In his new book How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents, Silicon Valley‘s Jimmy O. Yang recalls several awkward instances of fandom from when people first started recognizing him as his character, Jian Yang. “I don’t mind being called Jian Yang,” he writes, “but I have noticed there’s always a hesitation when they ask me that question. Because if I wasn’t the guy who played Jian Yang and I was just some random Asian guy, they would look super racist.” The stand-up comedian turned actor understands such hesitation, but as a first-generation Chinese immigrant (and now naturalized American citizen), Yang also takes it as a compliment.
“I take [it] as a compliment in terms of the acting,” he explains to us. “It’s a very interesting thing, where I’m very proud of this character and the work I’ve done to create and mold him… but at the end of the day he’s an immigrant with an accent.” As Yang writes in How to American, and according to what he tells us below, however, the 30-year-old entertainer also recognizes how problematic these situations are, or can be. Hence why he wrote the book in the first place. “I want to share my story of being an immigrant, a real American story of being an outsider looking in,” he says. “I think that’s more impactful than trying to convince people to agree with me.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the comedy actor dislikes being famous for his character’s prank calls and constant back-and-forth with T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman for four seasons. In fact, Yang fully embraces the exaggerated, comedic characterization of the Chinese immigrant experience that Jian Yang presents to Silicon Valley‘s audience, and takes getting everything right about him very seriously.
What do your parents think about the book’s subtitle?
My dad puts humor before everything else, as you can see after reading the book. So he was pretty okay with it. He gets it, and he actually started reading it, to my surprise. He called me yesterday and said, “This is pretty well written.” But then he was telling me stuff like, “When you talked about cooking the rice poorly, I didn’t say ‘motherfucker.’ I didn’t say that.” And I’m like, “You did, you did that in Shanghai. Remember when?” I reminded him about it and he was like, “Oh yeah.”
There’s plenty in the book about Silicon Valley and other things people know you from, but it’s mostly about your experience as a Chinese immigrant in the United States. What initially sparked this idea, to write a book about growing up and experiencing that?
I’ve always been doing stand-up and the thing about it is, you have to get a laugh every few seconds or so. There’s an expectation that you have to make it really funny and fast, but I want to share something more meaningful and more impactful. I have all these great stories from when I first came to this country, like my first time going to El Pollo Loco and learning English and pop culture from BET. I don’t want to put things like that in a laugh-every-five-seconds format. I thought I would do something more emotionally honest, something that people could really relate to and grasp. Maybe, hopefully, I could even make them feel a little better about themselves after seeing that someone else had experienced what they had coming to this country.