Authors: Eric Liu
There aren't a lot of Chinese American stand-up comedians. Joe Wong may be the best known. This slight, bespectacled, forty-something scientist emigrated from China in 1994 to attend Rice University in Texas and got a PhD in biochemistry. Along the way he decided to try his hand at comedy. He took adult education classes, was unafraid to fail, and started going to open mikes. A researcher by day, he's had an improbable ascent as a comic, from small clubs in Houston and Boston to the
Ellen DeGeneres Show
to Letterman. In 2010 he headlined the Radio and TV Correspondents' Dinner, performing for Vice President Biden. In 2012 he won the Great American Comedy Festival.
Now we have a president who's half-black, half-white, and this gives me a lot of hope. Because I'm half not-black, half not-white. [beat] Two negatives make a positive.
While his jokes are good on paper, it's Wong's slow, deadpan delivery that kills. He isn't too eager to please. He lets things sink in. His accent, slightly halting pace, and unconventional emphasis of certain rhythms make it hard not to keep listening and hard not to root for him. Of course, I naturally would say that: Joe Wong reminds me of Chinese dads I know, including my own. But to see largely white audiences laugh with him confirms it. His talent
Recently my son came home and just said to me, “Hey Dad, am I white,” and I was like, “Oh no, you're not white, you're yellow,” and he looked at his arm and he was like, “Hey Dad, this doesn't look yellow to me.” I said, “Well, it's not exactly yellow, but in this country, everybody has to have a color, and that's the color they give us.”
My dad didn't tell a lot of prefabricated jokes, but he had a great sense of humor, and we spoke often in the kitchen about “Chinese humor”âhis and in general. What is Chinese humor? The question evokes Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity: you know it when you see it. But there's surely something more effable. It's about absurdity. It's underdog humor. It's a touch dark. It's about characters thinking they're bigger and more important than they truly are. OK, this describes everything from Mel Brooks to Chris Rock. But Chinese humor is particularly about misplaced face, about social misunderstandings or misalignments. It's more about the gap between official appearances and reality. It's why my dad's favorite comedian in America was Rodney Dangerfield, with his shoulder-wiggling, tie-straightening tagline: “No respect!” Come to think of it, maybe that was Chinese
I grew up in China. Who didn't?
When Joe Wong tried recently to bring his stand-up act back to his native China, it didn't quite work. His jokes about parallel parking and mistaken racial identities fell flat with Chinese audiences. Setups that were natural in America, where audiences knew to
wait for it
, provoked premature reactions in China. He adjusted, like any pro does, and found topics that could truly cross cultures. But he didn't keep the experiment going. He came home to do more shows. To work the circuit. To develop more material for audiences that will get the joke even before he opens his mouth.
After I graduated from Rice University, I decided to stay in the United Statesâbecause in China I can't do the thing I do best here: being ethnic.
New York Times
online recently produced an engrossing video called
Standing Out in Chinatown
. It lasts three and a half minutes, with a hip soundtrack and no narration. First the camera scans streets and markets crowded with casually dressed people who look like my Po Po, my mother's mother, and her caregiver, Li Tai Tai. Then we hear from a series of random individuals: a graphic designer, a neighborhood lady, a fashion writer, a hairstylist. They are all ethnic Chinese. Men and women, immigrants and ABCs, old and young. Some speak English, some Mandarin. Each talks about his or her fashion choices that dayâtheir personal principles of style and public self-presentation. “A combination of vintage and a little bit of unusualness.” “A little bit British style.” “A little crazy.” As they speak, the camera zooms in on their shoes and belts and skirts and accessories.
I don't often go back to the corner of South Street and Clinton Street, the corner in Manhattan where my Po Po lived the last twenty years of her life. But when I walk through this or any other Chinatown in America, what I see now is more colorful, more unpredictable, more modish than what I remember. Maybe they've always been there, these secret fashionistas, private people making well-considered choices to look a certain way in public and paying attention to what others are wearing. Performers, all. Or maybe something new is going on, a bloom of a thousand trends that departs from the ways of the old-timers yet pays a certain homage as well.
This fusion of aesthetics past and present can be felt in the recent renovations of two iconic museums: the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA, in New York's lower East Side, and the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle's Chinatown/International District. MOCA has been around since 1980 but in 2009 moved into an elegant, timber-and-concrete space designed by Maya Lin. The Wing, as its new marketing materials call it, was named after Seattle's first Asian American city councilman, and in 2008 it relocated from an old garage to a gloriously refurbished, brick, single-room-occupancy hotel. It now stands as one of the country's preeminent curators of pan-ethnic Asian Pacific American history. Walking through these two modernized museums are tourists and schoolchildren of every kind; walking by them each day are people of Chinatown: pensioners, peddlers, speakers of many dialects. It's easy to think of these people as stuck in time. They are not. They're making their way, like the other Americans all around them.
When, near the turn of the twenty-first century, a teenager named Wei Chen emigrated with his father from China, he had reason to believe in the dream of American identity: he had arrived in Philadelphia, city of brotherly love, capital of the Revolution. But at South Philadelphia High School he quickly found himself in a sulfurous purgatory of urban poverty and violence. Black students were bullying and terrorizing Asian students. They chased them. They taunted them. They beat them. The teachers were passive, and the principal ignored it. It got so bad that Wei Chen and other Asian students were scared to do the very thing their parents had brought them here to do: get an American education. Except Wei Chen did get an American education. He was schooled in the legacy of color-coded resentment and how life in an American city can make categories like “Citizen” and “Alien” and “Native” and “Non-Alien” seem like niceties. In those South Philly hallways there were just two categories: in and out. Wei Chen was most definitely out.
After months of this daily terror, though, he finally reached his limit. What he did next came partly from an immigrant's instinct of how to improvise power from powerlessness. But it came also from his close study of the tactics and history of the American civil rights movement. He began to keep a little notebook, documenting every incident of bullying. He asked for the name and contact information of every other kid who was getting bullied. He organized them into a Chinese Students Association. He won their trust. Before long, at Chen's direction, against the wishes of many of their parents, dozens of Chinese students at South Philadelphia High School stopped going to school. They boycotted.
They also filed a civil rights complaint. Chen and his compatriots refused to make the complaint about their tormentorsârefused to frame this as a race war. Instead they directed their complaint against the principal and district leaders who had failed to create an environment of safety and learning for
students. They went to the local press. The story got picked up. And after a wave of national media attention, the principal was fired, and a chastened district changed its practices.
When I spoke with Chen a few years after he'd graduated from South Philly High, he was working odd jobs to save money for community college. But he was also spending many unpaid hours as a teacher. He teaches other Chinese and Asian students how to organize, how to advocate. He mentors other immigrant kids in situations of conflict or looming violence how to keep up hope and how to foster a spirit of nonviolence. He shares the lessons he absorbed from his experience at South Philly High. Wei Chen, in short, teaches citizenship. He didn't set out to do this. It's simply how life in this country called him to act.
Gish Jen writes:
All of this feeling my way forward led eventually to the novelist I am todayâthe one I described earlier as concerned with private experience, with questions of love and friendship and family and purpose, but also to a perhaps unusual degree with context-oriented questions like, What doors are open, and what doors are closed? And, Whose house is this? And, What is the way? Questions thatâbecause I have asked them of the American contextâhave, despite their Chinese origin, ironically rendered me a distinctly American writer.
The subtitle of Jen's wise, nuanced book
Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self.
She explores, in three essays about her father, family, and formation, this interplay between independent and interdependent selves, Western and Eastern, American and Chinese. Between public voice and private identity. Between the idea that such binaries matter and the idea that they don't.
My friend Cheryl Chow died in 2013 of brain cancer at age sixty-six. She was the third of five children and the only daughter of a great matriarch, Ruby Chow, a restaurateur who had presided unofficially over Seattle's Chinatown and was a pioneering politicianâthe first Asian American to serve on the King County Council. At a glance, it might seem the daughter followed the path of the mother. Like Ruby, Cheryl was tough and no-nonsense, with a blunt conversational style that social psychologists call “low-elaborative.” Like Ruby, Cheryl became an effective politician, serving on the Seattle City Council and the Seattle School Board. Throughout, Cheryl devoted herself to the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team, which her mother had founded decades earlier.
But a closer look at Cheryl Chow's life reveals a path all her own. She became a teacher and a principal in the Seattle School District. She was active in the Girl Scouts. She became a mentor and a champion of mentoring. She coached basketball for decades through Seattle Parks and Rec. And she fell in love with Sarah. All her life, Cheryl knew she was gay. All her life she acted as if she weren't. She dated men. She never explored this aspect of her private selfânot in public, certainly, but not in private either, even with her mother. Especially with her mother. Not until deep into adulthood did Cheryl enter into a relationship with a womanâSarah, an educator too, whose young daughter called Cheryl “Kai-Ma,” Cantonese for “godmother,” but eventually thought of her as simply another mother. And not until Cheryl had developed central nervous system lymphoma, and the cancer had become far advanced, requiring aggressive treatment, did she come out and make public her decade-long relationship with Sarah.
She did so at the sixtieth anniversary celebration of the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team in 2012. “I said, âWhat the hell,'” Cheryl told a
reporter. “I said, âWell, I can say anything I want now.'” In what turned out to be the final months of her life, she became a new kind of advocate, with more power and inspirational force than she'd ever wielded in public office. She told young people to feel comfortable talking about being gay. She championed marriage equality (which Washington State approved that year by referendum). She adopted Sarah's daughter. She married Sarah. Thirteen days later, she died.
Sometimes I reflect on the path Cheryl followed and the one she created. Her many livesâthe many chambers of identity she inherited and expanded and knocked down and remadeâleave me wondering, of her and of us all:
What doors are open? Whose house is this? What is the way?
Cheryl Chow's life teaches us: All doors are open. This is everyone's house. We are the way.
Fidelity, Or, the Impossibility of Translating a Poem
Here is one of the greatest poems ever penned in Chineseâ“Mountain Holiday, Thinking of My Brothers in Shandong,” by Wang Wei:
Here is the pinyin transliteration, which conveys the sound and rhythm of the original:
dÃº zÃ i yÃ¬ xiÄng wÃ©i yÃ¬ kÃ¨,
mÄi fÃ©ng ji
jiÃ© bÃ¨i sÄ« qÄ«n.
yÃ¡o zhÄ« xiÅng di dÄng gÄo chÃ¹,
biÃ n chÄ zhÅ« yÃº shÄo yÃ¬ rÃ©n.
Here is a fine translation, which doesn't conform to the line structure or music of the original but captures its essence artfully:
All alone in a foreign land,
I am twice as homesick on this day
When brothers carry dogwood up the mountain,
Each of them a branchâand my branch missing.
Here is a word-for-word translation, which is more faithful to the impressionism of Chinese but leaves the reader with a false sense that the original was inelegant:
Alone in foreign land being foreign guest
Every facing holiday twice think relatives
Far know brothers climb high place
Everyone places dogwood less one person.
Here is another, faithful not to the original content or to rules of Chinese poetry but to the feeling the original evoked in me when I first encountered it:
In the land of my birth
Not alone but homesick still
When uncles send images from their latest travels,
Each of them smilingâand one brother missing.
Here is another, faithful to the feeling that the original can evoke in anyone:
All alone in a foreign land.