Writer and comedian Jenny Yang began her April 20 lecture by playing a modified game of “Heads Up, 7 Up” to get a sense of the crowd in the Red Pit. She started with general questions like class year, and asked attendees to cover their eyes as she asked more sensitive questions, including financial aid status and families’ academic backgrounds.
After taking her “census” of the room, Yang had the room laughing—and cringing—over stereotypes about Hamilton (“boat shoes everything”). She then asked attendees to turn to the person next to them and ask what they wanted to do after college. The follow up question: what would you do if concerns like money, expectations and time did not matter?
The question is a personal one for Yang, who left a career in politics to pursue activism and comedy. Yang frequently collaborates in viral Buzzfeed videos, produces the first-ever mostly female Asian American standup comedy tour, Dis/orient/ed Comedy, and a comedy festival devoted to the best in Asian American talent.
“A lot of people don’t have access to people who are in a non-traditional, creative field,” Yang said. She proceeded to tell the story “of why I do what I do.”
Yang’s family immigrated to Los Angeles from Taiwan when she was five-years-old. She said she was always impressed by her mother’s ability to work hard, even washing clothes by hand after a long day working in a garment factory. “She said to me, ‘your only job is to get straight A’s and listen to your teachers so you can get a good job and you don’t have to work like this,’” Yang said. When Yang was a freshman at Swarthmore College, she says she became “politicized.” She realized students who came before her had succeeded in ensuring that admissions worked hard and allocated funding to recruit students of color.
“That’s when I realized it’s not just about me getting my good grades to get my good job, but rather I was a part of something bigger,” she said. “All of those things I experienced that I thought were isolated in my household were part of a bigger system.”
After college, Yang worked in labor organization but did not find the work fulfilling.
“Before I worked in comedy, I basically did everything I could to be successful. I did all the right things but I wasn’t happy,” Yang said. She claimed she has been so successful doing what she loves because she’s not just working for herself.
She concluded with a challenge to the audience, particularly those who were Asian American. “You have so many skills and so many choices; I would love it if you could do that second thing [aspiration if money/expectations/time were not considerations]. Answer the question ‘what is the problem that’s bigger than me that I can help serve?’”
Yang remained in the Red Pit chatting with students about their dreams, her career, and issues related to college campuses, like burn-out.
“The only reason I’m doing comedy and speaking out as an Asian American is because of the Asian American ethnic studies I had access to in college,” Yang said. None of this would be here without the civil rights movement and it all ties back to black, Latino and progressive Asian American movements.”