Margaret Cho On Asians Behaving Badly
“There’s a relative of mine who [my parents] always compare me to. She wore men’s clothes, and she was so famously ugly that people would come from other villages to see her.”
Margaret Cho was the first Korean woman I ever heard swear in public. I was 11 years old when my older sister Jen and I went to our local Hollywood Video and rented Cho’s 2000 standup special “I’m the One That I Want.” It was a revelation. For our entire lives, we’d been expected to be obedient, studious, and quiet. Cho was cracking crude jokes about the trials and tribulations of growing up as a first-generation Asian American: Here was somebody talking about the tension between her Korean and American identities, the cultural barriers between her parents and herself, and the uphill climb to establish a creative career. Up on the TV screen, I saw myself trying to satisfy my family’s definition of “success.” Tenacious and unapologetic, Cho showed me that one day my own story could matter.
Seventeen years later, I found myself back in Cho’s thrall. I was watching the same stand-up show, but this time, my questions weren’t so much about how I fit in to the world as they were about the world itself. George Floyd had just been murdered, and I was grappling with the rise in anti-Asian violence, all the while trying to understand my father’s newfound love of Trump. No longer an awkward 6th grader, I had grown up to become an Asian American creative, not unlike Cho. Revisiting “I’m the One that I Want,” I found that her stories about her struggles with misogyny and racism were as relevant as ever. I now saw her as more than a role model. As one of the most influential Asian Americans who has worked in comedy for nearly 40 years, her defiance and stamina were a source of inspiration and strength.
I wanted to track down more than her work: I wanted to talk to the woman herself. On a spring day during the pandemic, I had a conversation with Cho, who was at home in Los Angeles, to learn more about her path -- and perhaps my own.
Refinery29: First things first: What is your favorite Korean food?
Cho: I love tofu bibimbap. I have the hot stone. I prefer to go to a restaurant for it though, because I'm too scared to make it as hot as I want it. I definitely think that there's a limitation to how hot you can get it at home. I also steam the fernbrake and the gosari. When I was growing up, my grandparents used to go to Golden Gate Park and forage for gosari, fernbrake, stuff like that. We’d eat stuff from the park. It was so shameful, but now I'm like, "That's so genius."
Refinery29: When you think about that now, all of these fine-dining, San Francisco chefs would be salivating over that idea.
Cho: Totally. It's sad to have missed out on my grandparents’ wisdom and folk remedies. My parents did it too. My dad completely rid himself of his Korean accent and he would make all of his coworkers call him Joe. My friends’ parents would call my house if I was spending the night and they would talk to my dad. And they would say to me, “I didn't know you were adopted,” because they thought my dad was white.
Refinery29: It's crazy that your dad went through all of this effort to assimilate.
Cho: Completely. I think it's also because his job was to make a lot of phone calls. This was in the '60s and '70s. He was at an insurance company working as an auditor. So he would kind of have to spy on people's finances and tell if they were lying. Foreignness was a real disadvantage.
Refinery29: Back then, an American accent must have exuded authority.
Cho: You could see Asians being very Americanized, all of our newscasters and all of the restaurants in Chinatown always had very American touches. It was not Chinese, it was American-Chinese.
Refinery29: How did growing up in San Francisco at that time influence you?
Cho: I'm really lucky because my parents bought a gay bookstore in 1978, Paperback Traffic on Polk Street. I grew up around a lot of gay artists, activists, and people who were going to Gay Pride in the '70s. Just to be there for this very intense time in history where we went through the assassination of Harvey Milk, and then we went through the AIDS crisis, which was devastating. Actually, some of the violence against Asian American happening now because of coronavirus reminds me of a lot of the homophobia around AIDS and the real rage that people had towards the gay community. They were talking about this thing that God was sending to punish gays. There's something to that mentality that corresponds with that "kung-flu," "China virus" mentality.
Refinery29: It shows that American society still has a really long way to go.
Cho: Absolutely. There are more images of Asian Americans now. But the majority of them are pretty big like "Crazy Rich Asians" or "Bling Empire" — I actually love them both, but they play into the perception of us as hyper wealthy. It’s an unrealistic view of what Asianness and Asian Americanness is. You have a lot of misdirected anger towards Asian Americans because of that perception of being hyper-wealthy and the disease coming from China.
Refinery29: I know from your work that your mom refused a man she was arranged to marry and your dad wrote joke books. I'm wondering what else from your family's past you think has shaped you today.
Cho: There is a relative of mine who they always compare me to. It was the turn of the century and she wore men's clothes. And she was so famously ugly that people would come from other villages to see her.
Refinery29: Like a drag king?
Cho: Yeah, like a drag king. She was a butch, a lesbian. They also compare me to my maternal grandfather who died very young in his fifties. He was a Labor Union leader and he ended up, after the Korean War, being part of the presidential cabinet. He drank scotch all day long in the boardroom to the bedroom, everywhere.
Refinery29: From the way they appear in your stand-up, your parents sound super cool.
Cho: Yes, they are cool but they still retain a lot of the patriarchal ideas. They're really mad at me right now because I'm single and that's not okay. They're fine if I have a girlfriend, and they're fine if I have a boyfriend, or a husband, or a wife. They just cannot handle that I'm alone. I'm actually happiest alone, which is really hard for them.
Refinery29: How have you been able to navigate your parents' expectations about your career?
Cho: They never really understood what I was doing, but fortunately, I became financially independent so early that they trusted in my career. I was on television really young, too. If they can show their friends what you're doing, that's all that matters. When you're on television, that's better than anything because nobody's kids are on TV. That was something that they could lean on for a long time, and they still do.
Refinery29: How old were you when you became financially independent?
Cho: Probably about 18. That was a combination of sex work, standup comedy, working at this BDSM collective, and then it was television. It was kind of like putting together all of these jobs, some my parents knew about and some they didn't. It actually worked out well. It gave me a foundation that working hard doesn't always mean doing a double major at Stanford.
Refinery29: How have your parents reacted to the crazy political climate right now?
Cho: They're scared. They never voted and they just keep making excuses about it even though I kept trying to get them to vote. They're like, “It's not really our country.” In their minds, even though they've been here longer than they were ever in Korea, they still don't want to participate in America. It’s also this thing of, “It's just not our business.” With Black Lives Matter too, they experienced so much racism coming here in the '60s that it's almost too traumatic to even talk about. I forced my parents to go to a white female therapist in the early 2000s and they're still traumatized.
Refinery29: Traumatized by the therapist or by their own trauma?
Cho: They're traumatized that I would make them tell their problems to this white lady. It was so horrible for them.
Refinery29: You've been so successful navigating comedy’s boys’ club despite being a woman, and a woman of color. How are you able to do that while maintaining your creative integrity and voice?
Cho: There are different kinds of people looking for comedy, and I can speak to women, and I can speak to people who don't feel safe in comedy clubs. I was able to create comedy that was for us instead of against us. That really worked to my advantage. There's an equanimity in comedy because when you're alone up there, if you're funny, then it works. If you're not, then it's not going to work. Image can only take you so far and you really have to rely on what you're saying. At that point, identity becomes an asset and being different becomes an asset.
Refinery29: Acceptance is a huge theme of your work. Do you still feel that pressure to be accepted today?
Cho: I'm 52 now. I'm sort of edging into ajumma [Korean for middle-aged woman] territory, and now it's really like: my rules, my way. I don't feel the need to have acceptance the way that I did when I was younger. Now, it's just about learning. I really learn from younger people. I really learn from people like Ali Wong, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang. These guys are so young and so smart.
Refinery29: In a 2019 interview with NPR, you say that you invented being cancelled. I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on cancel culture.
Cho: I think it is good for comedy. It makes you a better comedian, it makes you more thoughtful about what you're going to say, and how you're going to be received, and also where it's coming from. People get really mad about it, but I think it's actually good for the art form. Any time there's a repression in the society, there's a real renaissance that follows.
Refinery29: What sort of advice would you give to Asian Americans who feel like they don't fit in anywhere?
Cho: It's good to not fit in because you are unique, and you're special. And to create something different and new starts with that feeling of being an outsider. Outsider art is the best art. Whatever you do, if you're coming in from the outside, it's the best.
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.