So I read How To American – An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents by Jimmy O. Yang. Well, I read a good portion of it.
That’s right, I didn’t read every word of the book, but you can still learn a lot without reading an entire book.
If you’re not familiar, Jimmy is a 30-year old Hong-Kong American actor who plays Jian Yang on the hit TV show, Silicon Valley. He wrote a whole book on his life journey and Asian immigrant struggles. It’s a must-read for any Asian American because it hits on themes we struggle with unique to us.
It was fantastic and shocking at times. Here’s what I learned…
On Asian Parent Stereotypes
Jimmy details some of the common Asian parent ideals as an American immigrant I’m sure you can relate to. First, they believe that following your passion leads to becoming homeless. He reflects on how its the opposite of what Americans tell you: “Do what you love. Money can’t buy happiness.”
Second, college is mandatory. It’s not even an option of not going. Attending doesn’t yield praise; it means you won’t disappoint your parents.
Finally, there are the “five Chinese parent rules:”
- Respect your parents, elders, and teachers. Never talk back or challenge them.
- Education is king, over independence, happiness, or sex.
- You must payback your student loan debt to your parents. You are your parents’ retirement plan.
- Always call your elders “Uncle” or “Auntie”, never by first names.
- Family first, money second, pursue your dreams never.
Most of you are probably nodding your head in agreement, not because you agree with the rules but because you’re familiar with them.
Not all Asian Americans are the same. There are rude ones, kind ones, greedy ones, and lazy ones. Therefore, these rules and stereotypes may not apply equally. For me, the uncle and aunt rule didn’t exist. My parents were slightly more lenient with pursuing my passion. But, we’re all familiar with the general themes here.
It’s interesting how my own beliefs about success have diverged far from Asian beliefs as I’ve studied more successful people. For Jimmy, he did the same in his way. Throughout the book, he recounts how he disappointed his father by striking it out on his own as a comedian, strip club DJ, and then actor. He lived on ramen in a crappy shared room with friends for years but he loved it.
On Jimmy’s Immigrant Experience
Jimmy’s story is a bit different from mine, which is fine. It showcases the different shades of yellow out there.
He immigrated to the U.S. at 13, disliking the experience because he felt different and out-of-place. He tried to stand out in high school because he didn’t want to be seen differently as Asian and did the same in college because he didn’t want to be lumped in with the thousands of other Asians there.
He smoked weed, grew his hair out, skipped class, and listened to tons of rap. In fact, he understands the Black rap culture better than me even though I was born here. He mentions many cultural catchphrases in the book that fly over my head. He had his own Asian American identity crisis.
This is a subtly complex issue as we deal with it in our own ways. I didn’t like how Korean and Chinese groups in college would stick to themselves and only hang around others like them. Instead, I hung around people of all racial backgrounds. Was this some manifestation of dislike for myself and the negative view other Americans saw this group? I’ll leave that to my future therapist.
With Jimmy, he never understood why other Asian actors were offended and refused to act in a fresh-of-the-boat Asian accent. He takes pride in doing so because he did have that accent when he was young and its part of his history.
I, on the other hand, can understand. The accent is seen by society as unattractive and low-status. Having said that, I can respect Jimmy’s positive outlook on it.
I had only hear him speak before with a thick Asian accent on Silicon Valley. After hearing how he speaks in real life, I’m amazed how he’s removed his almost all his accent. Once in a blue moon, there are trace-remnants left at the end of sentences and with his grammar. But I am astounded by how American he is, especially given how late he immigrated. His cultural references (especially around hip hop or football) and knowledge are sometimes savvier than me, and I was born here.
I know Asians who have immigrated in their teens or adulthood. Most have kept their accents and distance with American culture, often staying confused or unfamiliar with parts of American pop culture. The only exception I can think of is Josh Paler Lin, a big YouTuber.
Jimmy is truly American. There’s no denying that after reading his book. It’s filled with cultural references that only someone familiar with the culture could understand. From hip hop jokes to film references, the book is a clear example of how a man idealized and adopted the American way of life with open arms.
I admired how honest and vulnerable he was about his failures and embarrassing stories. This wasn’t a memoir filled with triumphs, but one filled with failures and embarrassing events. He unloads on how bad things were living with his family and in a new country. But he adds in wit and humor throughout, giving everything an underlying upbeat nature.
The mediocrity and failure doesn’t stop, but continues through to college and his first few jobs, with occasional splotches of debauchery. But it’s sometimes entertaining and relatable. As an Asian American around Jimmy’s age, I relate a lot to not going to prom, not being popular, not fitting in, and wondering what I should do with my life. My life isn’t identical, so some things weren’t aligned in particular (I don’t do drugs – he does), but enough was that I got where he came from often.
As you read, you’ll find yourself nodding in familiarity with multiple Asian American experiences, such as when he was shocked how he still couldn’t get girls even though he had upgraded his job to a strip club DJ. Or when he was made fun of for the food he brings to school. Or when he tried to hang out with the couple Chinese kids at his school, only to ultimately want to branch out to other ethnicities so he doesn’t stay isolated from what it means to be American.
It’s an inspiring book that thoroughly depicts his journey. Jimmy’s journey is not over yet, and I wonder if he’ll write a sequel since so much has happened since. He took a leap of faith to pursue the American dream despite the strong parental pressure that most Asian Americans can’t overcome. After some struggle, he had a huge break with Silicon Valley, a TV show most people my age are familiar with.
Although he mentions in the book that his agent secured a series regular role on Silicon Valley early on, I’m a huge fan of the show myself and noticed that he only makes brief, cameo roles. I wouldn’t call him a prominent regular until the end of Season 4. Jimmy has gone on to make some prominent appearances since in Crazy Rich Asians and Love Had. Regardless, it shows you that there’s a chance you can live your dreams as an Asian immigrant when you land in America.
I don’t know if I can fully do what Jimmy did and just go all in on what you love with a shoestring budget until you make it. But perhaps, I can take some inspiration here to make more of my own life. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that I am not alone in my struggles and experiences as an Asian American. And it’s not the end of the world to bumble, struggle, and fail socially (and academically) through school and your first few jobs.
Jimmy lived in near-poverty and hustled through hundreds of auditions to fill stereotypical Asian roles to make it. Inspired by a commencement speech, he disregarded his parents’ disappointment to pursue his passion, and it paid off. He became a series regular in one of the hottest TV shows out now. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight.
He loved the journey and struggle because he was doing what he loved with people he loved.
Could I do the same? I’m not sure I can (yet). I don’t know if I’ve found anything so enjoyable that it’s worth living like that with the mystery of whether it will pay off.
Did Jimmy get lucky? Likely, many readers will use this as a reason that they can’t take the risks Jimmy did to live a life truer to themselves. They’ll reason that the acting industry is still too competitive and your chances of success are too low. Fair enough.
Nonetheless, Jimmy shows you that it’s possible. You can create a profitable living doing what you love in this world. He also showed the virtue of essential traits for success, including patience, work hard, and a positive attitude. Sometimes, it’ll take some wandering around from job to job for a couple decades, to find where you need to be.