I first met Jenny Yang at a networking event for women writers. She was loud and funny, and I liked her immediately. We became Facebook friends, as you do after you meet someone you’d like to follow, career-wise and otherwise. As Asian Americans, we don’t have a lot of celebrities in our camp. Even fewer in the comedy world. I watched the BuzzFeed videos Jenny starred in eagerly, just like I pored over every Baby-Sitters Club cover with Claudia Kishi on it, because her physical presence was proof that someone who looked like me was cool.
The first time that I saw her in the BuzzFeed viral video, “If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say,” I nodded along and said yes. She commits 100 percent to the sketch. When she pulls up the tops of her eyes to make them larger and says, “Hey, look at me, I’m white,” she transports me to every time in elementary school when I saw a kid on the playground yank their skin sideways to imitate Asian eyes. There’s a relief in seeing her comedy. Someone else understands these annoying racist questions about being Asian American. “Where are you really from?” echoes in mind.
Like the work of Asian American comedians Ali Wong and Margaret Cho, Yang’s comedy is effective because she taps into communal memory. In the BuzzFeed video “Odd Ways Asian Moms Say ‘I Love You,’” Yang dons a black wig and busts out perfect Mandarin. When someone off-camera coughs, she barks, “Are you sick? You’re sick because you didn’t dry your hair when you went to sleep.” Yang’s imitation of an Asian mom hits home for me: Her scolding and scrunched face remind me of my own mother who never let me leave the house with wet hair.
Yang didn’t always aspire to be a stand-up comedian. She came to the United States at the age of five from Taiwan and grew up in Southern California. The youngest in her family, she learned how to be an American and speak English before the rest of her family, which meant that she had to handle more responsibilities as a kid. In college, she studied political science at Swarthmore College and completed the prestigious Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs.
Yang worked for a labor union in Los Angeles for several years, and while the work was challenging, she didn’t feel creatively fulfilled. She tried stand-up in 2009, became hooked, and quit her day job in 2010 to pursue entertainment. In 2012, she co-founded Disoriented Comedy, an Asian American stand-up tour that promotes diverse comedians and storytelling not often seen on mainstream comedy stages. Since its inception, the tour has had more than 60 sold-out shows at colleges and universities across the country. In addition to her work with Disoriented, Yang performs regularly in Los Angeles, universities, and for nonprofits across the country.
For Yang, comedy is a second family. It’s a place where her two passions — social justice and humor — can coexist and bring awareness to immigrant and women’s issues. I admire her tenacity. The comedy world isn’t easy to break into, but Yang hustled hard. “I never thought to quit,” she told me. “I was so excited to work on something new and fun, cracking this code of comedy, that it never occurred to me to stop.” Like Cho and Wong, Yang persists by being visible and outspoken, making it easier for the next Asian American female comedian to step up to the mic and know that her words are valuable and needed.
In September, Yang posted to Facebook this fantastic story about how she got Aziz Ansari to bring her milk and cookies on a plane. In short: Her boyfriend just dumped her. She’s nervous. She spots Ansari, one of her career idols, as she’s walking through business class, then when she gets to her seat, she hand-writes him a three-page letter. When he offers to connect her with a casting director, she forgets to get his contact info. At the end of her post, she writes, “I would’ve never met Aziz and ate his cookies and milk if my boyfriend didn’t break up with me AND if I wasn’t the assertive go-getting comedy hustler that was the ’cause’ of our breakup.” Yang’s story about asking for what she wants is the anthem we all need. No one will know what you want in life if you never ask for it, if you never take risks.
Stand-up comedy, in itself, is risky. When comedians get on stage with material they’ve been crafting for weeks, they have no guarantee it will work. They can easily bomb on stage in front of a live audience. But Yang’s frankness and badassery is what makes me sit up straighter when I watch her work. I’ll never forget reading Yang’s poignant story for the Tumblr blog “I Believe You. It’s Not Your Fault,” about the time a boy lifted up her skirt as a kid and her mom said, “Don’t get upset over this. Nothing happened. It’s nothing.” I wanted to hug young Jenny who was all of us, children of immigrants, who had to navigate bullying and racism on our own. Our parents didn’t understand what we were going through and weren’t equipped to deal with our big emotions. To have someone write so eloquently and honestly is to see a mirror of my own experience.
As children of immigrants who became writers and artists, Jenny and I aren’t living the lives our parents envisioned for us when they came to America. They wanted us to follow prestigious careers as lawyers or doctors. They wanted better for us than what they had.
In May 2016, Yang was invited to the White House and honored as a White House Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling. She joined 10 other artists and storytellers, including award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Grace Lin, who incorporates Chinese folklore into her work, and podcaster Tanzila “Taz” Ahmed, co-host of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” who dispels myths about the American Muslim experience.
“Getting into the arts, nowhere did I think President Obama is going to notice me,” Yang said of the experience. “But he and his people noticed that in addition to trying to be funny, I was organizing and bringing our community together. I got to invite my parents. My parents didn’t understand any of the proceedings because it was all in English. But they got to see that I took this risk to be an entertainer. They have been supportive, but going to the White House erased any remaining doubts they had about my career.”
While not every stand-up comedian gets to the shake the president’s hand, Yang had a rare opportunity to represent her family and community and show that the arts are important and vital to our culture.
Women like Yang who bravely follow passion have led us to better places. We are representing our culture through our words. We are ushering in the next generation to believe that they can be writers, actresses, and activists, or whatever they damn well please.