Every time I’ve been out in the South Bay and seen an Asian woman wearing an oversized sun visor in the past couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but smile to myself.
It’s an image that the grande dame of comedy Margaret Cho planted in my mind recently, when we chatted on the phone ahead of her stop here in San Jose. Cho was sharing the conundrum she faces as she prepares to keep a low profile when she goes out every day.
“You know, you have your mask covering, but that’s on the lower part of your face,” she says. “But the most Asian part of my face is my eyes. I can’t hide that—I [thought of] wearing a visor to hide that…but then they really know that I’m Asian, right? It’s like when you’re wearing a visor, that is the most Asian thing you could wear! So it’s like, even more Asian than having Asian eyes!”
Her comment made me laugh because it’s a common sight in the Bay Area: Asian women of a certain generation often wear sun visors because pale skin is often considered to be beautiful skin.
Yet, at the same time…the reasoning behind all of this is just so awful.
“As an Asian American dealing with hate crimes, it’s my own way of coping, which is through humor,” Cho says from her home in Los Angeles. “It’s the only way that I can de-stress—it’s like, humor or horror.”
The 53-year-old, five-time Grammy and Emmy nominee and Bay Area native is here to share what’s on her often hilarious mind, performing four shows at the Improv in downtown San Jose on Friday and Saturday nights.
“I think a lot about trying to figure out how to get around American hate crimes, and trying to stop it, trying to kind of dismantle the fear around it that I have,” she tells Metro over the phone.
Comedy, she says, is her way of trying to “dismantle the the hate crime within because anytime this happens to somebody outside in the world, it’s really happening to us inside our heart, you know, and it’s like, figuring out how to deal with that fear, which is both real and imagined.”
Cho is an especially poignant spokesperson on this subject matter in this point in history in this particular place because she’s spent much of her life hating herself and recovering from that internalized self-hatred for not being thin and white.
“My Koreanness, my ‘otherness’ embarrassed me,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir and manifesto on self-acceptance I’m the One That I Want.
Even the Korean kids were cruel to her, she wrote.
“My entire world was an exercise in not belonging.”
And that has been the basis for her comedy ever since. The one place where she has always felt that she has belonged is on stage.
“Every joke that I tell has some element of ‘I don’t belong here,’” she told podcast host Aarti Shahani on Art of Power last year. “And that’s what I’m disseminating.”
Laughter in the toughest moments, she tells interviewers, is what saved her. And that’s why her humor sometimes makes people wince. She’s joked about thinking that she was too fat to commit suicide, for example. (In the throes of addiction, she once tried to commit suicide by hanging herself from a shower curtain rod.) This no-holds-barred approach to the most difficult topics is her trademark. She herself admits that it’s a delicate balancing act.
Once again, even as I write this almost a year after my cover story on anti-Asian hate crimes in the Bay Area, another attacker followed, robbed and assaulted a young Asian woman in San Francisco just a few days ago. In January, another man pushed a young woman from Fremont onto the subway tracks in New York City. A day after that, another man violently rushed and tackled an elderly Korean retired nurse to the ground in Queens, New York. My mother, who doesn’t go out, told me about it when I was visiting her in Long Island.
Echoing what Cho, my mother and many other Asian Americans think, the retired nurse told a television news reporter: “You can lose your life any time. This is not really a safe country anymore.”
In the news footage, you could see that her left eye was swollen shut.
These crimes fit into a larger pattern: The nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate reports that from Mar 19, 2020 to Sep 30, 2021, a total of 10,370 hate incidents against Asian American and Pacific Islanders were reported. The rate increased in 2021.
When I ask Cho why she’s scared to walk the streets, but doesn’t mind getting up on the stage to almost confront her audience with all of this, Cho replies:
“Oh, because I have a microphone, and I’m louder.”
To be sure, you don’t have to be Asian American, gay or queer to appreciate Cho’s humor, and Cho herself says that her comedy “transcends identity.” Nevertheless, the Bay Area might be a little more receptive to her message, partly because she’s been sharing it here for so long now. (Back when she lived in San Francisco, she used to drive her “very old Buick LeSabre, which was so old, it got eight miles to the gallon” to perform in San Jose clubs.)
For one thing, people who identify as Asian are now the largest racial group in Santa Clara County for the first time, representing almost 40 percent of the county’s 2020 population of almost two million residents, according to census numbers released last year. And of course, thousands of Asian Americans in the Bay Area participated in rallies in support of the local AAPI population last year.
The failure of the show that put Margaret Cho on the map, ABC’s 1994 All American Girl, scarred the comedienne. The show was the first prime-time sitcom to focus on an Asian American family, a fictionalized version of Cho and her bookstore-owning parents in San Francisco. All-American Girl ran 19 episodes before ending in March of 1995.
Despite the show’s lack of success, Cho relishes her role as a pioneer of Asian-American representation and now an “elder” leader. Almost thirty years after bringing the first Asian-American family to prime time, she’s still using her fame to lead a positive conversation about Asian Americans.
“There’s so much to really talk about, and also to celebrate,” she says. “I was able to inspire a whole generation of Asian American comedians to go out there that are really, really influential in society now—whether that’s Awkwafina, or Ken Jeong or Ali Wong. You know, they’re all really important to the future of Asian Americans.
“I’m grateful to be out there to continue doing it. And comedy is a powerful tool for change, right? A powerful tool for humanizing situations.”
Asked who and what inspires her these days, she said: “I just got to do a show with Bitch, who’s a really great singer and songwriter, and she and I performed together last week at Largo in L.A.. I really love her. I love Ben Lee. He did a show with me there. I love the band Beach Bunny.”
She also shared that she’d been watching the Korean zombie horror movie All of Us Are Dead on Netflix. She said she thought it was the movie maker’s attempt to help South Koreans deal with the horror of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, in which corruption and ineptness resulted in no one coming to save the 299 people who died—250 of them teenagers. The film, she says, is a metaphor for that disaster. The film revolves around teenagers who turn into zombies and get trapped in their high school.
And she says she’s happy to return to San Jose. Some of her first shows were at gay bars in the city. She also performed along Joan Jett at Pride several years ago.
Of course, no conversation about comedy can omit TikTok, the medium for so many rising comedians these days.
“I really, really love Brian Jordan Alvarez, who’s one of my favorite comedians on social media and Instagram and TikTok. He’s just incredible,” she says.
Cho often talks about the healing power of comedy, and the need to talk publicly about difficult subjects. In her own life, she’s managed to overcome addiction and self-harm. Today, she sounds at peace with herself. I find that even just the experience of talking to her on the phone leaves me feeling calm.
Maybe it’s an environment change. She now lives a comfortable life in Los Angeles with her dog and two cats. While we speak, she sits in a part of her house that looks out onto a yard where she’s set up a bird feeder. Initially, she got it to entertain her cats, Sacre Coeur and Sarang. But now she admits that she herself has become “obsessed” with it. After our call, she plans to do some work online, walk the dog and then make lunch: Tom Kha Gai (Thai Chicken Soup.)
Cooking, it turns out, is another passion—in addition to stand up comedy, writing, singing, dancing, acting, designing and activism.
“I’ll grind up galangal, and the lemongrass and the bird’s eye chilies and the lime leaves and make a soup with the mortar and pestle. So that’s cooking—I love it!” she says. “It’s good to make the soup. I think it’s sort of a meditative thing. It’s like when you grind things down with a mortar and pestle, and you do a lot of chopping…I think it’s really a wonderful thing to do.”
Taking time for yourself is all part of the creative process. Some creativity coaches even talk about how engaging in repetitive actions such as chopping in cooking can be a form of cogitation.
The tranquility of Cho’s current life is like a refuge from the reality outside.
“I’m an older Asian American woman who is a prime target for all of these crimes,” Cho says.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s practicing some self-care and reveling in the comfort and safety of her home.
Comedy and laughter can act as a form of therapy, offering relaxation and connection. When Cho comes to town, I’ll be there practicing my own self-care, hoping to connect, share some laughs and discover the absurd in a dark situation.