Chinese Comedian Joe Wong Jokes about Immigration & "Cultural Confusion"

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Aaron Schachter : Finally, today we want you to meet Joe Wong. He left China some 18 years ago to study Biochemistry at Rice University at Texas, then he landed a gig at a pharmaceutical company, so far so good, but now Joe Wong lives in Massachusetts and he's in a very different line of work. He's a stand-up comedian. Here he is talking about immigration on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Joe Wong: So when I travel in certain states in this country, I have to have my papers ready because I'm an immigrant, then I learned that the term "immigrant"  has a negative connotation. I think that's probably why on all those immigration papers, the United States government decided to call us aliens, sounds so much nicer you know. Hey, we're not here to take your jobs, we're just here to abduct you.

Schachter: But for all of Joe Wong's success as a comedian here in the U.S., he didn't exactly boast about his new career to his family back home in China.

Wong: I didn't tell them too much about it and then my dad heard it from the State Radio one day after I made an appearance on the Letterman show, and my dad was cooking lunch at the time and he said, "Oh, that sounds like my son,"  going to America in "Ë?94 and studying Biochemistry, and then they reported my name and that's when my dad really know.

Schachter: What did he say?

Wong: Well, he's always very supportive. Ever since I turned 15, he basically just said to me, "Your life is your own life. I won't say anything anymore,"  because he was so disappointed in me at the time.

Schachter: So anything you did would be better than what you were doing then?

Wong: Yeah, my grades were really bad.

Schachter: Now, you've been in the States for about 18 years. You recently performed an entire stand-up routine in Mandarin Chinese, your native language. How did that go over here in Boston?

Wong: It actually went over really well. I've been doing stand-up comedy in English for 10 years, but I had no idea how my jokes would translate until probably last year. I published a biography in China and November of last year, I went to China and did some promotion and as soon as I got there, they were like, "Okay, now you go on the T.V. show,"  and immediately the host was like, "Okay, why don't you tell some jokes,"  and I had to translate some jokes from English to Chinese on spot. That was an enormous amount of pressure. After that, I found out that some of the jokes actually could translate.

Schachter: Can you tell us a joke in Chinese?

Wong: Oh yes, of course.

Schachter: Then you have to translate it.

Wong: Okay, so this joke kind of works in both China and America.

[Joke told in Chinese]

Schachter: Silence.

Wong: In English this means if I were to die in a car accident, I want it to be a collision with a cement truck, that where immediately after I die, there's a statue of me.

Schachter: That's good and is that what most of your routine is like?

Wong: Yeah, some of it, some jokes that are hard to translate are related to the American culture stuff like America is more of a multi-ethnic country, so people are more aware of this race thing, but in China, people are slightly less aware of that, so some of the jokes about race relations are a little bit harder. Like recently my son came home and just said to me, "Hey Dad, am I white,"  and I was like, "Oh no, you're not white, you're yellow,"  and he looked at his arm and he was like, "Hey Dad, this doesn't look yellow to me."  I said, "Well, it's not exactly yellow, but in this country, everybody has to have a color, and that's the color they give us."  You just have to deal with it, you know, but stuff like this, for the Chinese audience, is slightly harder, because it's sort of hard for them to grasp the idea that everybody has to have color. Like when I first came to the United States, I didn't even notice people's hair color because in China everybody has the same hair color, and after I came here, people would say, "Oh, she's a redhead."  I was like, "Well, that's not even red, and it has a red tinge on it." 

Schachter: Yeah, right, and that must come up in the comedy? It's really interesting.

Wong: Yes, it is interesting, probably for the Chinese audience, but not for America. America probably just don't even think it's real because how can we be looking the same.

Schachter: Well, our joke about Asians, they all look alike.

Wong: Yeah, yeah, but if I joke about Asians being a look alike, then people can kind of relate, because that's how they feel.

Schachter: Right.

Wong: But if I say Caucasians look alike, they don't feel that way. They're like, "We don't look alike." 

Schachter: It is pretty funny, reversal.

Wong: Exactly.

Schachter: That is stand-up comedian, Joe Wong. Congratulations on your success and thank you for coming in.

Wong: Thank you so much.

Schachter: You can laugh along with Joe Wong, or at him I guess, check out a video montage of his comedy at We'll close the program with a snippet of it.

[Excerpt]: I grew up in China. Who didn't…

Schachter: The World's theme music was composed by Eric Goldberg from the Nan & Bill Harris Studios at WGBH. I'm Aaron Schacter. Have a great weekend.

[Excerpt]: I'm not a very religious person, but I think I'm going to go to heaven anyway, maybe in [inaudible]. I came to the United States when I was 24 to study at Rice University in Texas. That wasn't a joke. When I graduated from Rice, I decided to stay in the United States because in China, [inaudible]. I have a family now, but I used to be really, really scared about marriage. I was like, "Wow, 50 percent of all marriages end up lasting forever."  I'm not a very religious person, but I think I'm going to go to heaven anyway.