How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents

by Jimmy O. Yang

Clock Icon 10 minute read


My life growing up in Hong Kong was like a bad stereotype. I played the violin, I was super good at math, and I played Ping-Pong competitively. In China, people take Ping-Pong seriously. It’s not just a drunken frat house game; Ping-Pong is a prestigious national sport. The Ping-Pong champs in China are national heroes, like Brett Favre without the dick pics. Everyone from your five-year-old neighbor to your seventy-year-old aunt knows how to slice up some sick spins. My parents signed me up for Ping-Pong classes early on. I had quick feet and a lightning backhand. Soon I was competing in the thirteen-and-under Hong Kong championship leagues. I always had good form, but I was always smaller and weaker than the other kids. My dad would give me a pep talk before every match:

“Jimmy, even though you are short, even though you are weak, and the other kid is way better than you… You are going to do okay.”

He wasn’t exactly Vince Lombardi, but thanks, Dad.

My tiny size eventually paid off when I was asked to test out a brand-new line of Ping-Pong tables with adjustable heights. They invited pro players to play with the kids and it was broadcast on the local news. It was a big deal. That was my big TV debut; I was ten years old. My perfect form and tiny stature made for an adorable display at the Ping-Pong table. The news camera found its way to me and gave me a personal close-up interview. The reporter asked me:

“How do you like these new tables?”

“I like them, because you can adjust them to be shorter, and I am short.”

It was soooooo cute.

The next day, the news station called my family and asked me to come back for a full studio interview. This kid was a fucking star! I went on the show with my dad and crushed the interview. There were three cameras in the studio and I was a natural, swiveling my head from A camera to C camera, charming seven million people in Hong Kong with every line I uttered. Everyone thought I was the star Ping-Pong prodigy. I became the coolest kid in school and the pride and joy of my family. Everyone called me the golden-boy TV star. I felt like a celebrity. A few months later, I competed in a youth tournament representing my school. I was the favorite to win it all. But I faltered in front of the whole school. I lost 21-3 to a no-name newcomer, two matches in a row. Everybody was shocked; it was like Mike Tyson getting knocked out by Buster Douglas. The boy they once believed in was just a fraud. I couldn’t back up my hype with my skills. I was definitely more a looker than a player. I was an imposter destined to be an actor.

I’ve always felt like an outsider, even as a Chinese kid growing up in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a thriving British colony with its own government, and people in Hong Kong often looked down at their neighbors from Mainland China. Even though I was born in Hong Kong, my parents were mainlanders from Shanghai. I’d speak Cantonese in school, Shanghainese back home and watch TV shows in Mandarin. These Chinese dialects sounded as different as Spanish and Italian. My schoolmates in Hong Kong always called me “Shanghai boy.” I had to stand up for myself when kids made fun of me for speaking to my parents in Shanghainese, wearing clothes from Shanghai and eating the Shanghainese food I brought to school. I didn’t mind the teasing, but I’d always felt out of place, even in the city I was born in. This turned out to be some early practice on fitting in when we immigrated to America.

Everyone in Hong Kong has a legal Chinese name and an English nickname. My legal name is a four-character Chinese name. My family name is a rare two-character last name, , Ou Yang, and my given name is , Man Shing, which means “ten thousand successes” in Chinese. It’s a hopeful name that is sure to set me up for failure. No matter how successful I become, I can never live up to my parents’ ten thousand ambitions. Jimmy was my English nickname given to me by my parents.

I grew up in a tight-knit nuclear family with my parents and an older brother. My mom’s name was Amy, because it sounded close to her Chinese nickname Ah-Mee. My dad named himself Richard “because I want to be rich,” he explained to me. And my brother was named Roger, after my parents fell in love with Roger Moore’s portrayal of 007. Roger Ou Yang never liked his English name; he thought it sounded like an old white guy. So he changed his English name to Roy, an old black guy’s name. I asked my parents why they named me Jimmy. They didn’t really have an answer. My dad said, “It just sounded pretty good.”

My mom is a fashionable lady who is too ambitious to be just a housewife. She was the stay-at-home mom turned career woman, becoming the general manager at a high-end clothing store in Hong Kong, aptly named Dapper. Mom is a people person but she is also very blunt. It’s definitely a cultural thing. Asian ladies will tell you exactly what is wrong with your face, in front of your face, as if they were helping you. I always have to brace myself when I visit my parents. My mom often greets me with a slew of nonconstructive criticisms: “Jimmy ah, why is your face so fat? Your clothes look homeless and your long hair makes you look like a girl.” After thirty years of this, my self-image is now a fat homeless lesbian.

Mom has always been a shrewd shopper. She’s not cheap but it’s all about finding a good deal. I once bought a fifty-dollar T-shirt at full price; she almost had a stroke.

“Jimmy! You spent fifty dollars on that shirt?! Are you crazy?! I can buy you five shirts in China for ten dollars!”

Then my dad tested the quality of the material by rubbing his thumb and index finger on the shirt. “Not even a hundred percent cotton. Garbage.”

It took me a long time to come to terms with buying anything outside of Ross.

My dad is a sharp businessman and entrepreneur. He started a thriving medical equipment business in the early nineties in Hong Kong and then later became a financial adviser at Merrill Lynch when we came to America. He is the ultimate critic. He is a food critic, a movie critic and a people critic. Every restaurant we go to, he complains about the food, the service and even the utensils. He’s like a walking Yelp review:

“The beef is tougher than a piece of cardboard. This is worse than the crap I ate during the Communist revolution.”

“How are you going to call yourself a high-end restaurant if you use disposable chopsticks? I feel like I’m eating at Panda Express.”

“The waiter is such an asshole. Why does he have red hair? He’s fifty years old. He looks like a degenerate gambler.”

The only restaurant he never complains about is Carl’s Jr. He can devour two six-dollar burgers in one sitting, an impressive feat for anyone, especially a seventy-year-old Chinese dude.

Food is the glue in every Chinese family, and ours was no different. Chinese people are the biggest foodies in the world; there’s a saying in China: “People put food first.” We took dinner very seriously. There are always four homemade Chinese dishes and a gourmet soup du jour with a side of freshly made rice. Dad was serious about dinnertime. Every night at seven, he would yell at the top of his lungs, “Come eat dinner!” If we were a minute late, he would storm into me and my brother’s FIFA game: “Do you want to eat or do you want to starve to death? Dinner. Now!” We wouldn’t dare hit another button on the controller.

Dad was the head chef of the family. He specialized in Shanghainese cuisine, like his perfect recipe for red braised pork. Every day, Dad got off work at four and started cooking at five. My mother was a decent cook too, but every time she made dinner my dad would criticize her cooking. “Amy, this is too watery. You need to broil the mushrooms in high heat, not simmer in low heat.” He relegated her cooking duties to an occasional simple tofu dish. Dad was actually a bit embarrassed by his cooking prowess. In the patriarchal Chinese culture, the woman is supposed to be the stay-at-home housewife and do all the cooking. Once in a while, Dad made sure to remind me, “Don’t end up cooking in the kitchen like me, that should be a woman’s job. But what am I supposed to do? I cook better than your mom.” Some might call this misogyny; in my family it was irony.

My brother and I were responsible for cooking the rice. And there was nothing that made my dad angrier than fucking up the rice. The amount of water I put in the rice cooker could mean life or death. Cooking rice is an art form. If I put too little water in the cooker, the rice would be raw inside; if I put too much water in the cooker, the rice became a mushy porridge. It was a lot of pressure to make it right, because the entire five-course meal my dad whipped up depended on the consistency of the rice. Every night I felt like the pit crew member who had to change the tire of a Formula One race car. It was a thankless job, but if I fucked it up, I blew the entire race for everyone. I’d be nervously sitting at the dinner table, waiting for my dad to take the first bite of the rice. If it was cooked right, there would be no compliments, but if it was not cooked right:

“Motherfucker!” my dad would scream to the high heavens in Shanghainese. “This rice is raw. Who made the rice today?” And I’d shamefully raise my incapable hand. It was always my fault; my brother cooked the rice perfectly every time.

We never had space for a proper pet growing up in the small apartments in Hong Kong. When I was five, my brother and I got a couple of tadpoles, and we managed to raise them into frogs. That was our puppy. Then when I turned eight, my dad surprised us with a few fluffy warm-blooded pets: he came home with three pet chicks. They were the cutest little baby chickens. We put them in a spacious cage on our twentieth-floor balcony with a sweet view of the city. We weren’t allowed to take them out and play with them because their pecks were rather painful. But we got to pet them through the cage and I used to stare at their cute fluffy yellow feathers for hours. We even gave them English names. My favorite was Gary; he was the smallest but the most energetic one. He reminded me of myself. Watching them grow was like watching a tadpole slowly transform into a frog. I was so proud of our progress. One day, I came home from school to visit little Gary and his friends, only to find the cage was empty. I panicked. I checked around the balcony, the living room, the bedrooms, and I couldn’t find them anywhere. Oh my God, did they fall off the balcony? Then I went up to my dad in the kitchen:

“Dad, where is Gary?”

“He’s right here.”

Dad pointed to the wok in front of him, sizzling with fried chicken. And then I realized, Gary and his friends were never meant to be our pets; they were just farm-to-table dinner. I felt sick to my stomach. I was sure I would never be able to love again after that. I cried through dinner that night. But I have to admit: Gary was delicious.

Watching American action movies was the thing to do in Hong Kong. We were obsessed with all the larger-than-life American action heroes: Arnold, Stallone, Seagal and Van Damme. We watched Terminator 2 every other weekend on our VCR. The opening sequence with the killer robot revolution scared the shit out of me, but then Arnold would drop out of the sky naked and save us all. One of our favorite local celebrities was Stephen Chow, a comedy legend in Hong Kong who later became an international star with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Stephen created a genre of comedy films in Hong Kong called mo lei tau. Translated from Cantonese, it literally means “nonsense.” He mixed slapstick humor with his signature deadpan demeanor, much like Leslie Nielsen in the classic Jerry Zucker films like Airplane and The Naked Gun. Stephen was my hero and his mo lei tau films were my first comedy inspirations. My favorite film of his was From Beijing with Love, a spoof of the 007 series, featuring Stephen playing a bumbling low-end Chinese spy. The physical and prop humor were topnotch. The Chinese 007 pulls out a top-secret gadget kit. It has a mobile phone that is actually a shaver, a shaver that is actually a hairdryer and a hairdryer that is in fact a shaver. The creativity of these gags gave me some of my fondest childhood memories. Stephen Chow was my Hong Kong version of the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and Peter Sellers.


In America, people always tell me:

“Money can’t buy happiness. Do what you love.”

In my Chinese family, my dad always tells me:

“Pursuing your dreams is for losers. Doing what you love is how you become homeless.”

The most important values in American culture are independence and freedom. The most important values in Chinese culture are family and obedience. And by no choice of my own, I am caught in between the two worlds. Having emigrated from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, I live my life in an often difficult duality. I grew up believing in the Chinese values my parents instilled in me, but I longed for the American value of pursuing what I loved. I have always been jealous of American kids and their freedom to do whatever they want. It’s so simple for them; they don’t have to follow a different set of Chinese rules back home. They get to frolic around the neighborhood streets and play in their tree houses by themselves with no parental supervision. My mom didn’t even let me cross the street by myself. I had to hold her hand until I was fourteen years old. Asian parents are more protective than a lioness with her newborn cubs. Ever since we moved to America, I had to ask myself, Am I Chinese or am I American? I was caught between the two cultures and their polarizing beliefs. Should I follow my family’s rules and be an obedient Chinese son, or should I follow my freedom and be an independent American man?

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