April 05, 2018


How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents. By Jimmy O. Yang. Da Capo. $27.

     The title’s implication, and the author cover photo showing Jimmy O. Yang waving a small American flag with one hand while holding a beer in the other, sitting in a chair with a football on the floor on one side and snack foods spilling onto the floor on the other, certainly combine to imply that How to American will be a romp of some sort. But this turns out, rather quickly, to be misleading. Yes, Yang is a comedian, and yes, his chosen profession initially got little parental support – the book’s back cover even includes a quote from “Jimmy’s Dad” to the effect that “Jimmy is not funny.” But this is not a comedy book per se, and certainly not the sort of written-out version of an existing comedy act that sometimes passes for a book by an entertainer whose job is to generate laughter. Instead, How to American is a memoir, and at times a surprisingly affecting one.

     Yang was born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States just before starting high school. Amusingly, he learned English by watching Black Entertainment Television and seeing rap videos – and he got into standup comedy after college with stories like the one about his white friends asking him to order Chinese food in Mandarin, even at Panda Express from a server named Consuela. When it comes to trying to break into comedy, Yang’s experience is not really all that unusual, although his way of commenting when things go well is a bit offbeat: “The crowd ate it up like it was orange chicken with a side of chow mein.” The financial reality, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward: “I didn’t get paid a single penny that night, but I did score a six-pack of Bud Light.” Other “nonmonetary payments for a stand-up set,” Yang explains, include “weed,” “high-fives,” “unsolicited career advice,” and “one food item from the left side of the menu.”

     Professionally, Yang’s career took off after he landed a role on the HBO series Silicon Valley. But How to American is not simply a success story filled with self-praise – it is more interesting and amusing than that. Each chapter is a how-to of some sort: “How to Get High,” “How to Strip Club DJ,” “How to Hollywood,” etc. Within many chapters are subsections with titles such as “Too Cool for Prom, but Not Really,” “I Got Arsenio Canceled,” and “Lap Dance Salesman.” The material within the chapters and subchapters is not particularly revelatory, so what makes the book worth reading is the way Yang describes what has happened to him. For instance, discussing “ten extra minutes on stage” at one point, he explains, “It’s like being on a first date and completely running out of things to say, so you sit there twiddling your thumbs wanting to kill yourself, except instead of one girl judging you, it’s a hundred drunk people judging you on a brightly lit stage.”

     It is the self-deprecating sense of humor, more than Yang’s eventual success at landing the role of Jian Yang on Silicon Valley, that is really of interest here, although the book may have particular appeal for fans of the show who want the inside story, such as it is, of one of the program’s stars. It is, to be sure, sometimes a bit hard to know just how seriously to take what Yang says, since some of the occurrences he describes are so clichéd: “I was so flustered, I forgot how to be nervous.” “I was suddenly thrown into a fantasy world.” What is not difficult, though, is to empathize with Yang, his attempt to fit in after a move to a new and strange country, his friendly writing style that makes it difficult to do anything but like him, his eventual success, his willingness to say things such as, “The day you buy your 55-inch flat screen and throw away your old Zenith tube TV is one of the best days of your life.” There is nothing profound in How to American, nothing revelatory about life in general or Hollywood in particular; but there is a great deal about what it feels like in the 21st century to be a recent immigrant to the United States (a legal immigrant; no big sociopolitical stances here), and to have the pluck and luck to succeed in a new country. For today’s immigrants, unlike so many of those who passed through Ellis Island more than a century ago, there remains a strong tie to “where I came from” rather than a desire to escape fully from “the old country” – or at least this is so for Yang. He encapsulates the feeling in one of his most-sensitive sentences, after a visit to the place where he was born: “When I came home to LA from Hong Kong, I felt like I had left my real home to come back to the place I called home.” Yang is not a deep thinker, but that is a deeper thought than many memoirs ever produce.

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