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.
I just don’t see a lot of that kind of material out there, especially humorous stuff about immigrants and their experiences, because I know when I first came to this country, I was pretty lost. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. So I definitely wanted to write something for the immigrants out there, especially Chinese immigrants like me, but also anyone who grew up up in Chinese families. Even just people who felt out of place, because I wanted to help them feel more normal. I wanted to do it in an honest way too, so stand-up wasn’t a format that could work for this. I even took some time off from stand-up to do it so I could just let the ideas percolate and write down the stories I thought would stick. All of this led to the book.
With that in mind, are there plans to translate the book from English?
Yeah, I think so. It would be great to translate it into Mandarin, Cantonese, and a ton of other languages. I would like to even oversee the process of translating it into Mandarin, or Chinese in general. But there is a lot of cultural humor and verbiage that gets lost in a process like that, because the book is very much in my voice. I can’t control the French or Italian versions, if those versions ever come about, because I don’t know how to speak those languages. But I would definitely like to give it a little more thought for the Chinese version. I could maybe even do a Chinese audiobook version. We’ll see.
But I also don’t want this book to just be for immigrants, or anyone who’s had the immigrant experience. It’s my hope that anyone who has immigrated to the U.S. can relate to my story, but I also want anyone who hasn’t experienced that — people on the outside looking in to see what we go through in a honest way — to get something out of it. I don’t have any ulterior motives or anything. I just want people to read my story.
It poses an interesting juxtaposition with your Silicon Valley character, Jian Yang, who is essentially an exaggerated, comedic version of the immigrant experience. General audiences probably misinterpret that often, and you spend a chunk of the book addressing it. The way you approach it was quite fascinating.
I’m in an interesting position in which I play the Jian Yang character, which is a kind of version of myself, in a sense. But people really think that’s who I am, which I take as a compliment in terms of the acting, to be honest, but a lot of people this thing where they see me in public and they want to say hello, but they’re worried it’s not me. The first thing they say when they meet me is, “Oh my God, I didn’t think you could actually speak English that well.” They thought I spoke with the same accent as Jian Yang, which, again, I take as a kind of compliment. Then again, nobody ever went up to Johnny Depp and said, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you weren’t actually a pirate.” 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, into a kind of asshole in the show, but at the end of the day he’s an immigrant with an accent.
I know a lot of Asian actors that don’t like to do roles with accents, but the thing is, I had an accent. I still kind of have an accent. So my job is to not necessarily avoid these roles, but to make them as likable, as believable, as funny, and as sexy as possible. There are people like Jian who exist out there in the world. I mean, Sofia Vergara has a very thick accent and people think that’s sexy. Why aren’t Asian accents sexy? I want to help my Asian immigrant brothers with accents out there get laid. [Laughs.] That’s my goal.
Reading your story, and with my being a white man who grew up in the U.S. and has never experienced anything like it, I was fascinated by how you taught yourself pop culture. It’s not something someone like me automatically thinks about.
I’m glad that you see it from a different perspective, because I think everyone knows their own life and that’s the truth of who they are. Whatever your parents taught you, whatever you experienced, that’s your truth. It’s important to see all of these different perspectives in that light, and for me, it was important to understand my American friends’ perspective on things. To realize they grew up very differently from the way I did. Yet somehow we all ended up in the same place, and maybe we share the same viewpoints. Or maybe we don’t. It’s always fascinating for me to see where other people are coming from, so that’s why I wanted to share my point of view as a Chinese immigrant to America, and I’m glad that you find that interesting.
Since getting the part of Jian Yang and exploring him further on Silicon Valley, what has your involvement been with Mike Judge in terms of preserving the immigrant experience? Yes, it’s a comedy show, but I would like to think they involved you since you have more knowledge of that experience.
Writers like Alec Berg, Dan O’Keefe, and Clay Tarver are geniuses. I mean, they’re all geniuses really. They create such a great script and they’ve written such a wonderful character with Jian Yang. I’m sure he was based on somebody they had interacted with in the Valley, or someone they grew up with as a roommate in college or elsewhere, because they actually have a pretty good sense of what that kind of person is like already. Sometimes I give them a few ideas beforehand or when we’re on set, so as to approach certain things in a certain way.
For example, I’m always thinking about certain words I don’t think a Chinese immigrant like Jian would say. I always use my mom as a gauge. She’s been here for a while, but she still speaks with a thick accent. She’s a bit shy with her English, so there just certain words, phrases, and expressions — like some popular slang — that she never says. It’s not in her vocabulary. So when I see anything like that on the script, I’ll sometime bring it up with the writers, just to work things out. Then again, I think it’s the job of an actor to try to the best of your ability make those lines work in context. Maybe Jian would say a certain word or phrase because he heard somebody else say it and didn’t realize what it was. Like the whole prank call gag. A Chinese immigrant wouldn’t necessarily know what any of that is. I barely know what it all means, but maybe Jian heard somebody else make a prank call and he’s simply emulating them in a half-assed, less than successful way.
In doing that, I was still able to keep it authentic. I could still get into the mindset of Jian as created by Mike and the writers and make it my own. I always approached it with the memories of who I was when I first came to this country 15 years ago. When I approach it with that mindset, it’s like, “Why would little 13-year-old Jimmy sat that?” Or, “Where did he learn to say that?” Stuff like that, as well as the character’s body language. It’s all collected from things I remembered about myself from 15 years ago.
You write about how working with T.J. Miller helped you and your character, as well as Miller’s departure from the series.
At first, when T.J. called me and he said he wasn’t coming back to the show, I was kind of sad. He’s one of my best friends on the show and I was kind of worried. Because our two characters have been such a great team for so many years. It made me worry there wasn’t going to be a lot of stuff for Jian Yang to do. But then when the scripts started coming out, it actually kind of turned into a blessing in disguise, because somebody has to fill that void in the show and that someone was my character. I basically took on a lot of Erlich’s responsibilities in the story. So I think audiences are going to see Jian grow, and by “grow,” I mean you might see him become more of an asshole. Plus, I get to interact with more of the other characters more often now, so hopefully we’ll find a great dynamic for the new grouping. There’s a lot of good stuff this year. I’m really excited for everyone to see it.
Having the opportunity to do more improv with such a great comedy cast can’t be a bad thing.
Everyone’s so great on the show. Alec Berg was saying, I think in a Hollywood Report article, that we’re like the Golden State’s Warriors. We have a deep bench. We have a deep cast. So when you pass the ball to anyone, or when you put another teammate in the game, everybody scores. It’s great that I get to play with some of the other people, and that everyone is so good. I admire them all so much. It’s been kind of exciting to expand my horizons. I mean, me and T.J. had something special with Jian and Erlich, but it’s also exciting for my character to work and talk to other people. It lets him spread his wings a little more.
The book’s final chapter, “How to American,” starts appropriately with your story about becoming an American citizen in 2015. Speaking of which, congratulations.
Thanks! It took me a while because it costs a lot of money. It cost me something like $700 to go through the whole process, and I’m not unpatriotic or anything, but I just didn’t have the $700 I needed to do it until I got the Silicon Valley role. And it’s great. At first, I was just like, “I’ve been qualified. I’ve been a citizen for so long already.” I mean, I felt like an American already since I’d been living in the U.S. for so long, so I told myself officially becoming a citizen was more semantics than anything. But when I actually went there for the whole ceremony they put on, the naturalization ceremony, I was surprised at how emotional it was. It’s so intense, but it’s also very cool. Except for their playing Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American” on repeat, of course.
Is that really how you’re going to introduce people to America? With a Lee Greenwood song and a crappy music video? We have so much more to offer than that. Pick any new Rihanna song or any Jay-Z classic. I feel like that would really showcase a more true and brighter version of America than Lee Greenwood.
For a book about immigration, How to American tends not to dwell too often on the more politicized aspects of its subject.
I want to share my story of being an immigrant, a real American story of being an outsider looking in who later became an insider of sorts, and the process of how that all went down. I want both sides to look at this story and come up with their own conclusion. Maybe you’ll be moved by it and think, “Now I get it. This makes immigrants and immigration not seem so foreign or threatening to me. This guy actually went through a lot of bullshit.” Or, “This was actually a funny story and I enjoyed reading it.” I didn’t want to hit people over the head with a message. I believe what I believe, and I want people to come up with their own conclusions after reading my story. Hopefully, it will familiarize everyone with what immigrants really go through in this country, and how I specifically got to where I am because of that experience. I think that’s more impactful than trying to convince people to agree with me.
That makes sense.
It’s just more fun that way. Not everybody has to be a politician. My job as an entertainer is to entertain, and that’s what I’m trying to do through my story, but it helps you be more informed too, that’s great! But really, I just want people to read this book, enjoy it, laugh, and feel something. So if I did that, I did my job. I’m not going to be one of those talking heads on CNN trying to convince you to agree with my point of view, or else I would’ve run for office or something.
You have a gazillion things coming up in the next few years, including two films with Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders) and the highly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians. But with all of those projects, as well as Silicon Valley and promoting the book, do you still manage to squeeze in some stand-up?
Yeah, man. I actually did some stand-up last night at the Hollywood Improv. It’s great right now, because the pressure is off when I do stand-up these days, as opposed to back in the day when I was worrying about trying to find a manager, whether agents were in the audience, or if a club was even going to have me back. Now I’m just having fun with it, which is so great. I’m so blessed that I’m at this point right now. I’m no longer trying to do stand-up to get a job on a TV show. I’m really able to talk about what I want to talk about whenever I go on stage, and especially since I wrote this book, I’ve been able to pull more material like it for comedy. I actually want to turn some of the book’s stories into something for the stand-up format, or maybe even a one-man show. I’m exploring different things.
Jimmy O. Yang’s new book, How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents, is now available in bookstores. The fifth season of Silicon Valley airs Sundays at 10 pm ET/PT on HBO.