No More Sixteen Candles



These comedians and I are having a conversation, and we don’t need a big wooden table in a Harvard seminar to talk about diaspora, our parents, and Asianness in America. We don’t have to explain unbelonging to each other.



I’m 15 and I’m in homeroom, at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.

The class clown is a blonde, curly-haired boy with blueish eyes. I have liked him for a while, so I laugh at every joke, and shimmy my rolling desk chair over to the circle that inevitably forms around him.

Maybe I bring up my Dad not letting me go out over the weekend, or maybe I describe the quirky ways he encourages me to study. Maybe we are watching the Gangnam Style video and I mention my dad told me he self-identified with PSY.

I don’t remember exactly how it happens, but suddenly my own father is being imitated, loudly, in this classroom, by this boy. His voice morphs into some amalgamation of Mr. Yunioshi from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Long Duk Dong from “Sixteen Candles” and what an 1800s Chinese Exclusion Act cartoon would sound like if it could talk. Every couple of sentences, he throws his head back, spews a gasping laugh, turns to me and says, “I’m so sorry; this is horrible.”

But he laughs as he says it. “No; it’s fine,” I tell him, and I raise my voice at the end of the sentence to assure him, to authorize the joke.

He jumps right back into character.

I tell myself that he’s not targeting me. As he performs to the entire classroom, I feel myself melt into his audience. I do not think he is attempting to make a complex political commentary on the use of accents. I am not sure if his intent is to satirize. I hear my own laughter. All I know is that to him, the joke is that someone, an Asian someone, speaks English differently than he and I do.

“My dad doesn’t even have an accent,” I say, as though it is part of the joke.

Maybe I don’t know yet how to express my discomfort. Maybe, in that rolling chair circle in homeroom, I feel too alone to speak up:, to spotlight myself, and my Asianness, and my Asian parentage. Maybe I’m impressed by the way he can command a crowd. Maybe I like the attention. Maybe I feel seen by this boy I like.

When the same boy says my dad is Ken Jeong in The Hangover, maybe I just can’t see my Asian peers sitting in the the back of the room, shifting in their seats. Maybe I don’t yet know to look in their direction.

***

I’ve never tried to describe H-Mart before, but here is what I’ve come up with: Red, white, and blue neon signs and cool overhead fluorescent light that reflects off mirrors jutting from the ceiling and the shiny, lacquered walls. Asian pop and hip-hop beats pulse and synth through invisible speakers. Groups of Asian twenty-somethings chat conspiratorially, hunched over ramen and fruity-looking drinks.

I’m here to meet Isha Patnaik and Brandon K. Lee, the producers of Affirmative Reaction: An Asian (American) Comedy Show, a monthly stand-up show in Boston with an all-Asian comic line up. The show began this past August. I spot an available table in the nook of the dining area, and once seated, I flip through the questions in my notebook:

“Is social change a part of this show’s purpose?”

“How do your personal experiences with race and stereotypes enter your comedy?”

“Do you think there’s anything we can’t joke about?”

I purse my lips and sigh, glancing aimlessly at the single diners transfixed by their phones. I’ve never seen an Asian comedian not reinforce stereotypes of themselves in a set.

When I say I’m Asian American, it is a political claim, one made in an attempt to grasp at some slippery idea of justice. My identity is austere, an instrument, power. I’m skeptical that a show centered on Asian comedians and their representation will make me feel differently.

A sentence in the online description reads, “We feature the best stand up from the Asian and Asian American community and don’t care whether or not it makes our parents proud (it doesn’t).”

I’m not particularly excited to listen to two hours of “Asian parents, am I right?” jokes.

Another confession: I used to hate H-Mart. In fact, I used to hate all Korean grocery stores. Surrounded by shrimp crackers and seaweed, all packaged in crinkly wrappers covered in a language I couldn’t read or understand, I would hug the aisles, trying to shrink myself into the shelves.

Every approach from a woman with crow’s feet around her eyes felt like a threat; every Asian face in the store became a strategically placed test of me and my Koreanness. I wanted to be rid of it — my Koreanness — if only so that I wouldn’t have to face the blank stare of a Korean grandmother after I spoke back to her in a flustered, frustratingly American jumble of “Oh, uh, I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Outside the Korean grocery store, I took pride in being as far off the boat as possible. Inside the Korean grocery store, though, I would tiptoe down the aisles, as if louder steps might trigger some non-Korean alarm, weaving swiftly in between the Korean families, making eye contact only with the speckled tile floor. Every fluent Korean syllable uttered by another young Korean American kid formed another dent in my American armor.

***

When Patnaik walks up to me, I feel immediately at ease. She wears an orange shirt as chipper as her voice.

The first 10 minutes of our conversation: She tells me about growing up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood of the Bay Area in California, going to college at a markedly less Asian Tufts, and befriending Lee, in part because they were some of the only non-white students in Tufts’s comedy scene.

Lee strolls up to our table and Patnaik turns to introduce me.

"Vivekae? Am I saying that right?"

"Yes, and I want to make sure I'm saying your name right —"

"Isha."

"Isha," I repeat.

"Braaaannnndon." She introduces Lee, drawing out the syllables of his first name. As we laugh together, I feel the conventionally strict reporter-interviewee binary blur.

Patnaik and Lee tell me that even though Asian comics are relatively well-represented in the Boston comedy scene, there are a dearth of spaces for Asian comics to support each other. After Lee describes mulling around before shows in Boston surrounded by exclusively white and male comics, I do a mental double-take. I had thought this “Asian American Comedy Show” was isolated, borne out of a nebulous, trendy claim to ‘real’ representation, rather than a material need.

They describe how audience members sometimes seem to find the racist build-up of their jokes more funny than their pithy, comedic analysis that follows.

Sometimes Lee struggles to know how much he can joke about race, considering his audience. Patnaik describes the difficulty of navigating joke subjects, given the types of reactions she has encountered: audience members who praise her for “making fun of her own culture” (a real after-show interaction she cites) and people who seem to find it “refreshing” to see a woman of color not talking about being a woman of color.

I nod along as they describe the difficulty of simply existing as Asian comedians. As Asian. Whether in the high school computer lab or pushing a grocery cart past 20 pound bags of rice and plastic-wrapped packages of yellow-y fried fish, I know that weight, that compression.

***

The morning of the show, I listened to K-pop with the curtains open to let the sun illuminate my morning ritual: brushing dark, goopy chunks of mascara onto my eyelashes in an attempt to bring life and width to eyes I’ve been told too many times, by many of my closest friends, were “so Asian.”

As I absently swiped at my eyes with the mascara wand, I wondered: What might I do to my eyes if I were born and raised in Korea? How many different choices by my ancestors converged such that I am sitting here, preparing to interview, in English, two Asian-American comedians at a Korean grocery chain from Queens?

My morning ritual felt hollow, like listening to the ring of a coin hit the bottom of an empty well in the village my father left when he was five.

That night, on the way to H-Mart, I took the Red Line to Central Square. There were several seats between me and a twenty-something Asian man. I stared at our joint reflection in the darkened window in front of us. I compared my face to his: the curve of our eyes, the sweep of our chins, the width of our cheekbones.

I don’t know where the man came from, where his parents came from, or where his grandparents came from. All I saw was dark hair with a side shave, black converse, a green backpack, Airpod knockoffs. One of billions designated as Asian.

Where was he headed? Maybe Downtown Crossing? Chinatown?

When I visited Chinatown two weeks earlier, a close friend and I walked into a bakery and sipped bubble tea, a drink I didn’t know was considered a staple of Asian America until I came to college. I was going to try an egg tart for the first time.

Walking through Chinatown has always felt like meeting a distant relative or watching Crazy Rich Asians. It’s feeling as though people might think I look like the female lead in this decade’s hallmark Asian American movie, but I don’t understand that game, the one with the tiles... ‘Mahjong.’

Asian. Asian American. Korean. Korean American. I never felt like any of them were mine. So — an Asian American comedy show. What does that even mean?

***

One Friday each month, comedians at Affirmative Reaction don’t have to calculate how much they want to self-censor. "I just wanted to feel like, for one night a month, that I didn't have to explain myself," says Patnaik.

After our H-Mart interview, Patnaik and Lee lead me to ImprovBoston where the warm, wheaty smell of stale beer greets us. Our designated theater space is small, with a stage no more than ten feet wide.

We make our way back to the lobby again to take photos and Patnaik asks an Asian woman sitting by the blue-ish glow of the neon window lights what brought her to the show.

She chuckles. “Definitely the Asian thing,” she says.

As the house opens, I watch people file in — young and middle-aged Asian faces scan the rows for optimal seating arrangements. The flow of leather jackets, spiked hair, Converse, cross-shoulder bags remind me what it is like to be in a place where you’re a majority. I feel lighter.

After her joint introduction with Lee, Patnaik begins her set.

"Hi, I'm Isha, I'm a queer South Asian, female comedian." To the scattered and supportive woos, she says "Thank you. That's how my parents react. Just tepid woos."

Patnaik describes a visit to India. After witnessing one Uber driver’s flippant response to almost hitting a scooter driver, she asked herself: “‘Wait. Is it culturally insensitive of me to think that hitting people with cars is bad? Like, am I being a weird colonialist person by being like" — here, she raises her voice into a vaguely British tenor — "'In America, we don't hit people with cars, like, that's just something we do in the Western World.'”

Her voice is confident and light. Unburdened and unafraid. It’s how I want to sound when I speak.

She and I, we’re both in the little space between here and there. Wedged under the door between two places we supposedly ought to know. But in that moment, the uncertain, complicated business of navigating who she is onstage, in public, anywhere — it doesn’t make Patnaik pull away. She pushes forward.

My cynicism about what the show can really accomplish for Asian America, what power it can really offer us, dissipates. I sit, I listen, and I understand. My easy laughter weakens my militancy. These comedians and I are having a conversation, and we don’t need a big wooden table in a Harvard seminar to talk about diaspora, our parents, and Asianness in America. We don’t have to explain unbelonging to each other.

Andrew Vu takes the stage and talks about a voice he uses when he’s back home in Texas. It sounds like the dad from Leave it to Beaver. I crack up, doubling over. I know what it’s like to be watched vigilantly by non-Asian faces scanning for grammatical mistakes or a tremor in my voice.

Many don’t even open with identity-related jokes. Jere Pilapil talks about his boring job: "Sometimes I go down to the vending machines and I crumple dollar bills just to see what it'll take," he says, lowering his voice into a faux-menacing growl.

Diana Lu deadpans, deliberating on every word. "Anyone who thinks my humor is too dark is a racist."

Diana Lu
Diana Lu performs a standup set about her Asian and Asian American experiences.

I laugh so hard I can’t breathe, leaning over and sideways like one of those floppy inflatable tube-men in front of car dealerships, covering my mouth. For brief moments, I wonder if I should maybe try to keep it together. Something tells me that I don’t need to do that here.

In this crowded, 40-seat backroom of ImprovBoston at this sold-out show, the punctuating laughter from the bigger theater directly adjacent erupts every so often, audible but muffled through the dividing wall.

But I keep laughing. This small backroom, with its single spotlight and three rows focused on one Asian face, feels like the biggest room I’ve ever been in. As I bound out of the theater after the show, I don’t feel my feet touch the ground.

—Magazine writer Vivekae M. Kim can be reached at vivekae.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @vivahkay.