Something I always get asked is: “What is it like being an Asian American woman in Hollywood?” I hate this question almost as much as I hate, “What is it like being a female in comedy?” Nobody wants his or her identity and defining characteristics reduced to just race and gender, and I resent that white men never get asked, “What is it like being a white man in movies?”
What disappoints me even more is that the people asking are always Asian American. It’s like they want to hear a titillating story about how a high-powered Hollywood executive sat me down in his office and said, “Look, we love you, Ali. In fact…we love you long time!” And then this same exec proceeded to throw rice on my face while forcing me to watch Mickey Rooney’s scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s on a loop, before kicking me out of his office, screaming,“You’ll never make it in the white man’s world, you chinky ho!” (That, unfortunately, has never happened to me.)
I rarely get asked what I think is a more interesting question: How do you overcome failure? (My answer, if you’re curious, centers on having a tolerance for delayed gratification, a passion for the craft, and a willingness to fail.) Unfortunately, most people have been conditioned to define other people via race and gender. Even me. Whenever friends tell me they’re dating somebody new, I always ask, “What race is he?” Their answer: “He’s a white man, Ali, okay?” And my response is always to raise my eyebrows and stare into my poke bowl.
Over the past three years, I’ve had to do a ton of press. One local reporter was a 60-year-old white man with an Asian wife who was way too excited to tell me that he had an Asian wife. He kept drawing connections between my work and his Filipino wife’s family. “I noticed that food is a huge theme for you. In my wife’s family, food is so important. Lola [this is a Filipino word for “grandma,”which he made sure to over pronounce] always insists that we eat before going out for the afternoon.”
But that’s not necessarily an Asian thing. To me, it sounded like Grandma was encouraging people to eat lunch. All sorts of people around the world eat lunch. Termites eat lunch. I was excited to talk about my work process, and all he wanted to discuss was how his Filipino mother-in-law made delicious shrimp.
I was lucky enough to grow up in San Francisco, a beautiful city with a fantastic bridge that’s also full of Asian people. And I went to UCLA, otherwise known as the University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians. UCLA was like Asian Wakanda. Yes, there were a lot of Asian American students studying to be doctors and lawyers. But I also saw them in the design and jazz programs.
One Japanese American girl in the film program made the most beautiful stop-motion video of these naked, clay humans making love and melting into each other and then becoming new people afterward. It was disturbing, sexy, beautiful, and scary all at once. And it was very important for me to know that an Asian American woman was capable of making all those complicated emotions cohabitate in one amazing art piece.
My dad had overwhelming pride in the accomplishments of other Asian Americans. When Margaret Cho’s pilot episode of All-American Girl—the first network TV sitcom featuring an Asian American family—aired, my entire family gathered around the kitchen table to watch it on our small TV. Our refrigerator door was covered with newspaper clippings about Michael Chang, Kristi Yamaguchi, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Tyson Beckford (he’s half Chinese). William Hung’s popularity was admittedly a little problematic—he was the American Idol contestant with a thick Chinese accent who got famous for doing a cover of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”—but my dad still purchased his debut album when it came out.
My parents were very progressive and extremely enthusiastic about Asian Americans in the arts, but they were not very supportive when I told them I was moving to New York City to pursue stand-up comedy. When I pointed out that Margaret Cho was a successful stand-up comedian and Maxine Hong Kingston a very respected writer, my parents said, “They are extraordinary exceptions. The chances of all that for you are very slim.”
Asians like predictability. We like safety. We want to know that if we work hard, there will be a payoff. Downward mobility and the shame that comes with it is an Asian immigrant nightmare. And in entertainment, you very well might not make it, despite all those years you invested. There is no linear path to success, and no linear path to maintaining it even if you do achieve it.
But immigrant parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents took the biggest, most unpredictable risk of all: They came to America when there was no Rosetta Stone, no Google Maps, no cell phones. I could never be so brave. I straight up refuse to go to a restaurant if it’s not well reviewed on Yelp. (Then again, if our relatives had been able to Yelp America before coming over, they might have thought twice. Those reviews would have been mixed: “The opportunity is on point, but they kind of overdo it with the institutional racism and the guns. Three stars.”)
My mom came to the United States when she was 20 years old, by herself, not knowing any English, at the beginning of the Vietnam War. People screamed “gook”and all sorts of other hateful names at her. My dad’s dad came to the United States as an eight-year-old boy on a boat, through Angel Island, all by himself. When he was an adult, he chose his overseas Chinese wife from a picture. My grandmother came to the United States in her late teens, not knowing what her life there would be like. Imagine not even knowing if your future husband smelled good or appreciated Game of Thrones.
My grandfather passed away when I was eight years old, the exact same age that he was when he came to the United States. His biggest worry when he was eight was how he was going to survive in this strange new country. My biggest worry was if I was going to be Miss Piggy or Paula Abdul for Halloween. I got my first paid job when I was 15, at GapKids, folding tiny hoodies. My grandfather’s first job was working as a live-in cook and house cleaner for a family in Monterey, California. He was, again, eight years old.
I often think about what it would be like for my grandfather to see me now, to find out that people pay to see his granddaughter just talk. He’d probably think I was a magician with ancient powers, derived from behaving well in a past life. At the very least, he’d definitely have the opposite opinion of all those jealous-ass white male comedians who say things like,“People only like your comedy because you’re female and a minority.” My grandpa would be like, “I can’t believe people like your comedy! You’re a female and a minority!”
One Asian value I’m grateful was passed down to me is knowing how to save money. Immigrants are shocked by how expensive everything is here: Wait, this bowl of pho costs over 50 cents? Tickets to see that pregnant comedian live when she’s not even pregnant anymore cost the same as my very dangerous diesel moped? They never get over the habit of trying to stretch a dollar, which, to their credit, is a very useful survival skill.
If you shook a jug of soy milk that was clearly turning into tofu, my mom would say it was still good. To this day, she asks me to shower at the gym so I don’t waste her water (I also still steal menstrual pads for her from Equinox, and she doesn’t even get her period anymore). Whenever we traveled, my parents would feign interest in a time-share just to get that free breakfast. If there is one thing I know for certain in this world, it’s this: My parents never had the intention of purchasing a time-share.
But being cheap came in handy when I moved to NYC, the most expensive city in America. Even now, after some success, I’m still so terribly cheap. I maintain a friendship with a woman I hate simply because she has a lemon tree. I picked up a used infant bathtub from somebody’s lawn (I still don’t know who this person is, and if he or she made meth in that tub or what). But I paid off the mortgage on our home!
Another instrumental Asian value is bluntness. It used to embarrass me when my parents voiced things that most people kept to themselves, but now I’m so grateful for it. When my mom and I took a trip to Vietnam shortly after my father passed, we met some friends whom I hadn’t seen in forever for lunch. I was so happy to be reunited in this beautiful country where we had all first met that I almost cried.
When my mom greeted my friend Vinh, she said, “Wow, Vinh, you look so prosperous.” We all knew that she meant, “You got real fat.” But she said it with such a matter-of-fact, unapologetic attitude that it didn’t even offend him. All our friends laughed because there was something so familiar and affectionate in her honesty. People always tell me that they think stand-up comedy—and dealing with criticism—must be so hard. Well, it’s nothing compared to being roasted by those who love you most and know you best your whole life.
When the movie Crazy Rich Asians premiered, a very talented Asian American actress in her late forties admitted to me that she refused to watch the film and would probably never see it, simply because she was jealous that she wasn’t in it. As she looked down at her shoes, she confessed, “I just feel so left out.” The lack of opportunities for Asian Americans in Hollywood had conditioned her to feel insecure and envious. For her, and many Asian American actresses of her generation, the ugly but truthful answer to my least favorite question was: Don’t miss the one spot every 10 years.
I’ll never forget that conversation because it made me realize how timing and my up-bringing shaped how I see myself and the world around me. My house growing up was filled with Chinese stone carvings, screens, and rugs. Every year, my family attended the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. I developed my first crushes on Asian American boys in the same Chinatown alleyway youth center where my dad hung out as a kid. I traded mixtapes with kids who were also raised to take their shoes off when entering a home, kids who didn’t smell like Kraft Singles.
My actress friend who didn’t get cast in Crazy Rich Asians grew up on the East Coast, isolated from people who looked like her, which made her instinctively competitive when, all of a sudden, she was surrounded by Asian American women because they were also auditioning for the role of the wet-haired ghost from The Ring or Angry Waitress With Fake-Ass Accent No. 2.
Here’s my advice to young Asian American women who want to make it in Hollywood—or anywhere, really: Let go of seeing yourself as nothing more than an Asian American woman. Don’t just drink boba, go outlet shopping, and talk exclusively to other Asian Americans. Expose yourself to how other people in America live, and you’ll discover the universal struggles that connect us (like how we all sleep in hotel rooms and pretend they’re not covered in the cum of a thousand lonely men). If you hang out with the same people, you will only be able to make those people laugh.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s also important to make friends with other Asian Americans in entertainment. When I moved to Los Angeles, the comedian Bobby Lee picked me up from my apartment at Crenshaw and Pico and drove me to a Korean restaurant called Soot Bull Jeep that smelled like charcoal and beef. When we sat down, he told me, “I’m older than you, so of course I’m going to pay for everything. Get whatever you want.” This familial connection with other Asian Americans in entertainment—how they take care of me and demand other people respect me—has given me my community. What I’m saying is you need both—your community and what lies outside it.
My last piece of advice would be to focus not on the result but on the process and the journey. Again, Asian people often seek out predictable outcomes. But to succeed in a creative profession, you really need to love it. And when I say that, I mean really love it. In fact, you’ve gotta love it long time.
Adapted from the book Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets &Advice for Living Your Best Life, by Ali Wong, to be published on October 15, 2019, by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin RandomHouse LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Ali Wong.