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.