Mainstream stereotypes have created an image of what it means to be Chinese-American. Fortunately, The Universal Asian had the opportunity to chat with the co-hosts of 2Crasians podcast, Cindy Yep and Nancy Lee, about how they humorously and honestly address these realities in hopes of helping others feel camaraderie in commiserating and coping.
I think it was Episode 10 or something like that, when you two shared your origin stories, but for those who haven’t heard it yet, could you give us a brief on your backgrounds?
Sure. Well, the reason we met and started our podcast is because we were working together and started talking. We had such similar life stories as Chinese-Americans. But, we are second-generation because our parents came from China.
Cindy: Nancy, you were born in Pennsylvania like me. My parents had taken a similar journey to yours. [Nancy’s] parents came to New York. Then, they went to Pennsylvania, and had kids. While [Nancy’s] parents stayed there, my parents took us to the West Coast. It’s just really interesting how we both had this story of both our moms being from Taiwan. Plus, there were other examples, like Cindy’s grandfather or great grandfather was a high ranking official in China and so was mine.
Nancy: Yeah, and we found we had the same mythologies that our parents had, etc. So that’s how we got started.
Cindy: We’d known each other for like a month. And I was like, you’re my sister. This is how it’s going to be. We went traveling together to Portugal. While we were on the beautiful beaches of Portugal, we’re like, we’re going to start a podcast.
Wow. So growing up as Chinese-American, did you identify with being Chinese? Or, did you have one identity that was stronger than the other?
Nancy: I grew up in a very Jewish-American town. Like all Asian parents, mine wanted us to have the best education possible. So, my parents asked the realtor where all the Jewish people lived and took us to a small town called Huntingdon Valley in Pennsylvania, right outside Philadelphia. They owned Chinese restaurants and I grew up spending weekends at my parents’ store. The weekdays were spent going to school with my white Jewish friends.
Eighty percent of my school was Jewish. So, I definitely had this challenge with my identity. I’d look in the mirror—confused with sounding [one way], but also looking like this. And I was like: Why don’t I have brown hair, blue or green eyes like my girlfriends? Why are my eyes so slanted? Where are my eyelids?
Plus, I always was having to apologize for my parents and be a translator for them, and I was embarrassed. When you’re young, you just want to fit in. I realized as an adult that I’m a pleaser, so I tried really hard to assimilate with the culture. So much so, my girlfriends would say, “You’re like a Jewish girl, anyway.” And, I was fine with it. But, at the same time, I was like, no, I’m actually Chinese.
Cindy: I was always trying to appease people. I was class president. I was in all the clubs. At work, I did everything. I wanted to be social and popular. Then, I did a semester program at sea. The first country we went to was Cuba. Then we went to Brazil and ten other countries. By the time we got to China, which was country eight, I had gone through all these different cultures and thought, “Wow, it’s really cool to be different.”
We learned about how people are so proud of their heritage and their culture, their food, their music, their entertainment, their history. So, the fact that I was able to see it through the lens of other people’s culture and accept it, arriving in China gave me this sort of weird out-of-body experience. I got there, and everyone thought I was American because I’m not Chinese enough. But, at the same time, all my classmates wanted me to be around because I spoke broken Chinese.
I think the moment that was like my aha thing: I was at Temple of Heaven in Beijing and I was on a tour and they were talking about the paint used in this temple and how the paint actually has some sort of natural ingredient that [is dust repellent]. I was like, these people that are Chinese, who are my ancestors, they had the foresight to think it’s going to get dusty up there. I was so proud.
I started to have this different relationship with my identity, where it’s not all one thing or the other. We can be proud one moment, and then we can be ashamed the next. We can have these injuries, then try to explore them. That’s why we make sure that we’re not always just cutting down our traditions [in the podcast]. We also talk about what’s great about being Asian and trying to lift each other up.
So talking about the podcast, what is your overall aim or mission with it?
When we were deciding to start this podcast, we discussed: do we say it’s Asian-American, Chinese, American immigrants? Who are we targeting? We eventually landed on Chinese-American because we’re both Chinese-American and that’s what we can speak to.
Our mission is to try to explore characteristics that we have in common from our childhood and try to do it in a fun and entertaining way.
We didn’t want to make it this big production of things. We just wanted to have a conversation between the two of us as friends and make it very candid and lighthearted. But through telling our stories similar to others, they can feel like, “Oh, yeah, my mom’s not that crazy?”
Being able to share stories and demystify these feelings that you are the only one that feels like this allows people to understand and also realize, all our moms are crazy.
To be honest, we grew up feeling different from people around us and even mainstream Asians, but saw comedians like Margaret Cho and later, Ali Wong who made us realize our “otherness” makes us unique and possibly…cool? Nowadays, there are lots of role models for outspoken “crasians” like us and we’re finding more things in common than different.
Actually, a lot of the people that listen to the podcast are not Asian-American nor Chinese-American, but they are of hyphenated backgrounds. It’s about trying to interweave your mother culture with this culture that you also gravitate toward and feel very comfortable in. But, how do you intertwine the two?
You guys have the tagline of “The Asian-American podcast where The Joy Luck Club meets Drunk History”; how did you come up with that?
Just one of those instant magic things. Joy Luck Club is like a seminal book for anyone who’s kind of our age. They had the very serious family relationships, but we’re not that serious. So, with Drunk History, that’s where the lighthearted energy comes from.
How do you decide upon your topics for the podcast episodes?
We’ll have a brainstorm or just talk about something that’s been rattling around in our heads. For example, we have done two on the Coronavirus. One was like, “it’s probably not that bad.” And then the next one was like, “oh, the world is over. Oops. Sorry, guys.”
In your About section on your website, it says that you have disturbing childhood flashbacks and you lovingly blame it on your immigrant parents, could you explain a little bit more what that means?
God, my parents don’t even like me having this podcast.
Nancy: My dad was not happy about the podcast. I think it’s something to do with the fact that Chinese-Americans are always not wanting to really ruffle feathers, and I’m putting his opinion out there. He really just wanted me to kibosh it. As a good Asian girl, I want to obey. But, at the same time, it’s something that I really enjoy and I think is a platform that helps others not feel alone in how they feel or the experiences they are going through.
Cindy has so many fun, interesting stories with her family. All the old wives tales that we covered in the first couple episodes that we did were like my punchline stories that I’ve told people for years.
We talk about what we know, which are our own stories. And sometimes we’ll have flashbacks and be like, oh my God. So, it’s like group therapy for us and, hopefully, others. Still, we don’t want it to become a thing where we’re just bashing our parents all the time.
Cindy: My dad is Hakka Chinese from India, and my mom was born in China and grew up in Taiwan. Growing up I didn’t know things like what Hakka is, so the podcast has been a way to explore things like that and learn about myself. They [my parents] did the best they could. They are kids of their parents. We’re enormously privileged to have been born here and speak English. But still, they gave us a lot of material and it was really funny. So, we want to put it out there.
What would your takeaway be for younger, aspiring universal Asians, or how would you encourage our universal Asian population to pursue their art or to do whatever it is they want to do in life?
Don’t over try to produce it. Don’t go trying to perfect it. Just get it out there.
If you’re not a speaker, then be a writer. If you’re not a writer, do music or something. Just, if you have something to say, just put it out there and do not overthink how people are going to perceive it or how perfect it has to be before you do it.
Because, in the time and space that we are in now, there are so many things that are overproduced, and then there are things that are very raw, like ours. So just learn by doing. You have to have some way to express yourself.