“A conversation with cultural critic/Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu on nerd culture, Asians, and media

chu

The Awl:

Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.”

At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)

Is online celebrity strange?

It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.

What did you do after Jeopardy!?

Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers—they weren’t bad answers—but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.

You started writing for the Daily Beast. There was that piece that was a critique of nerd culture, and specifically the misogyny in nerd culture, which seems to be a topic you’re obsessed with talking about.

I was the weird smart kid when I was in school, and it sucks being isolated for any reason. But especially guys in our culture, when you feel like you have no romantic prospects, the girls look down on you. It’s baked into our TV, books, and media, that validation comes from girls who like you, and being rejected by girls is sort of being rejected by society. I didn’t date much, and when I’d have fights with my girlfriend in high school, it would always come back to me feeling this sense of being judged. Like, you’re a girl, you’re attractive, you’re automatically on this higher level than me, on this pedestal. People always talk about this like it’s a good thing. The nice guy narrative—“Oh, I admire you so much. I would lavish so much attention on you”—that quickly becomes about getting what you want. Resentment.

I feel like what happened with Jeopardy! was that I got public recognition of my membership in this club. The nerd club. I was specifically lambasted online for being a nerd. If you want to talk about nerds being an oppressed class, a ton of people attacked me in public for being socially awkward, the way I came off. And yet I still have a huge problem with the narrative of the nerd underdog that’s being used to justify all of these things. Awkward guys have taken a lot of abuse, but we are not the actual victims right now in society. We’re taking our past victimization and using it to justify the terrible things that we do. Weirdly enough, I started saying this, and this past year become the year of the big events that highlight that. Elliot Rodger, Gamergate, the low-level nastiness that’s in gamer culture just blows up, and starts drawing attention to itself. That’s not unique there. You see it everywhere when people say, “Oh Christians are oppressed in the US. Or white people are oppressed.” Everyone wants to have that victimization narrative.

How do you see this affecting Asian-American men?

Speaking of horrible things on the Internet, there was a forum called AutoAdmit. One of their memes was this guy who would get really mad and post a photo every time he saw a white guy with an Asian girl. You know this is a long simmering issue in our community. That blog “Stuff White People Like” had a post that said, “What do white guys like? Asian women.”

Everyone thought that he was an Asian guy for a while because of how angry he sounded about that. Anytime there’s a fracture between Asian man and Asian women, it’s always like, Well who are you trying to date? Why are you trying to date white guys? Why are you trying to date white girls?

I’m in this Facebook group that’s basically just Asian guys railing about why Asian women don’t date Asian men, and their perceptions about how Asian men are emasculated in the media. There’s all of this anger and resentment.

Yeah! I mean, I can speak to this. When The Joy Luck Club, way back when, was a bestseller, the one woman’s story whose life most closely mirrored Amy Tan’s—she marries a white guy. And it’s the happy ending. Every Asian man in this story is a horrible abuser, or he’s an unloving cold fish that gets dumped for a white guy. It was a small part of what the book was about. But for a lot of Asian guys, it hit pretty hard. Some guys make it a whole part of that men’s rights activist thing, saying Asian women are privileged relative to Asian men—Asian men are almost an unnecessary demographic.

A lot of the positions you take perhaps aren’t mainstream Asian-American positions. Talking about race, talking about police violence, talking about sexism.

You get raised to run away from politics. That was how I was raised, in an evangelical Christian family. People from our backgrounds, you want to be just like everyone else. You want to integrate into American culture, you want to be invisible, you want to be the same as your white friends. For me, that was very much true. For a long time I’d say things like, “Why bring up race? Why not try to be colorblind? Why not have an identity that’s distinct from any racial background you have?” I was one of those guys. I’m an American. No hyphen.

There’s just a point—the more you confront what America actually is and how America works—you can’t say that America is apart from race. America is race. It’s a series of colonies that were founded by people taking land away from people who they felt didn’t deserve it. Because of race and then working the land with people who were enslaved because of race. It’s built on that. Do you look at your black friend and say, “I don’t see your race. It’s just a coincidence that you get stopped by cops when my white friends don’t. It’s just a coincidence that this black kid got shot”? When you try to be an actor and you look around and say, “Hey, there’s no other Asians here. Weird”? There are all these spec sheets that they put out, audition sheets, and they all say, “Whites or other race.” I’d like to keep thinking that it’s just merit, but gosh, it feels like, once you actually have your eyes open, you can’t keep lying to yourself about that stuff anymore.

What does it feel like to become a bit of an Asian-American icon?

I thought it was weird. I compared it to Linsanity when I first started thinking about it. It’s not just that there is a successful Asian-American that’s in a field that we’re not used to—we get sick and tired of the same narrative, someone with a web-based business, some computer scientist, an engineer. To see someone become successful in a different way, it’s liberating. I didn’t think an Asian-American winning on Jeopardy!by itself would be a big deal. The funny thing being there’ve been very few champions who are Asian-American—the contestant pool has been overwhelmingly white. So it was funny when it happened and people were like, “an Asian guy winning Jeopardy!, that’s predictable.”

The idea of an Asian in the news for being controversial and unapologetic, for having strong opinions… Asians are supposed to work hard and do well but not to make waves. Not to create controversy. When you’re raised to think that’s not your place, to me, it’s important to make that space. It’s okay to be loud and rude and opinionated as an Asian. It’s a good thing.

Margaret Cho comes to mind.

Yeah, like Margaret Cho! Her show, her standup is so good, and her show, as soon as they gave it to her, they were like, “We can’t let this happen, we have to shape it into something that we’re comfortable with.” Pat Morita did stand up his whole life, he was a very outspoken, profane, funny guy. But America remembers him as Mr. Miyagi.

That’s how I remember him too, to be honest.

Exactly. That’s what they want to see. So it’s always fighting to see something else, to push some other narrative.

Did this influence you as a kid? This lack of a different narrative about Asian-Americans.

I often grew up in communities where there weren’t many Asian kids, so I tried to identify with my white friends.Then there was the flip side, in high school, when we moved to California, and there were a lot of Asians. I didn’t fit in with them either. My dad always had this idea, once you’re with other Asians who won’t reject you because of your race, you’ll fit right in. I was like, “No! I’m still a weird person.” Most Asian-American kids in LA are like white American kids in LA—they have certain tastes, and it was very, very different from me. It was always me kind of feeling like, whatever community I’m in, I’m always different. Having spent a lot of my life feeling alienated from the Asian-American community, it’s weird to be welcome back.

How so?

In retrospect, I know there’s been Asian-American activists being very loud and political even before I was alive, but where I lived, it just wasn’t visible. That’s not something we do, that’s something that Black activists do. I think it would’ve made a lot of things easier for me if I’d had those messages—like it’s okay to be mad about racism, it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to think about and analyze things in terms of race, instead of just pretending like you don’t notice.

Would you describe yourself as an Asian-American activist?

I’d like to think of myself as one. A slacktivist, maybe. I haven’t put in as much work as people who’ve put in work, but it’s something I care about.

So what’s next for you?

I’m looking at writing a book about my journey on Jeopardy! and the idea of success around nerdy guys in America.

Any title ideas yet?

No, not yet.

Time to get on the Chu-chu train? I can tell from your face that you’re not really into that.

Ken Jennings likes Chu-phoria.

Bamboo Ceiling TV: Eddie Huang details the surreal experience of adapting his memoir for television

New York Magazine/Vulture:

“Just say the line, said Melvin, our executive producer.

“Did you read the book 1?” I asked. “If you can find any crumb of a complete thought in the book that remotely infers ‘America is great,’ I’ll read the line.”

“Eddie, we need it for the episode. It’s a big moment! You have a black kid and a Chinese kid breaking bread over a Jewish hip-hop concert. Where else could this happen? America IS great!”

“Of course you picked a Beastie Boys concert. That’s what you people do — you make Asian sitcoms for white people praising Ill Communicationbecause we’re both acceptable, unthreatening gateways to black culture. These kids couldn’t break bread at a Gravediggaz show?”

“It’s not your story anymore. Get over it. The kids ARE NOT going to a Gravediggaz show! This is a HISTORIC network-television show inspired by your life, and it’s going to get Americans excited about us. 2It’s never going to be the book; it’s never going to be Baohaus. 3It’s Panda Express,4and you know what? Orange chicken gets America really excited about Chinese people in airports.”

“Then what did you buy my book for? Just make A Chink’s Life … With Free Wonton Soup or Soda: A reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about. This show is on the AMERICAN BROADCASTING CHANNEL. It’s the holy grail! Network television! Just say the line, man …”

Complete silence.

“How about a compromise? What about ‘Ain’t America great?’ or ‘America’s not half-bad!’”

I’d known Asian-Americans like Melvin my entire life. Those Booker T. Washington 5–Professor X–Uncle Chans, willing to cast down their buckets, take off Cerebro, and forget that successful people of color are in many ways “chosen” and “allowed” to exist while the others get left behind. They spout off about the American Dream or Only in America as if they’re about to rob the next great fighter from Brownsville. 6I empathize with Melvin, but Uncle Chans are basically born-again-Christian felons who will praise anything as long as they don’t get sent back to Rikers. I’d rather be Tunechi, “Left Rikers in a Phantom, that’s my nigga.”7

From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Yick Wo v. Hopkins to your favorite talking head’s favorite “ching chong” jokes, America never ran out of the shadows to defend the honor of their obedient Chinamen. Despite being the “man’s” preferred lapdog of color, everything Asian-American immigrants have was fought for. We still wake up spotting the man 10 points, walking with our heads down, apologizing for our FOB-y aunts and uncles as if aspiring to wash your shirt or do your taxes were really such an insidiously foreign idea. In a way, I accept that I have to be 10 points better; what I won’t accept are Melvins.

“Run the tape.” I said to the editor recording the session. The red light went on.

“America ain’t three fifths bad.” #Compromise

Huang (in Basquiat crown) with his family in 1985. (Photo: Courtesy of Eddie Huang)

I used to try to understand my existence underneath the Bamboo Ceiling, 8but with no way out through the master’s house, I laced up my Timb boots, initiated Chinkstronaut mode, and escaped the gravitational pull of society. Since 2009, I’ve opened Baohaus, produced and hosted Huang’s World for Vice, and, in January 2013, Spiegel and Grau published my memoir, Fresh Off the Boat. It told my life story as a Taiwanese-Chinese-American creating his own America replete with bound feet, bowl cuts, sports sex, and soup dumps. I even got love in the Times. Dwight Garner said it was “a surprisingly sophisticated memoir about race and assimilation in America. It’s an angry book, as much James Baldwin and Jay-Z as Amy Tan. That it’s also bawdy and frequently hilarious nearly, if not entirely, seals the deal.” Life was good.

I also became a TED fellow. But after two days, I got kicked out of Chris Anderson’s Carefully Curated Conference for Intellectual Limp Biscuit. That’s when I met Melvin Mar, who came through and kind of rescued me …

“I love the book. I want to make it a show, buddy!” said Melvin. “LikeMalcolm in the Middle or Everybody Hates Chris, with a 12-year-old Eddie and retro ’90s setting in Orlando.”

“Everybody hates those shows.”

Malcolm in the Middle was great!”

“Okay, I liked Malcolm in the Middle. But Malcolm’s dad turned into a meth dealer on AMC. I don’t want my dad portrayed that way.”

“What are you talking about? Everyone loves Heisenberg.”

“My dad has better hair,” I said. “But I need more than that. I needMarried With Chinese People. I want Ed O’Neill to go yellowface with a perm, faux-gator shoes, and blue-lens Cartier frames. If you can make that happen, you can have the book.” #TheGodAlBundy

After several conversations with my agent about industry standards and Ed O’Neill’s availability and unwillingness to go yellowface, we came to an agreement on a term sheet with the studio, which simultaneously attached Nahnatchka Khan (who was behind Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23) as the writer and got a put-pilot commitment from ABC. I was in Chengdu when Melvin broke the news.

“What’d I tell you, man? I’m gonna make you a star.”

“I’m already a star, Melvin, my basketball team made the second-division finals in the Fastbreak NYC playoffs this year, and I hit two 3s.”

“Your life story is going to be on network television! Get excited!”

“I would be excited, but you attached a Persian writer, and I’m kinda worried it’s going to be The Shahs of Cul-de-Sac Holando.”

“Relax, Natch 9is a unicorn! She’s a Persian writer who understands the American experience of getting shit on, fighting back, and wrote Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23.”

The sitcom version of his family.

 

“I get it. She has her own America complete with songs of saffron ice-cream dreams deferred, and we can show solidarity in Raekwon’s ice-cream truck,10 but it’s not the same. I’m rotten fucking banana,11 and this can’t be Soft-Ass Glutinous Asians in Apartment 23! This shit’s gotta go hard. We haven’t had an eat-rocks Asian male role model since Data 12. And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft!”

I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?

We all know that universal demographic doesn’t exist; even at the level of the person, the network’s ideal viewer doesn’t exist, much less know what it wants. This universal market of Jos. A. Bank customers watches cornstarch television and eats at Panda Express because that’s all they’re being offered. I didn’t need the show to be Baohaus or Din Tai Fung; I would have settled for Chipotle. Yet, for some reason, no one wants to improve the quality of offerings until someone forces them to. A Jedi has to say, “I want to be incrementally better than the Seth MacFarlanes and McDonald’s of the world!” for anything to change. Isn’t that the genius of Shake Shack, South Park, and In-N-Out Burger? What happened to being an incrementally aspirational society? Wasn’t America the City on the Hill? In Hollywood, it felt like, we were the town in a valley run by western Michigan.

“Listen, buddy, the show is never going to be the book. What you are hoping is that people watch the show, buy the book, then say, ‘You know, that show is funny, but the book is better,’” said Melvin.

“But it doesn’t have to be that way! Game of Thrones is based on books, and it’s fucking heat rocks.”

“I hate to break this up, but the books are better,” whispered my manager Rafael.

“You get what I’m saying. It’s still a good show.”

“Eddie, the point of a network show is for people to come home from work, laugh for 22 minutes on the couch, watch your TV family solve the A-plot and B-plot, and end up on a similar couch as one big, happy, AMERICAN family.”

“That show is a lie, Melvin!”

My instincts told me to call a former space traveler. Someone who’d shunned gravity and returned, only to retreat once again: Margaret Cho. I had never met or even talked to Margaret, but I remember her jokes about penises being like snowflakes and still refer to my dick as a six-inch meatball sub. When she wasn’t helping me contextualize my penis in the pantheon of fast-casual sandwiches, she helped me navigate being Asian in America: a spirit guide leading me through San Francisco bookstores, fragrance departments, and Korean dinners. All-American Girl 13was America’s first Asian — specifically, Korean-American — sitcom, but it got canceled after one season. Asians like myself ate our hopes and dreams by the grain burnt at the bottom of a seasonal stone bowl, vowing to one day return.

“They have no idea what they’re doing, but they’ll have opinions about everything you’re doing,” she warned.

“It’s as bad as everyone says, huh?”

“It’s worse. When I did it, I was just happy to be there, and every time they told me I was too Asian, not Asian enough, too fat, too skinny, I listened. You have to fight them at every step.”

“Why does anyone even sign up for this Hollywood High School bullshit? It’s not like there aren’t other ways to tell stories.”

“Because you CAN do it. You’ve been irreverent everywhere you’ve gone, just don’t change now. You go to Hollywood and you go be the same person you’ve been the whole time. I believe in you, and to be honest, we need this.”

Over the next year, I went to production meetings, sat on set at times, gave alts, and checked for authenticity, but I couldn’t stomach the culture of scripted sitcoms. In our first production meeting, there were about 50 to 60 people gathered in a classroomlike studio setting, with Jake Kasdan, Natch, Lynn Shelton, Melvin, and myself going scene by scene through the script.

Eventually, we got to the macaroni-and-cheese scene. Throughout the book tour, it was my favorite scene to read because it exemplified how foreign white culture was to me. I remember the first time I saw macaroni and cheese, as a guest in my friend Jeff’s home, thinking it was pig intestines cut into half-moons hanging out in an orange sauce. Jeff found it incredulous that I didn’t know what macaroni and cheese was, but it was formative; he got a taste of macaroni and cheese from my eyes, discovering how it felt to be gazed on and seen as exotic instead of being the one gazing. The script took the moment and exploited it for humor as opposed to making it a teaching moment, so I spoke up.

“The setup for the joke in this scene is nonexistent. People need to understand how weird it is for Young Eddie to see macaroni and cheese for the first time.”

“The visual does it for you. Look at the mac ’n’ cheese, it’s disgusting!” said Jake, who put the prop on the table.

“Yeah, it looks like shitty mac ’n’ cheese, then the joke becomes that it’s bad mac ’n’ cheese. The point is that it’s foreign, not bad.”

Melvin got tense; Natch spoke up.

“I know what Eddie’s saying. We’ll address it. There could be more setup.” Within seconds, I got a text from Melvin. “Welcome to pilot season, kid.” Eventually, they just cut the entire scene.

Throughout the process, I kept speaking to Melvin and Natch about context and perspective so that viewers truly understood how diverse Asian America is. My father loved America. He wanted to come, listen to rock ’n’ roll, grow long hair, and cop dome from Jewish women at Penn State. My mom had no choice. She was brought to the country, never really fit in, but never felt less for it. She’s a strong, confident woman who many times felt that America made no sense. What the hell are chicken tenders? Why did people waste napkins at the restaurant? Why do their kids bruise fruit at the store? Frankly, she thought she was better than America because she came from a culture with 5,000 years of experience. I needed that contrast in the show supported by the specific musings and perspectives of Asian-Americans who actually lived this life. We couldn’t represent everyone who lived this life, but for the individuals we did represent, I felt a duty to be accurate.

A few weeks after we taped, Melvin kept blowing up my phone.

“We tested the show, and there may or may not be a handful of butt-hurt white people …”

“Success!”

“Maybe. But listen, white people keep you on the air. They have to feel included. If people understand our perspective, they won’t be offended. So I pitched them an idea. We gotta hold the viewer’s hand through this because they’ve never been inside an Asian-American home before.”

“Yeah?”

“I know you love Wonder Years …”

“Son …”

“I told them that we should do voice-over on the show. It’ll help the audience get into the mind of Young Eddie.”

“YOU GOTTA LET ME GET MY KEVIN ARNOLD ON!”

“Who is pitching this dickhead, you or me?”

“You, Melvin.”

“You’re gonna get your Kevin Arnold on, buddy.”

And for a few months, it went well. The lines were more or less in some acceptable “network Eddie” compromise voice, and when I had issues, they adapted. But everything fell apart after that November voice-over session.

“Listen, I tried to put myself in your shoes after voice-over yesterday,” Melvin said.

“Yeah.”

“I can’t ask you to say ‘America is great.’”

“Thanks, man. You get it, right?”

“Yeah, I do. Like you said, it goes against the essence of the book.”

“Exactly.”

“We’re asking too much of you. I watch you on set, read your emails, and it’s killing you to watch us make this show … Maybe we should have someone else do voice-over?”

I let it marinate for a second.

“You there, buddy?”

“Yeah.”

“What do you think?”

At first, I saw his point. “I mean, I’m sure you can find someone who will actually read what you put in front of him.”

“We don’t need to put you through this. We can go harder next time.”

That’s when I realized what was really going on. It wasn’t that I hated the show. It genuinely entertained me, but it had to do more. A Midsummer Night’s Dream satisfies groundlings and intellectuals alike. Tragedy is easy and comedy’s hard, but we weren’t even trying! My story had become an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian male. I got upset when they dressed Randall 14like a Fung Wah bus driver or Hudson 15like an And-1 yard sale or Constance 16like the Crocodile Hunter with kitty-cat heels. We couldn’t go out like this! If America is ever going to treat its cold sores, its culture will have to force conversations examining freedom, equality, and ASIANS IN GATOR SHOES.

“Naw, fuck that! You’re trying to steal my story. We may never get another chance!”

“Eddie, calm down, man! No one is taking your story from you. They’re not ready for the book. The show is a bridge; it’ll get them there, but it’s still your story!”

“Nah, son. People ARE ready!”

I hung up on Melvin, parked my car, and hit the interwebs via Twitter. “Producers of #FreshOfftheBoat want me to say ‘America is great’ or they’ll replace me. What’s a chink to do?”

Three weeks later, the EPA had announced it was no longer consulting scientists, Ferguson had announced there would be no indictments, and I sat in my massage chair numb to America, getting the gluten kneaded out of my back fat. Everything I saw, from Republicans suing Obama over immigration reform to the script for our second episode, where ODB is appropriated to teach Young Eddie how to make it rain, made absolutelyno sense. 17But in my post-Thanksgiving slumber, I turned on the Michigan–Ohio State game. Since Desmond Howard did the Heisman, I’ve been a Wolverines fan. They’ve been hot trash recently, but I still hold out hope … BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW WHEN A PROMO FOR YOUR LIFE STORY IS GOING TO RUN ON ABC DURING THE GAME WHEN YOU ARE TAKING BONG RIPS.

All of a sudden, I screamed, “THERE IT GO!” The Fresh Off the Boat logo flashed across the screen, my TV mom, Constance Wu, going buck-wild in a Taiwanese market, Young Eddie, searching for Lunchables, and Randall Park with the jade pendant, flossin’ just like my pops. THERE WERE REAL ACTORS ON TV TALKING ABOUT THE PITFALLS OF WHITE FOOD!

My friend Rocky was staying at the crib and missed the commercial, so I played it back.

“Ninja, we made it.”

“YOU made it.”

“Nah, son, WE MADE IT.”

“I ain’t never seen anything like this. I don’t know what to say. I knew it was coming, but … son … YOU GOT ASIANS ON TV!”

But I still wasn’t convinced. Everything I ever knew rang in my head: “It’s not enough … You can’t just get on base. We got to come home.” Quickly, I pulled up the pilot episode on my laptop and played it for Rocky. The standard shots were there, the kitchen scenes, banter, banter, banter, but through all the fucking duck sauce and wonton strips, Melvin and Natch did it … They fucking did it. In the black-box TV format, there we were. And after about 19 minutes of shiny suit-bubble goose bounce, there was real talk.

“Get to the back of the line, chink!” said Edgar, the only other person of color at school. It was the most formative moment of my childhood; the first time someone ever called me a chink, held in a two-shot. Two kids of color forced to battle each other at the bottom of America’s totem pole on ABC.

After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience. I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now. You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference. The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of American cyclope. Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy. Baking soya, I got baking soya!

It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Those three minutes are the holy trinity Melvin, Randall, Constance, Hudson, Forrest, Ian, and I sacrificed everything for. Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.

But for all the bullshit I heard at studios about universal stories and the cultural pus it perpetuates, I felt some truth in it for those three minutes. It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word chink, yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made. The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human in our individual relationships with society. We’re all fucking weirdos. The social contract is here because we have a collective desire to be individuals and preserve our rights to pursue singular happiness with or without cilantro. But we’ve been fixated way too long on universality and the matrix’s pursuit of monoculture. It’s time to embrace difference and speak about it with singularity, idiosyncracy, and infinite density. No more drone strikes, no more Nielsen boxes, no more “we are the world” … if it’s walkin’ dead with a red dot, take the shot.

Chinkstronauts, ride out …

*This is an extended version of an article appears in the January 12, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

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Amy Tan (author): ‘Identity is everything’

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Everything I’ve written is about identity,” author Amy Tan said while promoting her latest book at University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle’s University District on December 5.

Tan, who gained international acclaim for The Joy Luck Club, said her the biggest influence on her identity comes from her mother—the inspiration behind her latest endeavor, The Valley of Amazement.

Tan’s inspiration for the novel, as the story goes, happened while Tan was doing research for another project. She had stumbled upon a photo titled “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” In the photo, five beauties wore clothing identical to what Tan saw her grandmother wear in another photo. Tan said one of the five beauties was the most popular courtesan in 1910 and 1911. Tan said she began to wonder why the courtesans wore the clothing they did and what their lives were like. This curiosity prompted an eight-year journey to discover what life might have been like for courtesans in the early 1900s.

The Valley of Amazement begins in Shanghai in 1905, centering on Violet. The story begins when her mother abandons her and she is prompted abducted and sold to a courtesan house.

For Tan, the book was never about courtesans, however.

It’s all about me,” Tan said. While Tan’s work is often said to revolve around mother-daughter relationships, she said she always believed that her writing was about identity. “The biggest influence in my identity, and probably many others, is my mother,” she said.

Unlike many authors, Tan said she did not grow up wanting to be a writer. She often wrote fiction as she was growing up, but never thought of pursuing fiction as a career. Dissatisfied with her job later in life as a business writer, Tan wanted writing to be different. She attended workshops and set her own personal goal—to be published by a literary magazine before she was 70. “I still have some time left,” she said.

But publication and money were never what really drove her. In fact, Tan said she was fearful for writers who would evaluate their worth based on publications and sales.

You cannot take anything for granted when it comes to writing,” Tan said. “You can have enormous talent and never get published.”

Tan said the success of The Joy Luck Club was an unanticipated stroke of luck. Even if editors had rejected her writing, she said “that would be painful, but I would still have my meaning.”

Tan advised aspiring writers to ask themselves why they want to write and if they would still do it if they never published.

My philosophy for the beginning [of the writing process] is to always know why I write,” Tan said.

Tan told the audience that when she writes, she focuses more on pleasing herself over her editors, and imagines herself in a place where no one can look over her shoulder.

Tan wrapped up the night by saying: “If writing has taught me anything, it has taught me the meaning of my life.

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Amy Tan (author): ‘Identity is everything’