I was first introduced to Jimmy O. Yang after seeing him on HBO’s “Silicon Valley” where he plays Jian-Yang, a Chinese app developer struggling to immerse himself in American culture while creating groundbreaking apps, like the infamous Not Hotdog app.
Yang’s character instantly became my favorite, and I laughed as he outshined his co-stars with his personality. In one scene, Jian-Yang gets confused and physically looks up after being asked, “What’s up?”
While the scene may be seen as a clever joke, Yang experienced a similar moment in real life as an immigrant from China. During his first day of school in the United States, a girl walked up to him and asked, “What’s up?”
“I just looked up into the sky and said, ‘What are you talking about?'” he told NextShark.
When someone yelled “heads up!” Yang turned to reply thinking it was another American greeting, only to be hit in the gut with a flying object. He later learned that the object was an American football.
Yang immigrated to Los Angeles from Hong Kong when he was 13 years old. He spent years dealing with identity issues, pursuing his dreams in entertainment, and figuring out what it means to be an Asian-American. The actor details these stories in his new book, “How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents.”
“A lot of the themes of the book is talking about balancing between the Chinese culture and the American culture,” Yang said. “They’re very different. American culture, it’s important to pursue your dreams. Whereas the spirit of Chinese culture is to do your work and be obedient.”
Yang, who became a U.S. citizen last year, highlights some experiences struggling with his identity.
“I think all Asian-Americans, and especially immigrants, we have an identity crisis because even if you are born here, what people think of as American is a White dude holding a football,” he said.
Yang to tried to be as “American” as possible because he wanted to “fit in” with his peers at school.
“I wanted to watch football every Sunday. I wanted to go to parties. I wanted to play football and basketball. I wanted to date a White girl. I didn’t even know if these were things I liked, but because I wanted to fit in so badly, those were the things I ended up doing,” he explained.
“I tried so hard to not get lumped in with other Asian people. I smoked a ton of weed in college. I grew my hair out. I didn’t even do well in school.”
“I think when you get older, you become more comfortable in your own skin and who you are as a person. You realize that being an immigrant — that in itself is a more authentic American journey than just playing football.”
Growing up, Yang learned English by watching the BET channel. The music videos he watched inspired him to start a short-lived rap group with his friends in high school.
“I started making beats and I was terrible,” he said.
After quickly realizing that music was not his true calling, Yang was introduced to stand-up comedy by watching BET’s “ComicView.” It instantly became his favorite show and inspired him to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. He credits fellow comedian Ken Jeong for inspiring him to make the jump.
“One of the reasons I thought I could make it as a comedian was because of Ken. When I saw his stand-up on ‘Showtime at the Apollo,’ when I saw him in ‘The Hangover,'” Yang said. “Same thing with Bobby Lee when I saw him ‘MadTV.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, these Asian guys can do it. Damn, I can do it too.’”
Yang struggled to break into the comedy industry, and the lack of support from his parents made it even harder.
“My dad used to always tell me, ‘Jimmy, make a lot of money working,’” Yang said. “‘Work hard and then you can go do something fun. Pursue your dreams and become an artist? That’s how you become homeless.’ I’ve been trying to teeter between living a lifestyle that will make me happy and at the same time not disrespecting my parents.”
“However, I finally figured out it was better to disappoint my parents for a couple of years than to disappoint myself for the rest of my life,” he said.
It seems that Yang’s persistence has paid off after years of facing rejections and taking odd jobs to survive. He’s now a successful stand-up comic and actor, making appearances on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” Laugh Factory, and most recently, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
He’s a recurring character in “Silicon Valley” and was cast in a role in the much-anticipated “Crazy Rich Asians” film directed by Jon M. Chu.
“Now, I’m on TV shows and movies, this is beyond the wildest dreams,” he said.
Despite his success, some have criticized Yang propagating Asian stereotypes with the roles he plays on screen. Jeong, well known for his role as the eccentric gangster Leslie Chow in “The Hangover,” also received similar critiques in the past.
“Some guys are like, ‘Yo, Ken. You’re making Asian people look bad. Now everybody thinks Asian people got a small dick and that’s why I can’t get a date,’” Yang said. “No, you can’t get a date because you can’t get a date. It’s got nothing to do with Ken.”
“There are white actors that play the funny guy that aren’t necessarily the good-looking hunk and there are white actors who are the Hugh Jackman hunky guys,” the actor continued. “It’s kind of fucked up for people to be like, ‘Oh, you gotta represent Asia properly in every role. Every Asian needs to be like Brad Pitt.’ What about small Asians who aren’t super good-looking — or like me and Ken who are just comedy guys? You’re saying we can’t even get on TV because we’re making you look bad?”
“Ken is making us look good. If he didn’t take the job, another Asian dude would’ve done it and it wouldn’t be that funny of a role. It could’ve just ended up being a really flat role that’s not even great and even more stereotypical in that sense. But Ken actually made the role look really good and funny and made Asian people look like they are really good at comedy. How about looking at that?”
Yang says he understands why some Asian Americans would find the roles he and Jeong take on offensive. However, he also believes that his characters, particularly Jian-Yiang in “Silicon Valley,” represent the experiences of real immigrants who come to America.
“When I came to this country, I could barely speak English,” he said. “I was that immigrant. I had an accent. So it’s more important, even for me, to play somebody with that accent, but play it with humanity and play it to its fullest ability.”
“Back when I was in school, other Chinese people that were ABCs (American Born Chinese) didn’t want to hang out with me. They didn’t want to be grouped in with the foreign Asian dude,” Yang recalled.
“There are roles out there that are like bullshit caricatures, but as an umbrella statement, that’s an insult to me as an immigrant who had an accent. That’s like saying you didn’t want hang out with me back in the day when we played basketball,” he went on.
“I gravitate to immigrant characters. Like Jian-Yang, at the end of the day, he’s really just myself 15 years ago when I didn’t understand ‘what’s up man?’ he said.
Another point Yang makes is that Asian accents are technically not the problem, it’s the perception of the accent.
“When Peter Sellers famously did a French accent for ‘Pink Panther,’ it was super funny, got nominated for a Golden Globe, people loved it,” he said. “Spanish actors, when they speak, their accent is seen like a romantic Spanish sexy lover — it’s sexy. But why is it that whenever somebody’s doing an Asian accent, it’s nerdy and weird?”
“Maybe it’s not the accent itself but the people’s perception of the accent. Maybe my job as the immigrant actor who’s in Hollywood now is not to shy away from those accented characters, but to play them with humanity and to make the accent sexy or funny.”
Jimmy O. Yang’s book “How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents” is available on Amazon.