Reclaiming My Asianness

5 06 2011

In a previous post, I had firmly said that I am not Asian-Canadian, but simply Canadian.  While I still stand behind that statement, I think that my post lacked some nuance.  I think there was a part of me that was not completely comfortable with my Asian background.

Funnily enough, it was being part of a skit for the McGill Medical/Dental School Talent Show that changed my perspective a little bit.  It’s a little bit strange because in the video, I actually portray a contestant for medical school in a Survivor-type reality show, and my only predominant trait in this competition is that I am Asian.  It was so much fun trying to come up with Asian stereotypes to make as part of the video.  The stereotypes worked because there is some truth to them, (I, for one, love drinking my green tea!), but my character in the video accentuates a myriad of stereotypical Asian traits to the point where it’s clear that no one person could ever embody all of those traits at once.  Our classmates enjoyed the video (below), in part because they’re aware that these stereotypes exist, and through this artistic process, I learned that my Asian background can be a source of humour, and through that, pride.  I’ve come to realize that building on the undeniable truth of my Asian heritage, rather than suppressing it and pretending like it wasn’t an integral part of who I am, is not only incredibly healing, but it can be leveraged as a part of what makes me unique.

But does that really work?

Well, let me introduce you to Margaret Cho.

For those of you who may not know, Margaret Cho is an inflammatory Korean-American female bomb of a comedian.  With 15% of her body covered in tattoos, her open bisexuality, dirty sense of humour, and her many adventures and shenanigans, she, in a lot of ways, does not fit the Asian stereotype.

I was watching scenes on YouTube from her “I’m the One That I Want” comedy tour from years ago, and I watched scene after scene without being able to stop.  Eventually I just watched the entire 90-minute show online, even though I should have been sleeping in prep for the all-important Talent Show the next day.

I think I couldn’t stop watching because I love comedy, but especially comediennes.  I think it’s because if a female comic can make it in this incredibly sexist business, they simply have to be stellar and incredibly tough.  But Margaret’s show was powerful for me not just because she’s a woman, but because her show was about her reaching the lowest point in her life.  It was about how she was forced to change who she is in order to keep her tv show from being cancelled, and it was the first network show about an Asian-American family.  She was “encouraged” to lose weight and to be more Asian – they even hired an Asian consultant for her.

I couldn’t stop watching, because here was someone who did not fit the Asian stereotype at all, and yet her Asianness is always a part of her.  She makes fun of her Korean parents all the time, she was held back in her field because of the way she looks, and she can get away with saying really crazy things in part because she follows that with a cute Asian smile or chuckle that forces you to forgive her and laugh with her and take her side (I try to use this Asian smile meself =D).  A lot has happened in her life, and she is thoroughly American, and yet her Asian heritage will always be a part of her story and her experiences.

Her struggles in her field stems in part from her ethnicity, but so do her successes.

A comedian succeeds based, at least in part, on what she or he knows, and part of Margaret Cho’s humour stems from her heritage.  It’s hilarious because there is at least some grain of truth to her words, and she has no qualms about leveraging aspects of her life to excel in her art.

I’m not sure that Margaret Cho strives to be a role model, but you know, to me I think she is.  I think she’s a role model because she embraces her ethnical heritage but never more than any other part of who she is.  She is first and foremost herself, and the path she blazes along the way, well that’s just a bonus, isn’t it?

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