This is the story of how I met Gary Chan. It is also the story of how I got inspired to write these series of blog posts as a way of redefining "How To Be A Good Asian."
Redefining what it means to be "A Good Asian" is a lifelong process for me - I had plenty of reasons in my own life to figure this out for myself and with my good friends in private chats. For example, after I started performing stand-up comedy and talking about quitting my previous career, so many people in my audiences (many Asian American) would come up to me and say they wanted to do that too but were so afraid. I wrote about that in a previous blog: "I want to be a Good Asian, but now I want to do what I love."
However, it was my encounter with Gary that really inspired the idea to create a website and have a larger conversation. Gary’s story really affected me. Gary was NOT happy and though this sounds dramatic, his story haunted me. Life is so much more than about being "good" as it is finding “your happy”. And "finding happy" is much more messy, confusing, but more fulfilling than some narrow idea of being A Good Asian.
I want to share with you the stories about Asian Americans who take a variety of life journeys. I want these stories to be the ones that would’ve helped me as a middle school or high school kid to feel less alone and less pressured to fit into a suffocating and narrow box of being “A Good Asian.”
Two years ago, I met Gary Chan. He had an intense “Tiger Mom.” (1) Gary (2) had short spiky black hair, a pair of sensible glasses and stood at about 5’9”. He was a typical Chinese kid. Parents were from Taiwan. Wore lots of solid-colored t-shirts. He played Starcraft 2 and Halo 4, and wished he wasn’t so self-conscious about the pimple on his nose when he’s talking to that cute girl at the boba shop. He’d easily blend in if you saw him in a crowd in his hometown of Rowland Heights, a city in the San Gabriel Valley. (3)
I met Gary when I drove my geriatric age, hard-core Chinese immigrant parents to Rowland Heights (4). They wanted to visit an old family friend, the similarly-aged Mr. and Mrs. Chan (5). I was also driving so we could avoid any potential accidents by my 83-year old dad who enjoyed disregarding blind spots while driving 50 miles per hour on the 605 Freeway.
Three generations lived in the Chan household. My mom gave me the hard sell to come along.
“Gary is so smart. He majored in Political Science from UC Riverside and is going to UC Ir-wine for urban planning master’s. Just like you! Give him some advice so he can do well.” (6)
Um. You mean “just like me” if he majored in Political Science then attended a Master’s in Urban Planning only to drop out of said grad school before completing the final thesis project that would grant him a full Master’s rather than be left with two full years of schooling and disappointment in the sheer boringness that was going to be a pursuit of the field of Urban Planning? if we really wanna compare stories, Mom, let’s get precise.
I got straight As in High School, graduated in the top of my class at a smarty-pants prestigious liberal arts school, got a full scholarship to attend graduate school in public affairs, got into Harvard and MIT for graduate school and settled on UCLA to get an Urban Planning master’s degree. As far as immigrant parent wet dreams go, I was it (7).
So word got around when Chinese parents are all about bragging on their kids doing well in school. Certainly, I can do my daughterly Chinese duty and help lift up the academic accomplishments of fellow Chinese kids who are interested in similar things, AND give my parents a chance to show off my academic credentials. Sure. I’ll do that. It’s the least I can do for all that hard work and blah blah blah that my parents went through to escape war-torn poverty and toilets that were squat holes in the floor.
I sat down at the armchair in the sitting area of the cavernous family room. My parents were chatting at the dining table on the opposite end doing their old-people chatter (8). Gary’s parent’s Ed and Linda (9) welcomed me like I was there to save their kid, Gary. Of COURSE, I’m happy to be there!
I stayed in that armchair for a while. Linda was like, “Gary will come down in a minute,” all anxious like he was a bad boyfriend who said he’d call - you never know when they’ll show up.
After a few minutes, some sounds came from the upstairs that were characteristic Chinese "get your ass down there" type noises. Then Gary ambled down the heavily carpeted stairs with uneven thuds and sat down on the couch across from me.
“Yes, good to meet you Gary,” I said in English. He mumbled, “Yes, good to meet you too.” I barely made out the words. He had the confidence of a tween but…
“Gary just graduated from UC Riverside and will start UC Ir-wine for Urban Planning in the Fall,” Gary’s mom, Linda, adds in Chinese making me hear his academic credentials for the fifth time already that day. (10)
Holy crap. This kid was at LEAST twenty-one. I couldn't even imagine him liking the bitter taste of beer much less being of legal drinking age. He probably JUST started his period.
“That’s great! Sounds like you are well on your way, Gary!” I said with glee.
Gary mumbles back, “Thanks…”
“He is very smart and can do so much!” Mom interrupted, and was starting to annoy me. Let the kid finish a sentence!
“I’m sure.” I nodded in agreement. “I heard you also did an internship this summer with a local Representative, Gary. That’s pretty great. How’d you get connected with that?”
Of course, here was mom again, “Oh well, I volunteer at the Country Club and one of our leaders there is married to the local representative. They were very kind to invite Gary to be an intern. Such a great opportunity, wasn’t it, Gary?”
I looked over to Gary. He was staring off into space like talking to me was the last thing he wanted to do. I jumped to the conclusion that Gary was numbing himself out with fantasies of organizing his Protoss troops in Starcraft 2. Oh shit! Here comes the Zerg! Pew! Pew! (11)
“What got you interested in Political Science, Gary?” I tried to extract some level of considered thought from him.
“Well, I took a class and I got interested in how government works. It’s pretty interesting.” Finally. A complete sentence. I guess.
Use the word “interesting” once to give your opinion about something and I’ll forgive you, but use it twice when giving your opinion about your major and the main focus of all of your time and effort in college? You are definitely copping out and faking it.
Here comes mama, the Zerg Queen.
“He’s studying right now for LSAT. He’s a very good student.”
I picked up the figurative brain pieces from off the floor because she just blew my mind. She continued, “Ask her about the NSF, Gary.”
It was hard for me to keep up so in case YOU are confused, let’s do a rundown:
1. Gary just graduated from UC Riverside in Political Science and finished an internship with his local Republican Diamond Bar elected representative.
2. He got into UC Irvine for a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning and will be starting shortly in the Fall.
3. Before his Master’s program has begun, Gary is already studying for the LSATs because that means he wants to take the entrance test so he can apply and get into Law School so that he can become a lawyer?!
4: This interrupting mom just said “Ask her about the NSF” which means this was something else she wanted him to get. For those who don’t know, NSF stands for the National Science Foundation which means she wants his son to apply for the kind of NSF Fellowship money that is typically given to people who are in PhD programs and who will go on to do hard-core scientific research and eventually become big shot professors.
Inside my head I yelled, “LINDA! YOU CRAZY HOVERING SMOTHERING TIGER MOM! YOU ARE RUINING THE FUTURE MENTAL HEALTH AND HAPPINESS OF YOUR CHILD! I DON’T CARE HOW MANY BRAG LINES YOU NEED WHEN YOU HAVE TEA WITH YOUR SUPERFICIAL JUDGEMENTAL CHINESE LADY FRIENDS AT THE COUNTRY CLUB! LET THIS KID GET A CHANCE TO BREATHE OR ELSE HE WILL BE THE NEXT COLLEGE CAMPUS MASS SHOOTER WITH A SEMI-AUTOMATIC HE BOUGHT WITH THE WEEKLY BOBA TEA ALLOWANCE YOU GAVE HIM!” (12)
I felt smothered and I wasn’t even her kid. Then young Ken walked in and sat down next to Gary. (13)
Daddy Chan brought Ken down. He was as enthusiastic as Gary. Ken was a three-quarter sized version of his older brother.
“Hi. Older Sister,” Ken mumbles in my general direction.
Great. Another mopey-ass kid. Looking at these two skinny Chinese boys sitting side by side, legs laying straight in front of them at ninety degree angles, they looked like they were characters from some Chinese Wes Anderson movie (14) or, more likely, from old photos I’ve seen that were taken in Taiwan - when it was all about a serious face, straight-ahead look into the camera because cameras were expensive and no one had discovered the two-finger peace sign yet. From all the stories my parents tell me, back then, they were probably too hungry to know fun.
“Hey. Ken? Good to meet you,” I sputtered. “What’s your story?”
“I’m a freshman at Cal Poly Pomona,” he said.
“Ken did not have good grades,” Linda explained.
“He couldn’t even get into UC Riverside,” big brother added.
Really? You, too, Gary?
“Hey, Gary. Did you know you always wanted to do politics and urban planning? You must’ve had some other interests,” I asked.
Fortunately, at this very moment, Linda was called over to my parents’ table to help with getting something or other for them.
Gary quickly looked over to his mom and back to me, then took his opportunity.
“After Riverside I really wanted to join the Army but my mom wouldn’t let me.”
Holy crap. He DOES want to be a college campus mass shooter.
“Wow. That’s very different from what you doing now.”
“Yeah. My mom has very strong ideas,” Gary shared in a low voice.
Linda sat back down with us. I’ve had enough.
“Older Sister, I’m sorry but I need to make a phone call right now.” I politely left the conversation circle of doom.
I propped up my phone like I was talking but really I was processing all the unhappiness I witnessed. Not two minutes later, they both appeared. It was just Gary, Ken and me. No hovering mom. They edged toward me and leaned against the staircase railing giving me their full attention. Their eyes looked like those sad abused dogs and cats from that nauseating Sarah Mclachlan commercial. (15) We said nothing for a few long seconds until I broke the silence with the only words that made sense in that moment.
“What’s going on here, you guys?”
“Sorry. Our mom’s really intense,” Gary said. Ken’s hanging his head so low I almost couldn't make out the motion of his head nodding in agreement. Ken adds, "She doesn't listen to us. We try to tell her but she doesn't want to hear it. She just wants us to do what she wants."
“Don’t apologize for your mom. She thinks she's doing what’s best for you. But you both don’t seem so happy.” I looked over toward the family room area and saw that Linda was listening to my Dad do his two hundredth retelling of how he beat heart disease. I had exactly two minutes and thirty seconds.
The purpose for my being there became crystal clear: Help these Chinese kids break out of their Tiger Cage! Tiger Mom is always watching and we have this rare moment of privacy for me to share the plans to help them bust out of this joint!
This following paragraph is a near literal re-creation of what I word-vomited at them:
“Okay. Listen closely because we don’t have much time until your mom comes back. It is very, VERY important for you to find the thing that you really love. I mean, it takes practice to know even HOW to figure out what you love, but the sooner you practice the better and happier you’ll be. I totally get it. You are living at home and your parents give you housing and food. You probably have to follow their rules still. So I’m not saying stop listening to what they want. Even if you do exactly what they want you to do, every day at least carve out fifteen or even five minutes for you to just explore and dream about the kind of activities, hobbies and work that really gets you excited and happy. Slowly create and grow out that space. Write down your feelings and thoughts about it. Read a book about it. Give yourself some breathing room to just be what you want to be even if it’s for a few minutes in your day and you will feel a lot better. Eventually, maybe that thing that you explore can actually become the thing that can pay the bills and get yourself your own place. It’s not worth being so unhappy. Do you understand what I’m trying to say to you? THERE IS ANOTHER WAY.”
But in MY brain, all of the words coming out of my mouth actually said: THIS IS OUR SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION! EVERY DAY SECRETLY AND SLOWLY DIG OUT A TUNNEL BEHIND THAT RACQUEL WELCH POSTER SO THAT SOMEDAY YOU CAN CRAWL OUT THE POO-FILLED SEWER LINES OF YOUR TIGER CAGE DURING A LATE NIGHT THUNDERSTORM AND EMERGE LIKE THE SHIT-COVERED, IMPERFECT, BEAUTIFUL HUMAN BEINGS THAT YOU ARE! FREEDOM!!!
Gary and Ken were motionless. In a trance, they nodded and muttered “yeah. yeah.” under their breaths.
I left disappointed that I had met a real-life, stereotypical Tiger Mom. In the two years since, I have not checked in with Gary and Ken. I plan to do that very soon so I can share with you how they’re doing.
Now, you know Gary and Ken’s story too. This is why I wanted to start the “How to Be A Good Asian” blogs - for Gary and Ken. Their story doesn’t have to be so depressing. We need to make sure that more Garys and Kens out there have the support they need to figure out a fulfilling life that will bring them joy. Won’t you join me in this process?
What were some websites, books, friends or mentors who really helped YOU to figure out a life that didn’t necessarily fit a stereotypical “Good Asian” mold? How did you find these resources?
AngryAsianMan.com is a go to source of all things angry and enlightening. Asian American Studies classes were awesome but I didn't get that until I got to college!
Please share YOUR story, thoughts and feedback in the comment section below! (And thanks to my How To Be A Good Asian guest blogger JOE AZN for his editorial assistance on this blog. You’ll hear more about him later.)
SAVE THE LINKS!
http://HowToBeAGoodAsian.com (directs you to all the blog posts)
1. Yeah. I wish Tiger Moms wasn’t a “thing” but it is. There are parents out there who are waaaay intense about you getting good grades and racking up the accomplishments.
2. Silly. His real name wasn’t Gary. I changed it because he doesn’t know I’m writing about him.
3. The San Gabriel Valley or SGV is a large swath of land east of Los Angeles with over 50% Asian Americans in the last Census count. If you wanted to get lost in translation, White people, this is where you’d go.
4. That’s “Luoh-lun Hai” if you’re reading along in Chinese.
5. Once again, they are not the Chans. Protecting the innocent.
6. This is how I had imagined the English translation would go if my Mom spoke English to me. We are strictly Mandarin Chinese household.
7. Try not to imagine your parents having wet dreams. Not unless you're into that kinda stuff. In which case, keep it to yourself, thanks.
8. “Man, I’ve been getting really good poops lately.” “God, we’re old!” “Who died recently?”
9. Okay. Their names are not Ed and Linda. To be honest, I forgot their English names. I just called them Older Sister and Older Brother in that super Chinese way of calling people by their title in your social hierarchy so you recognize and respect people older than you who have the ancient Chinese right of scolding you for getting fat and kicking your ass if you are out of line.
10. It goes on like this. She speaks in Chinese. I speak with the kids in English...especially very quickly if we don’t want their mom to understand.
11. That’s a laser sound.
12. Sorry for yelling. LOLZ.
13. Remember, Ken’s not his name.
14. “Wes Chan-Derson”? “The Royal Channenbaums”?
15. “In the arms...of...the angel…” over a club beat is my twerk anthem.