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Feature: These days, it's cool to be Asian in America -- just ask comedienne Margaret Cho

Xinhua, September 23, 2015 Adjust font size:

Being Asian-American in 21st-century America is far more trendy and hip than it was a few decades ago -- just ask Korean-American comedienne Margaret Cho, who recently took a moment out from her nationwide tour to speak with Xinhua.

"For me and most Asian-Americans, the closer you are to being an immigrant, the cooler you are." Cho, a second-generation Korean-American who has entertained audiences nationwide with anecdotes about growing up as Asian-American, told Xinhua.

Cho is currently on a nationwide tour for an upcoming Showtime cable TV special to be aired on Sept. 25. "The more (Asian culture) that you can retain without becoming fully Americanized is actually kind of great. We' re seeing more of it (Asian culture in the United States), which is really good. We're seeing more Asian-Americans on television," she said.

That's because nowadays, Americans celebrate diversity much more than in years past, and are becoming increasingly familiar with Asia as the region becomes the world's most economically dynamic region.

Asia is now a major destination for U.S. tourists and business travelers, with 4.5 million Americans traveling there in 2014 -- their third most popular destination after Europe and the Caribbean -- a 4-percent increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

At the same time, a massive wave of immigration has expanded the Asian-American population in the country. Asian-Americans now comprise the nation's fastest-growing demographic, surging by 58 percent from the year 2000 to 19 million in 2013, according to market research group Nielsen.

This population explosion coincides with an increased demand for Asia's brand of cool, in the form of music, film, glittering celebrities, food and many other cultural products.

In 2012 and 2013, Korean pop star Psy's smash hit "Gang Nam Style" was the first-ever video to get 1 billion YouTube views, and the artist instantly rose to fame in the United States, performing his hit song on national TV. Several other K-pop groups have hit the top 200 Billboard charts in the United States and have large U.S. fan bases.

Perhaps most significantly, network television this season features two primetime shows that boast nearly all Asian-American casts.

One is ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat," a sitcom in its second season that centers around a Chinese-American family and features an overbearing "tiger mom" who, in one episode, complained to her son's principal that "school is too easy" when her son brought home a perfect report card.

The second is "Dr. Ken," which will kick off next month, and focuses on a brilliant physician with no bedside manner, according to ABC's website.

Cho said she worked with Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the show "Fresh Off the Boat." Huang is known as a restaurateur, chef, food personality and writer.

ABC initially balked at the show's name, thinking it was offensive to Asian-Americans. "I helped Eddie, I sort of talked him through the beginning process," Cho said.

"The problem that the network had initially was they didn't want it to be called 'Fresh Off the Boat' because they felt that it was somehow racist. But for me and most Asian-Americans... being fresh off the boat, in a sense, for us, is a compliment," she said.

"That was one of the things that they couldn't understand. They sort of wanted to protect our own feelings somehow but it was a weird conversation to have to kind of explain the positivity of something like a term like 'fresh off the boat,'" she said.

But if being fresh off the boat is a compliment now, that may not have been the case in decades prior. Cho described a time in the 1960s and 1970s when there was a lot of pressure in Asian-American communities to be "all-American."

"It has a lot to do with what was happening with immigration," she said. "In the 60s and 70s, for people to immigrate to the United States, it was much more difficult," she said, adding that a lot of immigrants were deported. "So because of that you had a very intense desire to have your kids be as American as possible."

Cho herself was born in 1968. "We were not encouraged to learn the (Korean) language. We were allowed to listen to it, our parents would speak to us in Korean, but we couldn't speak back to our parents in Korean. We had to speak English," she said.

Others say there were issues of discrimination.

"The oldest among the second-generation Asian-Americans are now in their late 40s. If you speak to that generation, that generation responds to their 'Asianness' differently compared to the younger Asian-Americans," TK Park, a popular blogger who has appeared on Cho's "Monsters of Talk" podcast, told Xinhua.

The older, second generation experienced more discrimination when they were growing up, so they are more cautious about how they approach their Asianness. By contrast, younger, second-generation Asian-Americans are much less embarrassed about their heritage, Park said. "And a lot of it does have to do with the fact that Asia has become sort of a cool place," Park said.

Park would know -- his blog "Ask a Korean!" averages 5,000 page views per day, and he has been interviewed by major U.S. media outlets from The New York Times to CNN.

Indeed, there's a high demand in the United States for in-depth information on Asian culture that goes beyond the often superficial coverage of Asia that many U.S. newspapers provide, Park said.

Cho started performing on the college circuit in the early 1990s, where she immediately became the most booked act on the market, appearing also on national television and seemingly becoming an overnight celebrity.

She has long referenced Asia and Asian culture on stage, sprinkling her act with nuggets about growing up as the child of immigrants and traveling in Asia.

"I grew up in this immigrant family. And it's hard when you're a child of immigrants... you spend half your day in America and the rest of your day in a foreign land," she said on stage several years back.

She has often portrayed her mother on stage, creating a heavily-accented and absurd caricature of a woman who says whatever she feels whenever she wants, refreshingly unfiltered by the stale political correctness that is so often forced on Americans.

When asked how her mother reacts to being portrayed on stage in such a way, Cho said: "Oh, she loves it. She's got a great sense of humor. And she thinks it's really wonderful. She comes from a culture where women tend to become invisible as they get older."

The caricatures she portrays on stage, whether imitating her mother or grandmother, are not meant to offend but rather to celebrate cultural uniqueness with what she said is the "noble art form" of comedy. Endi