Jimmy O. Yang has made a name for himself on comedy series “Silicon Valley,” portraying the awkward and notoriously douche-y, heavily accented app developer Jian-Yang, who’s also a Chinese immigrant.
Yang is not a notoriously douche-y, heavily accented app developer in real life. He is, however, an immigrant from Hong Kong who’s no stranger to the painfully uncomfortable moments that come with assimilating to American culture.
The 30-year-old, who came to the U.S. when he was a teen, still remembers the confusion he experienced during those formative years. On top of carving a space for himself in a new world, Yang says he constantly walked the line between working toward his own hopes and dreams ― a very American idea ― and pleasing his parents ― an ever-important pillar of Chinese culture.
His complex mish-mash of identity is documented in his new comedic book “How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents,” which was released earlier this month. As the political debate over immigration policy roars on under the Trump administration, Yang says his book attempts to “humanize” the immigrant experience. It’s the good, the bad, and the awkward moments of a new American that every human being can relate to.
Yang sat down with HuffPost to chat about his own immigrant experience, Asian masculinity, and the untold impact that one movie, “Ninja Assassin,” had for Asian men.
Your book is entitled “How To American,” so at what point did you feel that you had successfully “Americaned?” When did you feel you could claim the American identity as your own?
I think when I joined my fourth fantasy football league, I thought, “I know what’s going on now.” [Laughs] Really, the big moment was when I went against my parents’ will. Up until that moment I felt, in a way, very Asian ― doing something that I deep down didn’t want to do just to please my parents because it was a real job to them and to Chinese culture. When I quit my internship and started doing standup to pursue my dreams and do that full time ― I feel like that’s when I “Americaned.”
Your book includes these very Chinese references ― like the tiny stool that people sit on while preparing vegetables ― that Asian-Americans never really see in books. It’s something so specific and insider-y. Why do you feel it was important for you to weave these elements into your story?
Everybody talks about that stool! I think one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is there isn’t a lot of this material out there. I wanted people to relate. When I went to my grandpa’s house, where everything was Asian inside but the outside world was very American, it was very confusing. You feel lost. You feel like you’re the only one going through it because you don’t see a lot of that representation anywhere else. An American family can look at a TV show like “Everybody Loves Raymond” and go, “Oh, my dad does that too!” We didn’t have that. We have more and more of that now, but still it’s on the surface. ...
I want this book to be not just relatable to immigrant people and Chinese kids, but also tell a really honest, first-person, point-of-view story of an immigrant assimilating to this country. Immigration is in the media and the news right now and people talk about it in a partisan way, a political way. And that’s just not really a reference for most Americans of a real immigrant story, so I think it’s important to share that with them. I just want this book to show a real experience and then they can come up with a more informed opinion on immigration. ... I want to humanize the process of immigration ― in an honest, easy-to-read humorous way.
No matter how long we Asians are in the U.S., or even if we’re born here, we’re often just seen as Asian immigrants in the eyes of many non-Asians. But as Constance Wu, who’s in “Crazy Rich Asians” with you, pointed out, there’s a distinction between the Asian experience and the Asian-American experience. When you first immigrated here, did you notice the contrast?
...We all go through the same experience to some degree. When I became an American citizen, nothing’s changed because I’m still Asian. Nobody’s going to look at me as an American before an Asian person ― at least for now. If I go to Italy, or even Japan, nobody’s going to look at me and say, “Look, it’s an American person! Look at his cool passport! Rocky Balboa!” and give me a high five. ... But when I first came here, one of the things that was most painful was not just that I would go up to a group of white kids or black kids and they didn’t accept me because I didn’t speak English well enough, it was when I went up to other Asian kids who were born here and they shunned me even more. They themselves don’t want to get made fun of and be associated as a foreign person as I am. I understand it, especially when you’re a kid you just wanna be normal and fit in ― why would you want to be a foreign kid? But that’s tough.
Even in Hollywood, in acting in general, there’s this discussion of character representations and ethnic representations. I know some actors who will not even audition for a role with an Asian accent. I empathize with that but I completely disagree with that because that’s the same kid who didn’t want to hang out with me in high school or middle school ― that Asian-American kid who didn’t want to hang out with the foreign kid because they think it makes them look bad. I understand the whole constant foreigner stereotype but for me it’s important to portray immigrant characters like Jian-Yang and Danny Meng with humanity. It’s maybe a better thought to change the perception of an accent than to avoid it all together. I take offense [when people don’t go for parts with accents] ― it’s like saying, “I’m better than my immigrant brother with an accent.”
I wanted to get into the character of Jian-Yang. In the Asian-American community, he is divisive. Some, including one media watchdog, have labeled him a trope or a collection of stereotypes. Do you feel there’s any truth to that? Or do you think there’s much more to Jian-Yang?
Jian-Yang at the end of the day is a foreign guy like I was. First of all, I play the accent really real. A lot is taken from my mother, and a lot is taken from my uncles and relatives back home in Shanghai. It’s not just a shitty impression of a Cantonese Bruce Lee accent, it’s a very specific Mandarin accent. And then the character itself, maybe in the beginning when he only had a few words, few lines, [he was a trope], but I never tried to play him as a stereotype at all. This is me ― a lot of stuff was a parallel to my own life. Like on the first day of school, when I heard the pledge of allegiance and I just followed along because I didn’t know what was going on. Jian-Yang does that quite a bit ... you’ve got to find the right motivation, the right parallels.
I think as the character develops, he becomes a much more three-dimensional character. Beyond just the accent, he’s just kinda an asshole now and he’s funny. ... I get where [the criticism’s] coming from but is it warranted? I don’t know. For me, I always play these characters as if they’re just a version of myself 15 years ago.
Look, to be honest, when certain movies like “Ninja Assassin” came out, that had a sexy, sexy Asian man with a six-pack, that made some people think, “Maybe I should go out there and date an Asian dude.” And that did pretty good for us in a way of representation. But if you look at it, any TV show, let’s just talk about white people ― there’s a whole gamut of white people. ... They’re all different people but when Thomas [Middleditch] is playing a nerdy character, does he take shit for it? No, because there are a million other white people who play good-looking characters or whatever.
I think people get sensitive, and I get it because there’s just not enough representation. So I somehow carry a lot of weight. I’m not a good-looking guy in general. What are you going to tell me? Don’t represent me on TV because I don’t look like Chow Young Fat? Like fuck you, dude! I’m just a quirky, funny dude. Are you saying a fat, geeky Asian dude can’t represent you on TV? Fuck you, that’s who he is, and he could be a good actor.
Really at the end of the day, certain movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” ― I think that’s gonna be huge because that’s the one movie that shows a whole gamut of people. Me and Ken [Jeong] are both in that movie and we’re really comfortable just being the funny guys. Then you have other people who play the good-looking guys. And you have tall, short, fat, whatever. We can just be ourselves.
I’d like to touch on masculinity. There’s a debate in the Asian-American community over whether Asian-American feminists are supporting Asian men enough? Do you think they are? Do you think that should even be part of their responsibility?
Go fuck whoever you want! I think everyone should support Asian men and men of all kinds. But is your preference white dudes because you grew up watching Brad Pitt? I can’t blame you, I grew up watching Jennifer Aniston, too.
Look, I think representation is extremely important but people have their preferences. You can’t tell someone, “You need to go date an Asian guy!!!” Go ahead, date whoever you want. At the end of the day, representation forms people’s opinions a lot of the time.
Girls had the pickings out there for Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg ― those guys spoke to them in their teenage years. We just don’t have that many choices for Asians. There just aren’t that many of us out there. Hopefully we can all kinda be part of that mainstream society and be part of people’s psyche coming up in the future.
In your time as an actor, has there been a shift in how people have seen Asian men?
Let’s talk about my life in general ― I swear ever since “Ninja Assassin” came out, I got laid a little more [laughs]. Seriously! That’s why i’m saying [representation] is super important. But I’m sorry if I’m not super fucking good looking!
Maybe kids growing up now, after they watch “Crazy Rich Asians”, they can say what I said ― I got laid so much more after “Crazy Rich Asians”! Or K-pop! These things that make Asians look good.
... At the end of the day, Ken Jeong, Bobby Lee, myself, we might not be the hunky dudes but I’d like to think that we help in that equation too by helping Asians be more normal on your TV screen and be funny. Once again, I apologize I’m not good looking. I apologize I look like a geek with glasses in real life. And I apologize to the people who say I’m making Asians look bad. But also, fuck ’em.
We’re all looking forward to “Crazy Rich Asians.” We obviously don’t get a ton of films with an all-Asian cast. Do you feel a lot of pressure for this film to succeed?
I want it to succeed badly. There’s nothing more that I want than for this film to succeed. But do I feel pressure? As an actor you’re kinda numb to everything. For every movie you shoot, you can’t expect an Oscar.
The camaraderie we built shooting this movie ― it made me so proud to be Asian even just making this movie. We have all the most beautiful, the most talented and funny Asians coming from all over the world for this movie.
With “Crazy Rich Asians,” we formed our own clique and we hang out all the time ... that’s our family now. If people can just feel an ounce of that. I hope it’s going to be a box office hit, but I think either way, when people watch it, especially Asian people, they’re going to feel some kind of bond. Already just making the movie is a huge success.