I married into the Asian American theatre community, and when we parted ways, I walked away and never looked back. It was an experience where I like to think of it as being kicked out of a comfy cocoon with half developed wings. I floundered for a while until I found my own voice. After two decades of trying to ignore Asian American theatre, I found myself sitting in a room at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center listening to three accomplished Asian American women speaking about comedy.
Helen Ota (artistic director of Cold Tofu), Kristina Wong (solo performer and writer) and Maggie Lee (Writer, Pork Filled Players) discussed the issues facing Asian American women in comedy. The apex of Asian American comedy was a few decades ago, when laughing at your parents was taboo. In the last few years, it is as fresh as refried rice; a bit stale and you really shouldn't be surprised by what you are getting. The world has changed since "Charlie Chan," but the jokes haven't. No one born after 1985 knows who "Hop Sing" is or cares why the writer and playwright Frank Chin is so mad about other American Asians mis-representing his views on American Asians. At the end of the panel during the Q & A, a question was asked by a younger member in the audience, "Where is Asian American comedy going, is it still relevant?"
I write commentary on KCET about the Asian American experience in Southern California, and I have struggled at this idea since the beginning because its too easy to live in that comfy cocoon of stereotypical Asian American catchphrases--I don't believe in them anymore.
To give an example of why, Kristina Wong talked about one performance piece she did where she stood in front of a fake Chinese Laundry that was built in Chinatown for a mainstream film. In my opinion, Asian American comedy has lived in that Chinese Laundry facade far too long, it is a loss leader to bring in the crowds--a cultural touchstone that non-Asians will gravitate to because it requires no work to explain and who doesn't love a joke told in an affected accent?
I cannot identify with Asian American comedy because I have moved beyond it, I am exhausted from hearing the "angry asian mom" joke too many times, and it needs to be put out to pasture with the "I was supposed to be a lawyer/doctor, but here I am standing in this bar" jokes. As we move forward, the audience will be further away from the anger and the racism the past generations experienced. The more we are assimilated, our idea of what is funny is less about our color and heritage, but about how we interact with each other. However, assimilation does not mean comedy is becoming one giant gelatinous Blancmange, because we are now able to cherry pick from any culture without loosing the audience. This audience is made of a new generation who has a finger in each ethnic pie; they will jump from one idea to the next because of their world has been made flat by the smartphone in their hands.
My point of view and sense of humor is not based on being Asian American, it is about me just being who I am. And what am I? I am an American.
This article is a follow-up from my previous article I had an interview with perfomance artist Kristina Wong.
Image: Ophelia Chong/ Heck. Letterpress on origami paper.