In 1994, Margaret Cho was the first Asian-American person I’d ever seen on TV.
She was amongst the first 10 Korean people I’d seen in my entire life. The sum of which included my immediate family members, two cousins, and a few family friends.*
The first time I saw her was on a New Year’s Eve show. She told a joke about a white lady on the plane asking her, “What do you Asians like to do on NYE?” It was a joke about representation — about being asked to speak for millions of people around the world who were actually from dozens of distinct cultures — when in fact she was just as much a US native as the woman asking the question. At the time, I didn’t have this analysis. I only knew that she gave my injustice a voice.
Margaret Cho’s mere public existence helped me accept that I wasn’t white. Margaret Cho’s comedy taught me I was not alone: We both were ostracized for our racial differences. We both got asked, “What ARE you?” and “Where are you from?” when the answer was really, “San Francisco.”
On Saturday, I saw Margaret perform for the third time live, this time in San Francisco. Thirteen years after I first saw her Grand Marshal at San Francisco Gay Pride, she told a few of the same treasured stories about her mother she had shared back then. Stories of her mother and father’s leap from immigration to owning a gay bookstore; her mother introducing her to the concept of “gay” (“when two men love each other so much they treat each other like women”); her mother’s view on gay sex (“you must have ass in moderation, otherwise it’s not special”); her mother’s approval of her stand-up career.
Margaret’s impression of her mom is accented and spot-on. I think her impression is hilarious because it validates my own mother’s accent. Margaret portrays her mom as wise, quirky, and ultimately accepting of everyone.
I like to think that my mother is, too.
My mom once wrote me an email after I went to college. She had taken a day trip to Berkeley — coincidentally, on the same day as the Berkeley Gay Pride Parade.
“Dear Elisa,” she wrote.
“We went to Berkeley and there was some type of a parade. There were many people wearing interesting clothes. There was even a man who was only wearing his socks.”
More recently, my mother told me a story of a person who’d worked in her office. One day, the man had come to work wearing dresses. After passing some weeks in women’s clothes, he’d suddenly quit without a word. He just stopped coming to work.
I am sure the word “transgender” is nowhere in my mother’s vocabulary.
“Isn’t that sad?” she asked me. “He must have felt like he didn’t belong anywhere.”
Maybe my Mom would have been comfortable the other night at the Masonic. The audience was a loyal one. Fans had been sitting in those seats for 10 years now, some even for 20. Behind me, people gasped between laughs, “She’s amazing.”
There were also lots of people there alone. One Asian-American guy holding a batch of comics. An old black woman with a cane. A lot of middle-aged queers in the lobby.
For a moment, it’s sad to think people might have no friends who relate to the raunchy and political side to them. Then, it’s awesome to think that one person can bring together all the loners or misfits, even in a city like San Francisco. It’s awesome to think Margaret has the power to make the space safe for us.
“I was jealous of Asians who lived in Asia, because all they see is other Asians,” Margaret said on Saturday.
“Here in America, we’re seen as foreigners because we’re not white, even though we belong here. And in Asia, we’re seen as foreigners. So where do we go?”
The Masonic was where we went.
Thank you, Margaret Cho.
*(In the mid-90’s, there were no Asian American people anywhere in popular media. I later learned in college that Asian Americans had auditioned for movies for 70 years, only to be denied roles or cast as “Asian prostitute #3.”)
PS: Get your Mother tickets and tour schedule here.
PPS: Photo credit by Rodney Ho from here.
PPS: Yes, the post discusses only 2 people. If you, the reader, happens to be Kore-Am, insert yourself into the list as the “3rd best” Korean American.