, my English teacher had often encouraged us to watch “The Daily Show” (this was back when Jon Stewart was the host). At the time, I was uninterested in politics, but that soon changed. I became more politically active through high school, and the 2016 election was the boiling point that eventually had me seeking more commentary from more sources. The turmoil of the post-election period forced me to seek out more commentary.
After binging every episode of “Last Week Tonight,” I decided to give “The Daily Show,” John Oliver’s alma mater, a whirl. I wasn’t immediately sold on any of the comedians: Trevor Noah’s imitations (which, for the record, I now find perfectly funny) missed their mark on me and none of the other hosts made much of an impact on me. But then I stumbled upon an old clip of Hasan Minhaj. I connected with him right away: Here was a young first-generation Asian-American who was so comfortable in his intersectional identity that he could be the one to make these jokes.
I continued to watch Asian-American comedy, further hitting upon what I was looking for when a class required me to watch Margaret Cho’s 2000 stand-up special I’m the One That I Want. Cho was a pioneer: she broke through with the first family sitcom about an Asian-American family and later, she began using stand-up comedy to address topics that were often considered controversial, such as sex, alcoholism, body positivity and queerness. It’s obvious that Cho speaks her mind. Yet even with her unfiltered commentary, she still stayed true to her Korean-American roots, hailing back to her experiences with her immigrant mother.
Another comedian I stumbled upon was Ali Wong, whose most famous works are her two Netflix comedy specials Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife. Like Cho, she touches upon the taboo and even talks about her big personality. Furthermore, Ali Wong isn’t presented as the typical slender Asian woman: in each of her performances she is 7 months pregnant.
There were three simple things that brought me back to watching these three again and again: they can laugh at themselves, be fearless and be Asian-American. There is no contradiction. Watching these comedians made me realize that if they can find the space to be themselves, then so can I.