Open Love Letter to Ali Wong
an article by Olivia Stark
Dear Asian Youth,
When was the first time you saw yourself represented in the media? I’m not talking about Mulan or Princess Jasmine. I mean the first time you really felt represented; that magical feeling of watching TV, reading a book, or seeing a movie, and thinking “whoever created this just gets me”. The sad fact of it is, unless you’re a white dude, that feeling is so rare it barely comes around once in a global pandemic. This is why I was so pleasantly surprised when a new stand-up comedian entered the scene, who is not only a badass Asian American woman, but one who centers her content around the very experience of being a badass Asian American woman and the unique struggles and celebrations that come with that intersection of identities. This woman is the one and only Ali Wong.
The first time I heard about Ali Wong was when her first stand up comedy special, Baby Cobra, came out on Netflix. I had never been very into watching stand up comedy before, because I’m honestly not a huge fan of watching white guys with dangerously high levels of self-confidence tell racist and misogynistic jokes to an overeager audience. But something was different about Ali’s set. For one, she wasn’t a white guy, so that helped tremendously. But beyond that, all of her jokes just seemed to resonate so deeply with me that it felt like she knew me, and I knew her. I remember one bit she had in that specific special about financial security. She said she strives to be at the financial level where she could afford pre-sliced mango from Whole Foods that was sliced by white people. I couldn’t really pinpoint why that was so funny to me, or why it just felt so accurate and relatable, or why truly all of her silly jokes just made me feel so understood. I realized it was because, unlike the white dudes I referred to earlier, Ali doesn’t need to put others down in order to be funny. Not only is she talented enough to create comedy gold out of simply telling her life experiences, but she also brings these experiences to a platform from which Asian American women have been historically excluded. Ali Wong made me realize that I don’t hate stand-up comedy. On the contrary, I actually love stand-up comedy. This was just the first time I had heard a stand-up set that touched on experiences that I could relate to.
One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Ali Wong is something she and I actually have in common. We were both Asian American Studies majors at UCLA. Now, often when I tell people this was my major in college, I get the snarky, “well what are you gonna do with that?” to which I reply, “I’m gonna become the next Ali Wong, what are you gonna do with your economics degree, Chad?” In all seriousness, Ali Wong utilizes her Asian American Studies education in an admirable way that I strive to achieve. Take her guide to Asian American restaurants, for example. She uses comedy to touch on these very real details of life that all Asian Americans can instantly relate to. As a Chinese American myself, I can tell you she’s right when she says a Chinese restaurant isn’t legit unless it has a tank full of live fish in the front. She lists things here that the people of communities know but have never been expressly stated in this way. Reading this guide made me feel refreshingly represented. This wasn’t the same type of feeling I had when watching Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels and just feeling happy to see a face that resembled mine. This was the deeper contentment of knowing my experiences are widely shared and validated. This is a key difference between the facade of on-screen representation served to our communities by white people and the real, behind-the-scenes representation coming from voices that truly represent our communities. This is the reason why I firmly believe that all AAPI stories need to come from AAPI voices in order to achieve this type of quality representation (and no it doesn’t matter how many “cultural consultants” you have. I’m looking at you, live-action Mulan).
The thing that really turned Ali Wong from an icon to my absolute idol was reading her memoir, Dear Girls, written to her daughters to read when they are twenty-one years old. Not only was this book as funny as her stand-up specials and her movie, Always Be My Maybe, but it touched on less funny and more serious life experiences Ali has gone through as well. From attending college at UCLA, to meeting her husband, to navigating new motherhood and burgeoning fame all at once, this book will make you laugh, cry, and wish you were married to Ali’s amazing husband, Justin Hakuta. In this book, Ali touches on subjects like feeling unsafe riding to and from her late night comedy shows, or not being respected as an Asian woman in her field. Not only did reading this make me feel represented as an Asian woman, but I also felt like I was getting extremely helpful advice from a wise auntie. Ali was very real and vulnerable in her storytelling and covered topics that many women struggle with but often go untalked about, such as suffering a miscarriage. She detailed in her book that miscarriages are so common, yet no one talks about it; and after suffering one it is so important not to feel alone. To me this sentiment extends beyond this one tragic experience. Reading Ali’s entire book made me feel less alone, like there are other women in the world who have experienced everything I have and more; and are now writing books of advice to me personally on all the unique challenges I still have yet to face as an Asian American woman.
Ultimately, yes Ali Wong is special, but she is not one of a kind. There are countless other awesome, funny, smart, talented Asian American women out there who have stories to tell and jokes to share, including so many of you reading this. What Ali Wong has graciously done is open the door for us by showing us that yes, we do belong on these platforms and in these spaces. Asian American women should be out there being funny in front of a live audience, writing memoirs, and casting ourselves into rom-coms where we get to kiss Keanu Reeves. Ali Wong is currently living the dream, and Asian Youth, you are up next!
Cover Photo Source: Observer