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Off Color: What's A 'Good Asian' Like Jenny Yang Doing on Stage?

In the latest "Off Color," Jenny Yang opens up about being a "good Asian," finding her own path, and helping others to find theirs too.
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"Off Color" is an occasional series exploring the intersection of race and comedy in Asian America.

Some comedians are born into the role, natural performers from the start. Others grow into it over time. For most of Jenny Yang's life, the idea that she would one day make people laugh for a living was, well, a joke.

"I feel like there's a certain population of comics who say, 'oh yeah, I was the class clown,' or 'my mom's hilarious and I performed for my aunties,'" said Yang. "That was not me at all."

Yang was born in Taiwan, and immigrated to the U.S. when she was five. She was raised in Southern California in a fairly traditional Chinese household. A career in comedy was never on the table.

"I didn't even know how to tell jokes in Chinese, and we only spoke Chinese in the house," she recalled.

But in the story of how Jenny Yang the Immigrant A-Student became Jenny Yang the Comedian, there is one element often echoed in other comedians' stories, one sliver of her identity that compelled her to break from the mold.

"I always felt like an outsider. Mostly because I was an immigrant. Mostly because I was from Taiwan," said Yang. "I grew up around a lot of other Asian Americans, Latinos, and Black people. But I felt like I was the minority within the minority because there was no one else like me."

"I always felt like a weirdo."

The stories Yang rattles off about growing up around Torrance, California would be instantly familiar to many. The younger sister to two older brothers, she spent her adolescence living up to her parents' expectations, getting good grades, and acting out only in "socially-sanctioned ways." Her public, English-speaking life at school was separate from her private, Chinese-speaking life at home. Culture was at the heart of her family structure.

"I'm pretty Chinese, dude," Yang laughed. "We have non-ironic Chinese calligraphy on my walls. I go home for dinner holidays and we bow and pray to my patriarchal ancestors...If I describe these rituals to average Americans, it sounds pretty weird!"

College at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore exposed Yang to her first "majority-White" environment, and awakened in her a need to extend beyond the model minority stereotype she says she'd been perpetuating.

"It is in part fulfilling the immigrant dream for my parents, but I don't think it was a conscious choice," she said. "I kind of did the whole checklist of a good kid - I was a good student, a 'good Asian.' And once I got through most of that checklist I finally felt more free to pursue something that might be off the beaten path."

That impulse first led her down the road of social activism, working to empower those who didn't fit with the majority culture and giving them a voice. She spent some time with an Asian-American non-profit, later moving to policy work in the labor movement.

"I was making that my career, moving up quickly and becoming a proper yuppie," said Yang. "And I liked it! I enjoyed shopping full price at Anthropologie! It was great!"

But the achievement-oriented Yang quickly burned out in a field fueled by midnight oil. Her creative side, she says, a side she knew existed, was not being fulfilled. It was only at this stage - having graduated high school, left home for college, and establishing her professional career - that Jenny Yang realized she was actually pretty funny.

"And it was only into my adult life that I realized my family was actually very sarcastic and funny, too," she recalled. "My brain compartmentalized family-Chinese-speaking life separately. It never registered."

The really concise version of how Yang transitioned from the career she thought she was supposed to have, to the career she wanted to try to have, goes like this: "I put in my time as a good Asian. And then I decided to do what made me happy."

Image: Comedian Jenny Yang
Comedian Jenny Yang performs at Echoes Under Sunset, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Los Angeles, California. Jenny Yang is a Los Angeles-based writer and stand up comedian who draws upon her life experiences to entertain audiences with her biting commentary.Jim Seida / NBC News
"We grew up making fun of white people."

In comedy, as with any composition, the guiding principle is to write what you know. Yang pulled from her experiences growing up, her family stories, and her time working for economic and social justice, to craft her specific blend of comedy.

"I grew up looking at Asian-American kids who were cool, who were academic, who were homecoming kings. To me, to be able to have that voice, to have that perspective, it was only natural," said Yang. "It might be kind of messed up, but we grew up making fun of white people."

The power of Yang's comedy is in the public proclamation of once-very-private conversations. The titles of her web videos, produced for BuzzFeed, hint at the potential controversy within - "If Asian Said the Stuff White People Say," and "Ask an Asian."

"When the opportunity came to help contribute to that and perform, honestly it was like breathing," said Yang. "I was like, 'Oh I can tell you exactly what Asian Americans think about how white people might treat them!'"

In many ways, Yang is the girl next door. Her comedic tone is casual. She is animated, adopting roles as necessary to advance the narrative. Her performance, even from up on stage, feels more like a chat between friends. But instead of talking about every day topics (which she also does) Yang uses the same style to talk about cultural stereotypes, and politics, and race.

"As a woman and as an Asian-American and as an immigrant, for me to do stand-up comedy is probably not the norm," Yang said. "I like to talk about being Asian American because if I had my way, I wish more Asian Americans felt that they could be outside of the box a lot more."

"If you're not a white, straight, male comic you often have to at least confront the question of how you represent yourself"

Yang confesses that it's common for Asian-American audience members to seek her out after shows, and confide in her their own anxieties and dreams - complaining about being unhappy in jobs, sharing their admiration for her, and worrying in hushed tones about living up to the expectations set out for them.

"People have cried to me about this," Yang said, somewhat teary herself. "It's so real. It's so honest. And I don't think people realized how much it's a problem...It's a huge problem for our community and it's just the tip of the iceberg."

"We just need to talk more about it."

For her part, Yang stills uses the skills gained in her previous career to push forward her own career, and those of fellow, female comedians of color.

"If you're not a white, straight, male comic you often have to at least confront the question of how you represent yourself," said Yang. "Even if you don't discuss it, you have to confront it. It's part of the path you have to walk over."

Her "Disoriented Comedy" tour, launched in 2012, focuses exclusively on elevating the voices of female Asian-American comics. Yang organizes the comedians, finds the group gigs, and produces and publicizes the shows - which have largely ended up all sold out or standing-room-only.

What began as an informal support network online has turned into a national showcase for the next generation of storytellers. Yang hosts, performs, and continues to encourage the people around her.

"If I were to boil my mission in comedy - and life - it would be to be more human," she said. "That's what I want for myself and for others."

"We just need to talk more about it, more honestly about our stories. That's really what we need to do."

Image:Comedian Jenny Yang
Comedian Jenny Yang performs at Echoes Under Sunset, Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Los Angeles, California.Jim Seida / NBC News