The Revolutionary Ali Wong (Who Overthrows Established Asian American Gender Taboos)

Before Ali Wong, I'd never seen a famous young Asian American woman with an Asian man, much less make him a core part of her comedy.

6 years ago

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The internet was telling me that a buzzy new Asian American comic named Ali Wong had just dropped a killer special on Netflix. Honestly, I dreaded it because my experience with (East and Southeast) Asian comics had mostly been shit. For whatever reason, South Asian comics were usually much funnier. Anyway, I’d seen the professional Asian minstrel acts like Esther Ku and Dat Phan. The amateur open mic ones weren’t much better.

I bet every Asian knows the dread of being at a comedy show and seeing a fellow Asian go up on stage. Before they even open their mouths, you know what their schtick is gonna be. If it’s a guy, he’s gonna go 200% on the self-deprecation and talk too much about his dick while having a forced smile on his face because god forbid he actually get angry. If it’s a girl, she’s gonna make fun of her uncool parents and talk about how radical she is because she never dates Asian guys.

But then, I saw a clip of one of Ali Wong’s most famous bits, about Fancy Asians and Jungle Asians. I was reminded of my own high school days, when my closest friends were Filipino and how we knew we were different from, say, the astronaut kids from China and Korea. This bit felt authentic, aimed primarily at an Asian audience with the added benefit of making other groups laugh.

And her husband was Asian too.

There’s a silly taboo in mainstream Asian America, where we are not allowed to acknowledge the significance of the race of our partners. Other communities freely discuss both the superficial and substantive effect of having partners outside of one’s race, especially if they’re white. The most famous recent example is Barack Obama, who openly stated that he knew there was an importance, both personally and politically, to marrying a black woman. In addition, black women were not shy in expressing their happiness that he had a black wife. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated novel Americanah, the black female protagonist rejoices in how Obama married not only a black woman, but a dark-skinned black woman.

Has any Asian American broken this taboo more fearlessly than Ali Wong? In Baby Cobra, she dares to point out the high number of AFWM (Asian Female, White Male) couples in hipster enclaves and calls those places “Yoko Ono factories.” When I had the chance to see her perform in New York City last year, she thanked every Asian in the city for being there tonight and also for bringing their white boyfriends. Most importantly, she talks up how great it is to be with an Asian man, from the tongue-in-cheek (e.g. being able to be racist against other Asians together and being able to have sex with a smooth-bodied man) to the more serious (being with someone who shares an Asian American experience).

Screenshot of Ali Wong's stand up with captions
It’s true

What Ali Wong does is assert AFAM (Asian Female, Asian Male) couples as a distinct identity that has its own unique characteristics and benefits, rather than being just a lesser version of an AFWM ideal. So many 2nd-generation Asian Americans grow up with Asian parents trying to enforce their mono-racial/ethnic ideals on our lives. When we are children, our households are kingdoms and parents are absolute monarchs. Thus, this decree of enforced Asianness appears to be all-powerful and we fail to recognize how fragile this idea of Asian Love, whether heterosexual or homosexual, actually is. In a racist American society, it is the guerrilla underdog.

This is not to demean AFWM as an identity. But it is to emphasize that it is indeed a conscious identity, not some inevitable result of beautiful post-racial love that all modern Asian American women should strive for. Ali Wong notes the self-aware deliberateness of AFWM when she jokes that being with a white guy is like being in a Wes Anderson movie. Like all identities, AFWM has its own experiences, aspirations, and biases.

Regarding famous Asian American women, I’m not concerned about the mere existence of AFWM pairings; rather, it is about the near-absence of their AFAM counterparts. What does that say about social stratification and how does that filter down to the everyday level?

Before Ali Wong came along, I’d never seen a prominent Asian female pop culture figure who was coupled with an Asian man, much less made her relationship to him so central to her image, narrative, and appeal. Yes, there are many high-achieving Asian men who are with non-Asian, primarily white, women. But some of our most racially outspoken modern Asian male figures (e.g. Frank Chin, Daniel Dae Kim, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and David Chang) are with Asian women. When they mark their ascendance by figuratively or literally walking the red carpet, there is a clear message to Asian American girls and women that even with all the shit you have to deal with for being Asian in America, Asian men won’t ditch them en masse for white women — the very demographic most responsible for making them feel excluded and inadequate — when they get to the top.

But Asian American boys and men have never received the reciprocal message. To us, the message is quite clear: in order for Asian American women to succeed, she must free herself of Asian men. Not only that, but she must be with white men, the very demographic that has a history of killing, colonizing, and demeaning us. We are social deadweight, a lower caste that will drag down the dreams of our sisters. Many Asian American women will protest otherwise in earnest, but if you look at the apex of society where a precious few Asian Americans have been granted access, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear.

Imagine if at the Black Panther premiere, all of the black male stars showed up with white women. Or if all the black female stars had white men on their arms. If something about that seems off, then why are we so forbidden to talk about it when it happens in the Asian American community?

Photo of David Chang and his wife Grace Seo Chang
David Chang and his wife, Grace Seo Chang

I know it’s impolite to publicly talk about it, but of course we care about race when it comes to sex and love. When Ugly Delicious came out, I asked several Asian female friends if they were happy that David Chang was married to an Asian woman. All of them understandably said yes. I’ve been on dates with Asian women who’ve quizzed me about my racial dating past, with a keen interest in whether I’ve dated white women. A little while ago, an Asian male friend and I went to a bar and we ended up talking to a group of Asian women. Later, when my friend went over to another group, one of the Asian women said to me, “Oh I see. Your friend likes the white girls.” So we all obviously care about whether our own community wants us. Why are we always in embarrassed denial?

Ali Wong would be a different comedian if her husband weren’t Asian. To say that AFAM and AFWM are the same is to say that Asian men are only optional in our own community, that we can just as easily be swapped out for white men. Many Asian women say that Asian men are resentful of successful Asian women. Sure, there are misogynistic jerks who think that and they should be denounced.

But I don’t think most Asian guys have problems with Asian female leadership if we genuinely feel included. We’re not scheming to overthrow the Judy Chus and the Grace Mengs of the world to replace them with John Chus and Greg Mengs. We loved it when Li Na, after winning the 2014 Australian Open, roasted her “Robin to her Batman” husband in her victory speech.

What we don’t like is when Asian women systematically choose white men over us, pretend we don’t matter, and still feel entitled to our loyalty when convenient.

The AFWM point of view has every right to exist, just like how AMWF (Asian Male, White Female) ones do as well. And no, merely having a white partner does not automatically destroy one’s ability to represent your minority community. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be allowed to praise Justin Chon’s Gook, Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat, or any of Chang Rae Lee’s acclaimed novels. And while I personally can’t stand Master of None (Did Trump Kill “Master of None”?), it seems unfair to discredit it solely because of whom Alan Yang is dating. As such, AFWM should be given a similar leeway. How idiotic we’d be to discredit women like Michi Weglyn and Aiko Yoshinaga Herzig for their work in uncovering the truth about the Japanese Internment, just because of whom they married?

But AFAM ought to have a voice too. For too long, it has been devalued and denied any platform. An often propagated idea is that Asian women are with white men because Asian men are too traditional or patriarchal or sissy or boring or short or ugly. If so, then that means that the many Asian women who do date and marry Asian men are meek and backwards losers who are unable to get attractive and egalitarian men and who must enjoy being mistreated. It’s complete slander against those women and they have a right to fight back by telling their stories and viewpoints.

All of us Asian Americans probably know the dread of being perceived as “Too Asian,” especially in our social lives. It was regarded as a betrayal of the benevolent white assimilationist liberalism that took us in from Bad Asia in the first place. Our refusal to integrate and assimilate were signs of ungratefulness and social ineptitude. Okay, for the Asian men to be Too Asian was tolerable since white society didn’t really want us anyway, except for our menial mental labor. But Asian women, who were coveted by many white men? For them to be Too Asian was true backstabbing, almost an act of sedition.

The tide appears to be changing, though. The assimilationist mindset that once seemed so rebelliously progressive has now aged into a deeply conservative outlook.

Comedy is at its best when it is subversive and challenging to the powerful status quo. It’s not hard to see the difference between Ali Wong and her WOC contemporaries like Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. In their HBO special, they spend the first part of the “Hot Peen” episode talking about their white boyfriends and their thirst for Jon Hamm. Could an Asian woman do that today and be considered cutting edge? Probably not.

Maybe in 1998 or even 2008, it would’ve been fine. But not in 2018. Not after Trump. Not after Weinstein. Not after Schneiderman. People really don’t want to hear about the idealization of white men, at least when it comes from us Model Minorities who don’t have the most credible track record of racial resistance.

The fact is that race matters in America. Or perhaps you think it doesn’t. That’s fine. But you have to be consistent. You cannot cry racism when it takes away opportunities from you, only to cordon off special untouchable zones in which you may have some advantage. Judging from how black people celebrate Jay-Z and Beyonce and how Latinx people celebrate J-Lo and A-Rod, other minorities seem to recognize the importance of seeing black couples and Latinx couples make it to the very top in America. Either Asian Americans should be able to do so as well, or those black and Latinx people are just being tribalistic racists.

Photo of Ali Wong and her husband, Justin Hakuta
Ali Wong and her husband, Justin Hakuta

Of course, this is not to excuse anybody from becoming obsessed with and excessively critical of the private lives of Asian women, celebrity or otherwise. There has to be a recognizable line between raising the issue (even if it bothers some people) and outright harassment. We can’t live in a world where every Asian woman has to go off-grid on social media for fear of being attacked.

But we should also acknowledge that if the American meritocracy places an implicit or explicit condition on Asian women that they must sexually favor white men if they want to realize their dreams, then that is no meritocracy. Instead, it is little more than a neo-colonial system that deserves a revolution.

Led by someone like the revolutionary Ali Wong.

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Chris Jesu Lee

Published 6 years ago

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