Whether he’s ranting about how Americans think “everything sucks,” or hammering states for their revealing mottos, comedian Ronny Chieng has earned a reputation for being brutally honest and aggressively real, even bordering on curmudgeonly.
So fans may be surprised to find that the comedian is, deep down, a truly optimistic guy.
Chieng, whose Netflix special “Asian Comedian Destroys America” was released Tuesday, is celebrating his fourth anniversary in the states, having immigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia, where he was born, during the last election cycle. While Chieng's set touches on a variety of topics, much of it takes a close look at American culture through the eyes of an Asian immigrant. It’s evident that underneath the snark, Chieng, who is Chinese, is happy to be in the U.S. and isn’t afraid to rib Americans who are oblivious to their privilege.
“There’s so much stuff in America, there’s so much abundance. It’s hard to see if you’ve been born and raised here, but if you come from somewhere else, it’s so obvious,” he jokes in his special. “The abundance in this country is out of control. It’s like Christmas every day. Hyperloops, electric cars, SpaceX, robot vacuums, iPhone 8s and 10s at the same time. Can’t even wait in America.“
Chieng is now one of the most visible Asians in comedy, appearing as a correspondent on the “Daily Show” and acting in last summer’s blockbuster hit “Crazy Rich Asians." So it’s natural the comedian, who has primarily lived in Singapore and Australia before moving to the U.S., has done some ruminating over his place in Asian America. He often brings up the generational gap between those who uproot their lives to come to the country and others who were born in the U.S.
“We chose to come here. Yeah, it took us 10 years or however long it took to sacrifice to come here, but if it were really that bad, we’d go back,” he told NBC News of being a first-generation immigrant. “There’s definitely a lot of stuff that’s not working right in America, and the way that I see it is that a lot of these ideals America has, they’re aspirational. When they’re not met, I don’t go ‘this place f------ sucks.’ I go, ‘Well this is a work in progress.’”
He isn’t alone in his optimism. A study on working Asian Americans in California found that 69 percent of Asian Americans born outside of the U.S. believe in the American Dream, defined as “if you work hard, you will get ahead,” while 43 percent of those born in the states do.
From his point of view, Chieng understands why Asian immigrants aren’t the most civically engaged group or aren’t known to speak out against injustice. He feels that many have accepted the trade-off of giving up certain freedoms as newcomers for the opportunities that come with living in the U.S. It’s a matter of perspective, he says.
“I think the first generation of immigrants, we see institutional racism or some problem blocking us, we just go around it,” he said. “You don’t feel like America owes you citizenship. So when you’re here, you’re like: “Is this place good or not? If it’s better than where I came from, I”m just going to stay here.’”
In his time in the U.S., Chieng has also witnessed the Trump administration’s crackdowns on legal and illegal immigration. Though he’s called much of the policies and other actions from the administration “presidential bulls---,” Chieng maintains that there’s yet to be anything about the country that’s made him regret his move.
With another election cycle upon us, Chieng has taken a particular interest in Democratic candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign, especially since historically the field hasn’t exactly been crowded with Asian candidates.
Yang remains the first Asian American man to run for president as a Democrat. His campaign is undeniably significant, considering Asians have been stereotyped as obedient, hard workers rather than strong, pioneering leaders. Research on several industries from tech to the legal profession to finance found that Asians were least likely to be promoted to management.
“When’s the last time an Asian person was running for president this late in the game?” Chieng asked. “I just think it’s fun to see this Chinese guy run for president. I don’t think we’ve ever seen someone do it. He’s doing better than a lot of people thought when he started."
He added, “He can’t be worse than the guy in charge.”
Chieng is transparent that he’s been looking at the election through the lens of a comedian, which is why he often thinks of Yang’s run in terms of jokes. But it raises the question: What does he think of Yang’s Asian jokes, which have been the subject of controversy within the Asian American community.
Turns out, Chieng is impressed Yang has brought a bit of levity to the campaign, saying that people “don’t expect a presidential candidate to joke like that. ... It’s a very stuffy conversation.”
As for the content of the jokes, well, Chieng described Yang’s brand of humor as “an Asian dad making Asian dad jokes.”
“He’s not getting a Netflix special anytime soon,” he said.