U.S. Rep Grace Meng and comedian Ronny Chieng appeared together at the City of the Museum of New York. Photo: Emily Higginbotham
At first glance comedian Ronny Chieng and U.S. Rep. Grace Meng are not an obvious pairing. Chieng is a brash correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah who appeared in the historic blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians.” Meng is a congresswoman who advocates for child-safety issues. Chieng is a Chinese ex-Pat, Meng was born in Queens. Chieng spends his nights cramming in as many stand-up performances as he can physically handle. Meng balances her taxing work on Capitol Hill with raising two sons.
But the two do share something that a lot of people don’t: the responsibility that comes with being one of the few representatives for Asian people in politics and popular culture. Meng is the first Asian American member of Congress elected from New York. Chieng is the only Asian comedian cast on a late night show. It was this commonality that brought the two together the evening of Feb. 20 at the Museum of the City of New York to talk about the power of representation and how the reality of that representation is changing for Asian people in politics, media and entertainment.
The discussion was moderated by New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir as part of the museum’s “Only in New York” series. Nir describes the ongoing series as the types of unexpected conversations that you can only have in New York — conversations you might have with a cab driver taking you to the airport, or with the person behind you in line at Zabars — the kind you walk away from a better person.
Nir kicked off the event inquiring about how Meng and Chieng’s presence in their respective fields is opening the door for the next generation.
“How many of your idols look like you?” Nir asked Chieng, eliciting a stunned response.
“None,” Chieng said after a long pause. “Do I look like Gilbert Gottfried?”
He now takes it upon himself to use his clout to elevate other Asian comics.
“I have made it a point to get Asian men and women involved. If I don’t ask Asian comics to open, no one will.”
For Meng, her presence as a Chinese American in Congress means pushing for legislation no one had thought to push for before.
“A constituent brought a court document in which they were described as ‘oriental.’ This was in 2009,” Meng said, recalling an incident that was the catalyst for her pushing to erase the term from state laws while she served in the State Assembly. When she was elected to Congress, she continued the push to replace terms such as oriental, eskimo and negro in federal codes with descriptors that are more politically correct.
The pair also talked about using their platforms to push back against harmful stereotypes about Asian Americans.
In 2016, prior to the presidential election, “The O’Reilly Factor,” on Fox News, aired a segment in which contributor Jesse Watters conducted man-on-the-street interviews in Chinatown, asking Chinese voters how they felt about Donald Trump. However, during the segment, Watters took cheap jabs at Asian stereotypes and targeted elderly people, who were unlikely to speak English, in an attempt to embarrass them. In response, Chieng went down to Chinatown for the Daily Show and spoke to people in their dialect of Chinese. His segment went viral.
“People lined up to give their opinions on it,” he said. “We should take heart that the negative reaction to (the Fox clip) was so overwhelming. Most people knew it wasn’t cool.”
“On a personal level, it was offensive,” Meng said of Watters’ segment, adding that she could imagine her own grandmother being targeted and embarrassed because she doesn’t speak English. “People think it’s part of our culture to not speak up or stand up for ourselves.”
She said she tries to teach her sons to speak up when they are being harmed or picked on because of their culture.
Since Asian representation in our politics and media is low, Meng and Chieng are often asked to represent all Asian groups, and that can be tricky. “It’s not a monolith to say the least,” Chieng said, adding that the distinction between Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Thai Americans, and so on, are not often made, and the groups are lumped together.
“Even if you address them generally, there are competing philosophies between the different groups,” he said. “At The Daily Show, I have to rep the entire continent. I have to show them the point of view of these people, or say this isn’t a joke we can say.”
He said one way to move forward would be to create context for Asian stories in the United States. “We need to set a base level of storytelling,” he said. “That’s how you get “Get Out.” That’s how you get “Black Panther.”