How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang, Da Capo Lifelong Books, US $27.00, Pp 240, March 2018, ISBN 978-0306903496
Jimmy O. Yang moved to Los Angeles at age 13 and rebelled against his parents and turned down a job in finance to pursue a career in stand-up comedy in Hollywood. Today, he is known for his role in the popular HBO series Silicon Valley. His dad thought he was crazy but Jimmy O. Yang believed that “it was better to disappoint my parents for a few years than to disappoint myself for the rest of my life. I had to disappoint them in order to pursue what I loved. That was the only way to have my Chinese turnip cake and eat an American apple pie too.”
In How to American, Jimmy O. Yang shares his memories of growing up in the United States as a Chinese kid from Hong Kong and becoming a star in the United States. How to American is written so beautifully that we offer some passages below to give a taste of what you should expect when you read it. Although the memoir is titled “How to American,” it is divided into several chapters from ‘How to Asian’ to ‘How to American” and there are several ‘How to-s’ in between.
In the ‘How to Asian’ chapter, he writes, “My life growing up in Hong Kong was like a bad stereotype. I played the violin. I was super good at math, and I played Ping-Pong competitively. In China, people take Ping Pong seriously. It is not just a drunken frat house game; Ping Pong is a prestigious national sport. The Ping Pong champs in China are national heroes, like Bret Favre without the dick pics. Everyone from your five-year-old neighbor to your seventy-year-old aunt knows how to slice up some sick spins. My parents signed me up for Ping Pong classes early on. I had quick feet and a lightening backhand. Soon I was competing in the thirteen-and-under Hong Kong championship leagues.”
In the ‘How to American’ chapter, he writes, “Ever since I immigrated to America, I tried my hardest to be American. I made it a point to make friends from every ethnic background, instead of just Asian friends. I fought so hard to not be grouped in with the other Asians in college. I didn’t want to be the Chinese kid who only hung out with other Chinese kids; I thought that was so lame and stereotypical. But after the Crazy Rich Asians shoots, I finally got it. It wasn’t about choosing to hang out with people of the same skin tone; it was about hanging out with people who shared the same point of view because they had gone through the same experiences. One of my favorite lines in the Crazy Rich Asians script was ‘I didn’t have to explain myself that I’m Asian here. I’m just another person.’”
He narrates that, during the Crazy Rich Asians shoot in Singapore, “Everyone saw me as who I am. I wasn’t just the Asian kid; I could just be the funny guy, instead of the Asian guy who is funny. I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. It was the first time in seventeen years that I didn’t have to prove to anyone or myself that I was more than the token Asian guy.” He writes, “Crazy Rich Asians made me want to get in touch with my roots instead of running away from them. I flew to Hong Kong after we wrapped filming in Singapore. I went back to the motherland with a newly found sense of pride in my culture and myself. It had been so long that I got the same culture shock when I arrived in Hong Kong as I did the first day I arrived in Los Angeles.”
As a Chinese immigrant to America, he knows he cannot go back and live in the country of his birth although he loves the people and food there. Here is how he explains why! “There is one very important thing that America has to offer. The same thing that made my family and so many others before us immigrate to American dream uniquely American. When I quit finance to become a stand-up comedian, my parents thought I was a crazy person. And they were right; I would be considered insane anywhere else in the world, except in America.”
He continues, “Americans are encouraged to dream big and do anything we set our minds to. The United States is the only country where the pursuit of happiness is the right of its citizens. Jay-Z went from the Marcy Projects to drinking champagne on a yacht and marrying Beyoncé. I went from struggling with the English language to doing stand-up comedy and becoming a Hollywood actor. There might always be ignorant people who wish I’d go back to where I came from, but I embrace America the same way it has embraced me as its citizen. My American dream is as real as it comes.”
How to American is a fascinating peep into the life of a rising Hollywood star. Jimmy O. Yang shares his life experience as a young Chinese immigrant struggling to live the American Dream in the United States. He compares the culture of the country of his birth with his adopted country and explains why he succeeded in America and why he could not have succeeded in Hong Kong. Many immigrants and naturalized Americans would relate to his experience. How to American is as beautifully written as it is funny and enjoyable.