Joe Wong is one of the best comedians in the world. A first-generation immigrant from China, he transitioned from chemical engineer to stand-up comedian in the 2000s, cutting his teeth in Boston, MA.
Joe Wong has had a lot of success in the US, winning many awards for his standup and film, performing multiple times on late night TV, and headlining the 2010 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association annual dinner.
He has also met a lot of barriers to success. Even when he was already appearing on Letterman and Ellen, some venues around the Boston area still refused to book him as a headliner. Hollywood rejected the show pilot about his life because Margaret Cho “tried to do an Asian show” 25 years ago and failed.
So in 2013, Wong moved with his family to Beijing, and has become one of the most famous comedians in China, hosting the popular show, 是真的吗? (Is It True?), which is watched by as many as 25 million people each episode.
In his insightful interview with E. Alex Jung, John Cho said that the taboo topic is still “what one’s career would be like if you were white. What you still can’t really say to a white person is, ‘If I were white, do you know where I’d be?’”
Fuck the taboo. If Joe Wong were white, he’d be the host of The Tonight Show instead of Jimmy Fallon. Joe Wong would BE Stephen Colbert, instead of still doing 5 minute sets for Late Night with Stephen Colbert. If Joe Wong were white, he’d pack stadiums all over the country, star in blockbuster movies, and you bet your ass the networks would have aired a few of his sitcoms.
This year, Wong returns to the US to premier his new hour-long special “Chinese/American,” in which he recounts many of his unique life experiences, from shitty bosses and H1B visas to the foibles of parenthood and starting over time and again.
He wants to do comedy in America again to push the needle in a direction that will make existing as an Asian person in America easier, for his son, and for all of us. Joe Wong thinks Asian Americans need to speak up more about our interests, be more politically and socially active, and fight the oppression we face head on. Joe Wong needs to tell his story. We need to hear his story and tell our own.
Plan A Magazine is proud to feature Joe Wong, Chinese American, in his own words.
“Asian people’s problems are different. Our problems aren’t even addressed.”
DL: First of all, is there anything you want us to promote?
JW: I’m honest here.
DL: Are you planning a comeback in the US?
JW: That’s always been my hope and dream. I’m doing a TV show in China but I always feel that for a longer set in comedy it’s better to develop it here because comedy here is more pure. It’s very hard to develop a set in China. One reason is, the audiences are too diverse. On any given night we can have people from all over, Nigeria, Russia, Germany, etc. A lot of them don’t even speak English, so it’s very hard to gauge your material based on whether they laugh or not. Even the people who do speak English don’t necessarily know the context of American jokes. At one show, a woman raised her hand and asked me “What is the NRA?” and I had to explain it to her. It turns out she’s from England and she doesn’t know. They don’t have guns there.
DL: Yeah school shootings are totally irrelevant there.
JW: Yeah exactly! “Why are you so upset about guns? I want to talk about Brexit!” There are a lot of different rooms in Beijing. Actually, what’s amazing about the Beijing comedy scene is, you can do standup in both Chinese and English.
DL: Do you feel like there are differences in Chinese vs English comedy?
JW: I think if you dig deeper, they’re exactly the same. The angle is very personal, and some of the techniques people use are very similar. The differences are the language, the culture, and people’s attitudes. People here [in the US] accept more individualism, especially now. A lot of people here literally talk about what happened in their life with no punchline and the audience is ok with it. Some of the hipper crowds, if you go there with prepared jokes they don’t like it. People have different tastes in the US vs. in China.
DL: Is there a big standup scene in China and is there a specific type of comedy that people gravitate to more?
JW: China is very diverse now. There used to be “crosstalk.” That’s still the classic scene, but a lot of younger people are getting into standup comedy. When I first went back to Beijing in 2013, there was only one standup comedy club in a city of 24 million people. Now we have 5 or 6 different clubs, and there are shows every night. It’s hard to make money just off clubs, but still, it’s going pretty well. There’s way more opportunity for young standups in China than in the US because it’s such a new market. I know some comedians who have been doing standup for a year, and are already teaching a course on it. There’s a lot of writing opportunities. I think one problem with the scene in China is, people are still at the stage of following celebrities. Like, roasts are really big right now. It’s easy because there’s a celebrity, and you make fun of them. But these hour-long specials are not as big in China. People still don’t appreciate the humor of standup comedy. Hopefully that gradually changes.
DL: That’s really cool to see the evolution of comedy in China. It’s also interesting because in the West people have this misconception — and you talk about this in your show — that Asians can’t understand comedy, or ironic humor, or satire.
JW: Yeah It’s a very racist perception. It’s dehumanizing. I’m pretty upset about it because even the liberal media, like the New York Times or the Washington Post, when they talk about Asian comedians, they make us look like clowns.
DL: You mean like Ken Jeong?
JW: Not Ken Jeong. Like even when they report on the Chinese comedy scene, they will use words like “impish.” Like come on, just because he’s Asian and you don’t understand our language doesn’t mean his humor is cheap. The media here, I am totally for free speech and I’m against attacking media, but on the other hand, the media here is extremely biased, even the liberal media.
DL: Well here’s the thing. When you criticize the media, you aren’t attacking free speech. They can say whatever the fuck they want, but you can critique them however you want. That’s your right to free speech and that is totally fair.
JW: Oh yeah, that’s why I’ve been talking so much about the Asian American experience. Because I got very frustrated. Like if an Asian person has an opinion, it’s not counted. I didn’t understand this as a new immigrant, but the longer I lived in this country the more frustrated I got. Like just the routine I did about my experience in Hollywood. I said the same thing to so many media outlets, and nobody would report it. You know? It’s just like, if you complain about Asian American problems, they’re like “Oh no, not you too. We got enough problems, you just stay away.” That’s the attitude.
“That’s what I feel is really lacking here, the Asian narrative is just not there.”
DL: Yeah. It seems like things are changing a little bit now, like the Harvard lawsuits.
JW: Yeah I’m shocked that Harvard is doing it.
DL: Really? I’m not surprised at all, it’s so obvious that they’re discriminating.
JW: Oh it wasn’t obvious to me. I’m a very liberal person. I thought, ‘Well Harvard, they are fair.’ But then this happened and I just thought, ‘Wow, even restaurants can’t pull this off, you know?’ A restaurant can’t be like “Oh sorry, you can’t come in. Even if it’s empty. Especially if it’s empty! If you come in it’ll be 100% Asian in here. Will you please come back with a black person and a white person?” That never happens, but with Ivy League schools, that’s ok.
DL: Their argument is “Oh, well, if you come in it’ll change the ambiance and it wouldn’t be the same restaurant anymore.” It’s total bullshit.
JW: Yeah! They automatically give the Asian students low personality scores. Like “I haven’t met you, but I know you’re a jerk.” That’s what they’re saying to us. I’m also proud of the fact that the people who brought on this lawsuit are new immigrants, kind of like me. We came to this country around the same time, those plaintiffs who pointed this out, that this is not right.
DL: The big liberal media outlets like NYT are still publishing the same bullshit, but there have been smaller liberal publications that published more balanced articles on the case that actually give voice to the Asian American perspective, so it does seem like there’s a cultural shift happening. And of course Plan A has also reported on this significantly. We want to publish what you want to say, and promote the fuck out of your work.
JW: HAHAHA thanks. For whatever it’s worth.
DL: Another thing we’ve talked about considerably is the divide between first-generation and second-generation and differences in Asian American self-perception. It’s so refreshing to hear you talk about it from your perspective as a first-generation immigrant because so much of the Asian American media is written by second-generation and beyond, and by more white-assimilated people.
JW: Yeah, it’s the economy of the media. I feel like the literature and stuff is written by later generations and it doesn’t represent what we go through as immigrants.
DL: Yeah, your experience as an immigrant is more representative of Asian Americans in general, but the narrative is written by the next generation, who often stereotype their immigrant parents and blame them for all their problems.
JW: Here’s the thing, they always complain “Asian parents are too hard on their kids.” It was very tough. It’s just easy to blame Asian immigrants because they look different, it’s very easy to point them out. Asian parents don’t have their own narratives to defend themselves. That’s what I feel is really lacking here, the Asian narrative is just not there. Once I remember my wife and I were watching TV and this Asian comic came on. My wife just said, “Let’s just time him to see how long it’s going to take him to talk about his mother’s accent.”
JW: It took 15 seconds. I’m not even kidding. I’ve seen so many Asians making fun of their parents’ accents. Oh man, it’s so hacky. It’s embarrassing. I was doing a show in SF with some other comics. In the end, even the waiter said, “I think his mother is funnier than he is.” But I think it’s getting better now.
DL: In terms of your own family, it seems like your son wasn’t comfortable being Chinese when he was here, but now that he’s in Beijing, how has that changed him and your relationship with him?
JW: For him it’s also complicated because they see him as American in China. Every Chinese person who’s been to America before, you have the American stamp on you. It’s like America is a disease. Once you come here, you got it. Sometimes if he wins a debate, his classmates will say, “Aw you’re American, you’re supposed to win” or if he is the best shooter in basketball, “Aw you’re an American, you’re supposed to be good at basketball.” But still, I’m happy that his Chinese is getting better and he’s coming to understand more and more our roots. That’s good.
DL: Do you think you’ll move back to the US eventually?
JW: Yeah, he wants to go to school here. Another thing I mention in the show is, when they say “all Asians are overachievers.” It’s such bullshit. Those are things they say to keep Asians down, so they don’t try so hard. But actually, Asians haven’t done much in this country yet, politically and socially. We gotta work harder to get more done in this country. It’s just like Jeremy Lin said. He was called a chink a lot more in Ivy League schools than in the NBA. The attitude is always there. We have to fight that.
DL: Do you worry about bringing your son back here?
JW: I’m very worried. That’s why I started to do this material, to raise awareness. You know, part of the reason I went back to China is that I wanted him to know that whatever his look, he is normal. Otherwise he always feels weird. He’d come home from school and ask “why are my eyes smaller?” And what could I say? He didn’t see Asians in the media. I don’t have a good answer for him. I constantly worry, one day he’ll ask me “why did you bring me to a country like this?” It’s hard to be an immigrant parent.
“We need more voices and more impact.”
DL: If your son is going to come back, I think you should talk to him about dating as an Asian man, and how racism manifests in gendered ways.
JW: How tough is it to date here?
DL: Well you’ve seen the stats on OKCupid and Tinder. On average, for a woman to think an Asian man is equally attractive to a white man, he has to make $250K more per year than the white man. This is from a study done by MIT Sloan School of Business. It’s so fucked up. Anyway, that’s why I do comedy too. I don’t want my kids to be in this fucked up situation.
JW: The problem is a lot of Asian males are portrayed in a very asexual way, that’s not very good either. That’s why Asian men are ranked in the bottom 10% on Tinder. You know, they don’t feel Asians are attractive. But like, I didn’t contribute to that! That was a joke.
DL: HAHAHAHAHA. My friends and I watched your set on Colbert, and we loved the part where you bring up how so many white men have Asian wives, it’s almost never the other way around. We were like “Oh shit, I can’t believe he said that on TV!” Because that’s one of the issues that has never really been talked about, and a lot of times it’s Asian women who are suppressing that conversation.
JW: Oh really?
DL: Yeah, because it can be interpreted as controlling women’s choices, like the whole “our body our choice” argument. But at the same time, your choices can be influenced by deeply racist undertones and that should rightfully be examined.
JW: Of course! I understand, when you marry the first thing you think about is probably safety, the future, his status or the family’s status. Of course everything is very related to social status and race, but if you talk about that people get really angry. One time on a show I talked about racial status, how it’s whites on top, then Jewish, blacks, Hispanic, Chinese etc. Oh man, people got so mad someone actually threw water at me. But it’s like, “Come on, you don’t see it?”
DL: Yeah people claiming racial blindness.
JW: But you can’t actually be blind. If you were, then why do you have to fill out your race on every form? It’s very hypocritical. And the thing is, Asian people’s problems are different. Our problems aren’t even addressed. We’re not even on the list. I think that’s why Asians are so patient, we’re just waiting like “When are we getting on the list?” The political candidates always try to appeal to white, blacks, Hispanics, but then it’s over. What happened to the Asians?
DL: I also love that you talk about Korean convenience stores getting looted.
JW: Yeah in every single riot, it’s always the Asian working class who suffer the most, and nobody ever talks about it.
DL: Any final thoughts?
JW: I just hope that Asian Americans are more active outside their own communities. One problem I found about Chinese people here [in the US] is that they all stick together and only go on WeChat. They’re very aware politically and socially, but if they just said the same things they say on WeChat in English on Twitter or Facebook, it’d make such an impact. Instead they complain among themselves, and what’s worse, that fosters a lot of prejudice and racism even among the Chinese. It’s just crazy.
DL: What do you mean? Racist to whom?
JW: Like to black people. If they said the same things on Facebook or Twitter they’d be crucified. And even when they are speaking up about Asian issues, they should do it on English media. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be exclusively on English media, but just saying it to the outside world will make a bigger impact. We need more voices and more impact.