When I went to the special live screening of the “Constance Wu Has No Gay-dar” episode of ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” I not only got to meet comedienne Jenny Yang (now scheduled for a June interview!) but also Jeff Yang. In case you don’t know who he is, he’s the understandably proud father of Hudson Yang, who plays the young Eddie Huang in this new hit sitcom. He’s the former publisher of the then-largest circulation Asian American magazine, as well as a writer, journalist, businessman, and business-consultant. In other words, if Yang isn’t Ground Zero for Asian American culture, he’s lives pretty darn close to it.
Back on February 19, 2015, he wrote a blog about the cringe-worthy feud between Lela Lee (creator of the Angry Little Asian Girl comic series) and Phil Yu (proprietor of the Angry Asian Man blog site). As I’ve only been following this fracas from a safe distance, this blog isn’t about that. However, it’s what Yang wrote in the middle of his blog that has prompted my response here. So first, take a look at this section:
The fact is, that group of people — involved, active, aspirational Asian Americans, who care about our community and want to see it grow — is not yet a very big population. It’s a fragment of a fragment of a fragment, if you will: Out of our 18 million plus number, about a third is recent immigrant and non-English speaking; of the 12 million remaining, over half doesn’t actively identify as Asian American (e.g., they’re more likely to define themselves as “just American” or by their specific ethnicity in most circumstances).
And of the less than 6 million remaining, perhaps half, if we’re lucky, are active and participatory in what one might call the Asian American enterprise — creating and consuming our discrete culture, advancing our political issues, engaged in the larger conversation around who we are, what we do, and where we’re going. So let’s call it 3 million individuals.
That’s by any definition a small pond. It’s the reason why Asian American “mass” mediums — movies, music, and yes, TV — have had such a hard road historically in trying to establish themselves as more than just obligatory niches: To make any kind of a business case, you have to get a ridiculously large percentage of those 3 million people to buy into what you’re doing.
Or you need to grow the market. You can do that by crossing over — appealing to non-Asians. That’s certainly a viable strategy. In fact, it’s ultimately a critical one. But doing so often means compromise, and there is always a necessary conversation over what constitutes too much dilution of our message, too deep a sacrifice of our priorities. Talk to Justin Lin about this. Hell, talk to Eddie Huang.
Which brings us to the other option: Getting more Asian Americans on board. Building a market of our own — of people who support one another’s projects, who are actively engaged with and eager to embrace the unique and vibrant stories and images and voices and ideas that our diverse and dynamic community has always produced, to little response.
When I read this, especially the last paragraph cited, I nearly jumped out of my shoes. This is one of the primary reasons for this podcast! Our hope, our dream, is to use this small but growing platform to support a vast array of projects by Asian American innovators and activists, artists and leaders, both known and unknown, who are all using various avenues and approaches to give substance and shape to the emerging Asian American culture.
As Yang wrote, more Asian Americans (among the 3 million cited), need to “get on board,” and this podcast is my latest effort to help build this market. How can you support one of these amazing people or what they’re doing if you’ve never heard of them or what they’re up to? The Internet has definitely provided an alternative to having to wait for the mainstream media to decide to put their microphones in front of our Asian American faces, but I seriously doubt that YouTube or Twitter are the best ways to get to know what makes these special people tick. Or what motivates them to keep pursuing their dreams and goals in spite of being overlooked and pigeon-holed. Podcasts like “Asian America” aim to help enlarge the base of informed and enthralled Asian Americans. Your listening to these is part of what’s accomplishing this goal. Your subscribing is another way to move us closer. But your recommending “Asian America” to your circle of friends—Asian American or not—is a huge step in the right direction.
In talking with Jeff Yang after the screening, he promised that he’d let me interview him. His one condition: that FOTB was renewed for an unprecedented second season, which would then bring him to LA for the filming. So because the show was renewed, Jeff will be sitting across from me in the foreseeable future. He’s definitely someone I want to know better. And as I get to know him, so will you.
Thanks for Popping In!
My entire life I’ve been interested in people. All kinds of people. From various backgrounds and diverse points of view. Even some who made me quite uncomfortable and, I’m sure, there’s been even more that have felt uncomfortable talking to me. At least initially.
As someone who unapologetically identifies as a Christian—a Baptist, even—I’ve often taken some folks by surprise when I show an interest in getting to know them. And that was even before I added the “pastor” label to my already off-putting “Baptist” one. Over twenty years ago I had just started volunteering at a well-established secular Asian American drug rehab center in the Crenshaw (“hood”) district of LA, Initially, most of the staff were highly suspicious of why I would want to lead a monthly Bible study for their residents. But I soon proved myself worthy of their trust enough for them to invite me to fly with them to a national AAPI conference on substance abuse. I was touched that they wanted to include me, so of course I went.
Oh boy. Talk about being a fish out of water. Every other delegate at the conference was involved in fighting substance abuse in Asian American and Pacific Islanders. I’m sure that some of them were also Christians, but I was the only one with a name tag that read “Rev.” Carrying that label, in that progressive crowd, was literally like painting a bull’s eye on my forehead. I’d start a conversation with someone, who then would glance down to read my tag. And then our chitchat would slam to a sudden stop. The person would abruptly state, “You’re a minister? A Baptist minister? What are you doing here? Asian American Christians turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the rampant drug and alcohol problems that plague all our communities.”
My response was always the same: “You’re absolutely right. And I’m ashamed of our apathy. I’ve never been concerned about these problems, but that’s starting to change. I’m here to learn from people like you so that I can lead our church to be part of the finding solutions and addressing the needs of addicts and their families. I wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t’ true.”
And in the very next moment, each person’s hostility would melt. They’d smile and extend a hand, saying, “Well then, welcome, Rev. Fong. I’m glad to meet someone like you.” By the end of that conference, having shared many meals, attended numerous workshops that mostly were beyond my comprehension, and after making many of them laugh out loud, a number of them would exclaim, “You know what, Rev. Fong? You’re okay. In fact, you’re making me rethink some of my biases against Christians. In fact, if your church was closer to me, I’d even consider popping in from time to time.”
So over the years, I’ve managed to make connections with a mind-boggling array of fascinating Asian Americans. Some you’ve already heard about but would love to get to know them better. And some you’ve never heard of but I would love for you to meet them and learn from what they’ve done or are doing today. This podcast will give you a convenient way to “pop in from time to time” to hear from people—including me—which I guarantee will be an enjoyable and worthwhile investment of your time and attention.
I’ve never limited my circle of relationships to people who share my particular beliefs or view of the world. So my guests won’t necessarily be Christians, but that doesn’t mean we won’t touch on spiritual things if need be. Some of them I’ve known for years. Some I’ll be meeting in person for the first time during the interview. And some I knew a long time ago, and this podcast is bringing us back together to hear how we’ve changed and stayed the same.
It’s my producer Chris Wong’s and my goal to release one new podcast every week, so we hope that you’ll subscribe so that you won’t miss any of the episodes. It’s been a big investment of our time so far, but we’ve had a blast pulling this together. We’d be thrilled if you helped us spread the word about “Asian America: The Ken Fong Podcast” through all your social networks about this new place on The Web where Asian America’s culture-makers and –shapers—past, present, and up-and-coming—are coming to share their passions, their dreams, their failures, and their lessons.