Patrick Cox: Hi, the blanket’s covering me. The streets are deserted. Ready to go.
From Quiet Juice and the Linguistic Society of America, this is Subtitle, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them. I’m Patrick Cox.
So, in the last episode, bilingual comedian Joanna Hausmann talked about the lessons she’s learning — and the comedy she’s still making — during the pandemic. Today another bilingual comedian with an entirely different pandemic experience. His comedy is changing before his eyes and ears, laced now with social activism.
Joe Wong: My name’s Joe Wong.
Patrick Cox: Joe Wong talked with me from his home.
Joe Wong: My Chinese name is Huang Xi. You know, huang is my last name, the color yellow. And xi just means west.
Patrick Cox: The xi is spelled x-i. People here now are kind of used to that now because of Xi Jinping. But they weren’t when Joe first came here in the 1990s to study.
Joe Wong: in the beginning it was very hard for Americans to pronounce xi. you know I got people calling me “Zee,” “Zai.” Someone’s like, “Is this eleven?” So, I just ended up using an anglicized name. That was a name that we picked from a list of names given by our English teacher in college.
Patrick Cox: And you chose Joe out of those names?
Joe Wong: Yeah. Because, I wanted to pick something easy, you know? And Tom and Tim are taken up. So, I only have Joe left.
Patrick Cox: This actually reminds me of a story I did. I think I did an episode on it many years ago about where I went to three different Chinese people to ask them to give me a Chinese name. And each of them gave me a completely different name. It was a fun exercise because they kind of, you know, the shoe was on the other foot.
Joe Wong: Yeah, exactly. Actually, a lot of Americans and Europeans and probably Africans went to China and they got a Chinese name. You know, some of them sounded slightly like their original name, but others just has nothing to do with their previous names. Just whatever sounds pretty you know?
Patrick Cox: Under normal circumstances, Joe goes back and forth between the US and China a lot. He’s become a star in both countries.
Joe Wong: I’ve been doing stand-up comedy in both languages.
Ellen DeGeneres : “Please welcome the very funny Joe Wong”
Joe Wong: When I first got a driver’s license, I decided to be an organ donor. And I designated my brain. Because it makes me happy to think that some guy wakes up from a coma and goes: (speaks in Chinese)
Patrick Cox: And here he is in China.
Joe Wong speaking in Chinese.
Patrick Cox: But in China, Joe’s actually best known these days for hosting a popular TV game show called Is it true? Joe has contestants guess whether certain internet rumors are true. Like, is it possible to defrost meat in one minute using room-temperature water? Or can you report your location to the police using the numbers on telephone poles? It’s the usual game show fare: blingy studio set and camera movements, mild humiliation for some contestants, and lots of jokes from Joe.
Production for the next season of Is it True? is on hold. Need I say why? So instead of living an intercontinental, bilingually switch-hitting life, Joe’s at home in southern California with his family — he has a 13-year-old American-born son — and he’s working on a few projects, his jokes and his cooking.
Joe Wong: So, yeah, I guess for me, you know, staying home is spending a lot of time with my son is, it is hard to cook for the kid. Now I realized, you know, because he used to go to school and have lunch there. But now I have to cook lunch for him. And the tough part about that is, you know, kids are too honest. You know, there is something and he’s like, “Oh Daddy, the chicken tastes like tofu!” I’m like, “What do you mean? That is tofu!” He’s not happy with my cooking.
Patrick Cox: Joe’s also doing some comedy — Instagram Live, YouTube — no live audience of course — but frankly the comedy often takes a back seat to other things on his mind. Here’s a typical post on his Youtube channel.
Joe Wong : A doctor in Boston was attacked simply because she’s Asian. What the hell is wrong with these people? Do you really want all the Asian doctors and nurses to go on strike? On a time like this? The reality is Asians are only five percent of the US populations, which is a really tiny minority and now we’re the target. So now, everyone should really speak up and act up. Report, fight back, and help each other. Thank you very much and stay safe. Thank you.
Patrick Cox: Joe Wong got his start in comedy here in the Boston area. He’d moved here for a job with a pharmaceutical company after getting his PhD in Biochemistry in Texas. At night, he was taking classes in standup comedy. He started showing up a weekly standup contest at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, no more than a mile from where I’m talking to you. And he kept winning. He started being booked by bigger clubs, then finally TV came calling: The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Letterman; and then, somewhat surprisingly, what turned out to be his biggest break: The Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington in 2010. The Beltway press corps was the audience — them and someone who’s in the news a lot these days: Joe Biden. He was Vice President at the time. Of course, it was back in the days when Joe Biden could be seen in public. And Joe — the other Joe — he was an unknown to this audience.
Joe Wong: Good evening my name’s Joe Wong. But to most people I’m known as Who? Which is actually my mother’s maiden name, and the answer to my credit card security question.
Patrick Cox: Gentle immigrant humor, right? Then he turned it up a notch.
Joe Wong: I came to the United States when I was 24 to study at Rice University in Texas. That wasn’t a joke, until now. And, uh, I was driving this used car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. And one of them said: If you don’t speak English, go home. And I didn’t notice it for 2 years.
Patrick Cox: You can’t quite tell from this recording, but Joe was killing it. The audience — Biden especially — was with him all the way.
Joe Wong : And like many other immigrants we want our son to become the president of this country and we’re trying to make him bilingual. Chinese at home and English in the public. And he would say to me “Hey Dad, why do I have to learn 2 languages?” I say, “Son, once you become President of the United States, you’re gonna have to sign legislative bills in English and talk to debt collectors in Chinese.”
Patrick Cox: There was an edginess about Joe back then, but it was polite. He could make the great and the good laugh at American racism by also poking fun at himself. But Joe’s own personal memories of his early days in the US are darker than he let on in public. Like something a professor told him about the Chinese writing system.
Joe Wong: When I was in college, I had a professor to say to me, in front of all the other students, She was like, “Oh, no wonder China is so backwards because the Chinese characters are so hard to learn. You spend so much time learning the Chinese characters.” And I’m like, what??? This is not right. But then other times, like, you know, for one thing, she’s a professor. You know, we’re supposed to respect her. We didn’t say anything, but now looking back I’m like a lot of things are just not right about the statement.
Patrick Cox: There was lots of that kind of stuff. And advice, too, about how to deal with it.
Joe Wong: I remember when my school first started, we had a foreign student advisor who told us the key to living in America is to be slower, to take offense. That’s my old attitude, you know to be slow to take offense, you know, just let it slide. And later on, I gradually realized that it’s just a way to tell you not to speak up when you see something wrong.
Patrick Cox: Not to speak up. Laugh it off. Stay in your ethnic, immigrant lane. Joe was pretty good at doing that. But out on the comedy circuit, he was a racial target.
Joe Wong: I had to deal with live audiences constantly. Racial slurs, dog jokes, this and that. You know, it, it’s just constant.
Patrick Cox: After his appearance at the correspondents dinner in Washington, the big comedy club and TV appearances grew more frequent. And Joe’s career in China took off. At the same time, he was getting more and more frustrated with himself, with how he was responding to racist and anti-immigrant insults. Things came to head just about two years ago, in late spring/early summer 2018.
Joe Wong: That was roughly the time when, you know, they started to put immigrant kids in cages. I was just horrified. I couldn’t believe this is happening in America. I used to tend to give America the benefit of doubt, but now I’m like, dude, you know, anything can happen in this country. So, from that point on, I became a little bit more polemic and just started to attack things that I didn’t feel right.
Patrick Cox: A few months later, Joe made an appearance on the late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Joe Wong: My son was born and raised in America. I remember one day he came home from school. That was when he was about 5 years old. He said to me “Hey dad, I learned American history today.” I said, “Wow that’s great.” He said, “Now I feel bad for black people.” I said, “Yeah, they’re really mistreated in American history.” He said, “Yeah, and I’m so glad that I’m white.”
Joe Wong: My latest appearance on Colbert you know, some of my friends were saying, “Hey Joe, your comedy style changed.” And that is true.
Joe Wong : But my son has a good point though. Nobody in America, especially a person of color, is exactly the color they’re assigned, you know? Like, this is not exactly yellow. It’s kind of brown. A black person is not exactly black. They’re kind of brown. So we’re pretty all different shades of Mexicans.
Patrick Cox: And now there’s the pandemic. The finger-pointing at China. The attacks on Asian people. And Joe is confronting it head-on, in a book he’s writing, on social media, and — when he can do it during the lockdown — in his comedy. During all of it, he says, he’s training himself to speak the language of anti-racism.
Joe Wong: Just like any other foreign language, you just have to keep speaking it and use it and say it out loud. But the good news is, it’s, it’s not that hard. You know, as long as you keep practicing it, you’re good at it. The key thing is also to tell how you feel.
Patrick Cox: You might end up with a totally different audience, I guess?
Joe Wong: I guess, yeah, cause still some of my old audience members went to my One-Man Show and I think the response from them wasn’t as great as before. But I think that’s okay. You know, especially in a lot of suburbs, people are not comfortable when you mention race. So, yeah. But that’s okay though.
Patrick Cox: I ask Joe if there’s anything from Chinese language or culture that’s keeping him going right now. Yeah, he says, a Chinese term that’s pretty well-known over here.
Joe Wong: The Chinese word for crisis, is wei ji. The first character means danger. The second character means opportunity, so that just means in every crisis, there is danger and there’s opportunity. So, I know time is really tough. But. Maybe from this experience, you can look back on your life and find out exactly what you want to do next.
Patrick Cox: Usually when you hear westerners explaining this term, wei ji, they put a geo-political spin on it. The implication being, those canny Chinese leaders, they really know how to take advantage of a bad situation. But what’s refreshing about Joe’s interpretation is that it’s personal, introspective.
Joe Wong: Maybe this is a good opportunity for you to start something new. Or try a new approach to your old task or your old career. That’s one thing that’s kind of inspiring in the Chinese language.
Subtitle’s sound designer is Tina Tobey.
Subtitle is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.