USC Visions and Voices – A Conversation with John Cho and Viet Thanh Nguyen

John Cho and Viet Thanh Nguyen discuss Asian-American identity during this USC Visions and Voices event.

A timely conversation on race, representation, and the arts between actor John Cho (Better Luck Tomorrow, American Pie, Harold & Kumar, and Star Trek) and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen(The Sympathizer). Exploring their overlapping interests in film, literature, and Asian American representation, Cho and Nguyen will illuminate the challenges faced by Asian American artists, and the opportunities and pitfalls of a career in the arts—for Asian Americans and for everyone.

The link to the video is here.

Here is the transcript of the video.

Jonathan Wang: Welcome everyone to our Vision and Voices event with John Cho and Viet Nguyen. Thank you for joining us tonight. My name is Jonathan Wang. I’m the senate director for our USC Asian Pacific American Student Services. APAS is celebrating our 35th year here on campus, educating, engaging and empowering our Asian Pacific American students in our community. I’m excited and honored to introduce our two guests for tonight.

Jonathan Wang: First, as one of today’s most dynamic actors, John Cho continues to deliver compelling performances in both film and television. On television John can be seen in season two of Fox’s horror series The Exorcist. He can also be seen in theaters starring Kogonada’s film Columbus, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Jonathan Wang: John recently starred in Justin Lin’s Star Trek beyond, JJ Abrams, Star Trek Into Darkness, Gemini, Identity Thief, That Burning Feeling, The Asian-American Crime Drama, Better Luck Tomorrow, and the Best Picture Oscar Winner American Beauty. John Cho achieved near household name status, starring in the cult comedy franchise Harold and Kumar.

Jonathan Wang: Born in South Korea and raised in Los Angeles, John began acting while studying English literature at UC Berkeley.

Jonathan Wang: Viet Nguyen is our second guest and a dear supporter of APAS. He’s Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicities, and comparative literature at USC. Viet’s novel, The Sympathizer is a New York Times Bestseller, and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His other books include Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America.

Jonathan Wang: His current book The Refugees is a the bestselling short story collection. He is a critic-at-large for Los Angeles Times, and has written for the New York Times, Times Magazine, The Guardian, The Atlantic and other venues. Most recently he has been the recipient of fellowships from The Guggenheim and The MacArthur Foundations.

Jonathan Wang: Born in Vietnam, he came to the United States as a refugee in 1975 with his family, and was initially resettled in Pennsylvania one of four such camps for Vietnamese refugees. Viet is actively involved with promoting the arts and the culture of the Vietnamese in the diaspora through two organizations, The Diasporic Vietnamese Artistic Network and diaCRITICS.

Jonathan Wang: After they speak for about 30 minutes, there will be a Q&A session. There are mics on the first floor here and here, and one on the second balcony right in the center. If you are interested you can come up and an usher will help you with the mic. Please welcome into the stage John and Viet.

John Cho: I’m going out first. I see. I get it.

Viet Nguyen: Hello USC, thank you for giving a Trojan welcome to two Cow Bears. It’s such a real thrill for me to be up here on the stage with John Cho since he’s a movie star, and I’m just a professor. We actually go way back in one sense because we were both students at Berkeley around the same time. Just for the anecdote, because I actually heard John Cho’s name way way back, I don’t remember, 1992 or something like that. The reason why was because I was part of a group of graduate students who were editing an Asian-American studies journal and we published a paper by a guy named John Cho, about a very complicated book called Dictee by Theresa Cha. It’s like one of the most difficult books you could read. Here we have this guy writing a very intelligent paper about this, and then he goes on to become an actor.

John Cho: What an idiot?

Viet Nguyen: I have great respect for John Cho. Was that like, did you ever think about being a professor, an English professor like me?

John Cho: When I was in college, thanks for having me. It’s great to see you guys. In college I was trying to figure it out. Like many of you. Actually you guys probably … It seems like the younger people have it much more together. I was sort of floating through, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I figured I just go, get another degree, just so I could read more books and avoid making a decision and then I stumbled into a play. I was in a writing group, a creative writing group. There was another student who was directing a play, a student play and he said, “How tall are you and what do you weight?”

John Cho: I told him six 6″7, 290. I was a power forward for the Denver nuggets. He said, “I have a play and a guy got sick and I’d like to do the role.” I gave it a shot. It was fun. I primarily remember enjoying the feeling of being with other weirdos. I gave it a shot.

Viet Nguyen: I think it’s important to talk about this kind of stuff. One other thing, we were both English majors.

John Cho: Yes.

Viet Nguyen: That whole question, what are you gonna do with an English major? You’ve got two answers right here. In case you need to go home to your parents and justify that. You became an actor.

John Cho: Yes.

Viet Nguyen: Were you scared? I would be scared if I ever thought to myself, “I’m gonna be an actor.”

John Cho: I was too dumb to be scared. I didn’t expect any success. I think my bar was very low. I said I’d give it five years and see what was happening. Really my goal was to turn 40 and not have a second job. My expectations were very modest. I didn’t grow up dreaming about being an actor. It just seemed it was something interesting to me. It actually was a dynamic way into studying text. I think that was my end.

John Cho: My first play was an adaptation of the book Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Anyone read that? That was happening on campus, and that’s how I got my first professional play. They needed a bigger space, it was Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Viet Nguyen: I saw that play.

John Cho: You saw that play?

Viet Nguyen: I did see that play. That’s right.

John Cho: They needed [inaudible 00:07:55] because they needed big big stage, and they had to hire some students in order to have the space. I was one of the students. I auditioned in … I had to be stage hand as well. That’s how I did it. What I found fascinating about the experience was I had read the book, found it very interesting. It was way into … It was a literary experience for me, but it was also a way into history, sociology and … It makes me sound smarter than I am.

Viet Nguyen: When you said study text, I liked you better already.

John Cho: Text, not books. Text.

Viet Nguyen: Did you ever take Maxine’s class at Berkeley, because she was a professor there.

John Cho: I didn’t. I actually think I met her at her house first. That might have been … It was a mind-blowing experience. I think the act of putting a show up on its feet seemed so much more interesting than reading the book and discussing the issues.

John Cho: I thought maybe there is something there. During that show, I met something called an Asian-American actor that I didn’t know that there were such a species in the wild. I met a bunch of them, who were older, who did theater, and television. I thought, so this is a thing?

Viet Nguyen: Were these guys with Asian-American theater company up in San Francisco-

John Cho: As I recall they were from all over the place, but mostly from Los Angeles. When I graduated I move to LA instead of New York.

Viet Nguyen: You said you met an Asian-American actor, that was such a weird experience to see that. For me it was like finding Maxine Hong Kingston, who was my professor at Berkeley, and realizing there were such a thing as Asian-American authors, and Asian-American books, and Asian-American stories. This was … That was a really transformative experience for me at that time to witness that.

John Cho: Yeah. Also I think during college I was made aware of the adjective Asian-American. That was something that … Asian-American is, it is kind of a, it’s not a place, it’s not a culture, it is a political designation and it is something that … I sometimes I look back and I realize that was my individuation from my parents. It was like they identified as Korean, and I was going to identify as something different. When you are young if you are growing up as I did in Houston, you think of the world as us and the white folk, or the Americans as my parents call them.

John Cho: I was like, I think Asian-American was this designation that I held onto. In a way it’s papier-mache, there is nothing there. On the other hand it is substantive. It’s a strange term.

Viet Nguyen: I grew up in San Jose, downtown San Jose, which was a very rough neighborhood in the 80s, and it was a multicultural neighborhood, very diverse. Then I went to this very elite private white high school, mostly white, and there was a handful of us who were of Asian descent. Every day for lunch we would gather in a corner of the campus and we would call ourselves the Asian invasion. This was the 80s.

John Cho: Good stuff.

Viet Nguyen: At least we didn’t call ourselves the yellow parrots. Asian invasion is a little bit than the yellow parrot.

John Cho: That could have been the title to The Sympathizer.

Viet Nguyen: Maybe. The point is, we knew we were different, but we didn’t have a language, except racist language. We called ourselves by a stereotype. To come to Berkeley, and take Asian-American studies classes, and read Asian-American books, learn about the Asian-American history. It was like being hit by a lightning. I was like, “What happened to the 19th century?” You mean you outlawed Chinese immigration in the 19th century, you had put Japanese into concentration camps in the 1940s?

Viet Nguyen: I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff. You are right, in the one hand, Asian-American is papier-mache. It’s a great metaphor, because it’s so artificial, but it’s so powerful at the same time, because it gives us a name and a designation, which can be problematic in some ways, but in other ways it allows us to organize and to do something primarily-

John Cho: I feel like it’s an organization tool. It is also a peculiarly … Maybe that’s the wrong adverb. It’s an American designation. It says you see us all as this, you see us all as one mess. It’s rejection of what they see us as, and saying we are going to be organized and we are gonna push back against that. It’s funny like, the character in your book goes to accidental, and when I read that, I thought of … Did you take Ron Takaki’s class?

Viet Nguyen: I did take Ron Takaki. That was my first class.

John Cho: Day one he schooled us on where the term oriental comes from.

Viet Nguyen: Maybe we were in the same class, because I remember Ron Takaki wrote strangers from a different shore, one of the first Asian-American histories, and his class at Berkeley ancient Asian-American studies was 500 people maybe?

John Cho: It was big.

Viet Nguyen: it was big and it changed my life. Again, to have this idea that there were actually Asian-Americans that had been here in this country for hundreds of years, and that we played an important role in this country, and that we’ve been discriminated against in this country in so many different ways is mind blowing.

John Cho: Yeah. Incidentally great hair.

Viet Nguyen: Me?

John Cho: Ron Takaki. You too.

Viet Nguyen: Ron Takaki. We should talk about great hair. Mutual hair love fest.

John Cho: He had this great shock of white hair. It just levitated above his scalp.

Viet Nguyen: He was a performer too. He would lecture and just captivate the crowds. Maybe that’s what you wanna do. You are an actor, you are a storyteller. What you wanna do is to captivate the audience. Of course cast them into another world, but also maybe inspire them to do something of their own, Ron Takaki did Asian-American history, but now you are doing not just Asian-American acting, but that’s one thing you do. I wanna talk about that. You are an Asian-American actor, but you are also an actor. You’ve had an impact in both ways.

Viet Nguyen: On one hand you’ve played Harold in Harold and Kumar, and given pride to pot smokers everywhere. Now it’s legal. Back then it wasn’t. This is like a path breaking.

John Cho: One of the stories I like to tell. After I did the first Harold and Kumar, this Asian-American woman came up to me on the street and I sort of was bracing for what she was gonna say. She said, “Thank you. Thank you for representing.” I felt the words out of my mind, but she said, “Thank you for representing us stoners.” You never know.

Viet Nguyen: Not everybody has to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer. That’s all good, that’s all important. We need you guys, pharmacists. Pharmacists are important too, like almost Vietnamese woman I know is a pharmacist. We need the actors and the storytellers, and the writers, and the professors and other kind of stuff as well, and also the stoners, and the dropouts.

John Cho: Yes, we need the stoners.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely, because Asian-Americans are human too, which means we can do dumb stuff as well. Not dumb stuff, pot smoking is not dumb, I’m sure it’s a very noble occupation. You wanna represent the full diversity of Asian-American life if [crosstalk 00:16:25].

John Cho: I think that you said an important idea, something that I think about which is, when i think about … I think less about stereotypes or combating stereotypes, and think more about humanity in a roll. I’m just drawn too if I’m lucky enough to pick stuff, it’s … Generally I select what’s in front of me. It’s not like I can make things happen. I look for what’s the most fully human, and I think that’s the best way to combat stereotypes, because there is a thing like if you think Asian-American men are being represented this way.

John Cho: You can get caught up in how to fight the stereotype. What I feel like the problem is, is that Asians for some reason in America are seen as not human. Sometimes the men are seen as robots, computers, which are not human, and women are seen as sex objects, and also not human. You could argue that the model minority thing is uber human. I’m looking for just human with souls, and I figure if i follow that I’d be okay. I try not to think about … I try not to dwell too much on adjectives and throwing out competing adjectives, you know what I’m saying?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah. I mean if we are writers or actors or whatever, that’s what we wanna do. We wanna inhabit humanity, which can also mean inhabiting inhumanity. The stereotype like you say is like we are geeks and we are subhuman and things like that. We wanna deny those kinds of things, and inhabit more human roles. Sometimes we also have to depict what’s terrible about us, about Asians or Asian-Americans as well. That’s part of what we wanna claim. We wanna claim the capacity not just to be perfect, again the doctor stereotype or whatever, but to be the stoner, or to be criminal. These are all things that … If a white person would have played any of those roles no one would go around saying, “All white people are stoners, all white people are criminals.”

John Cho: They are though.

Viet Nguyen: Maybe some parts. Because we don’t have access to all of these opportunities, every time you play a role for example, you become the representative of the Asian-Americans, and then people put so much weight and pressure on that. Do you feel like you are a representative, do you feel like you have to worry about this kind of stuff?

John Cho: I try not to think about it. I don’t think it’s healthy to think about it. We are living in a strange time when everyone has access to this currency called fame. Everyone who has a Facebook profile has some degree of fame. And it has … People accrue this currency and to what end I’m not sure. I don’t know that we as a species are capable of dealing with the fact that we are known to many people to many people that we do not know. The idea that I have some reach out there to dwell on that, it’s hard, I’m not sure that it’s healthy for me to think about … I already have this tendency to think about my Asian-American audience too much. To an unhealthy degree I’d say. It’s something that I’ve dealt with throughout my career where I’m reading a script and I think about what does 12 year old me think about this?

John Cho: This is turning into a therapy session. When I should be thinking, is this gonna be fun? Do I wanna do this? What’s in it for me? I’m aware to some extent of that, I try … Ironically I feel like what’s best for Asian-American is for me to follow my own interests, and that seems revolutionary to some extent.

Viet Nguyen: For example, Star Trek has had a big impact … Not just Harold and Kumar, but Star Trek you get to play Sulu. It seems like a dream role in some ways, but then you also did a movie recently, this came out a few months ago, Columbus. I saw that, it’s an excellent movie.

John Cho: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: You get to see john’s butt by the way. I’ll just leave it out there since you did in the movie. I’m not giving anything away.

John Cho: It’s marvelous.

Viet Nguyen: One time before we knew each other, I went to the gym, and you were on the treadmill.

John Cho: I was?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, you were.

John Cho: I work out, whatever.

Viet Nguyen: I was like, “Yeah, John Cho works out. He looks good good in the gym.” To go back to Columbus, part of what you are talking, it’s a movie that does involve being Korean, or a Korean-American. Which is important, but it’s also mostly about this triangle of human relationships that’s happening in there.

John Cho: The Koreanness in that film was subterranean in a lot of ways. It was like … It’s mostly the idea of this father, I play this guy whose father collapses from a stroke in this town called Columbus, and I must come as his son to take care of him, and he’s in a coma. What I found most culturally resonant about that role was the idea that the parent was a deity almost, more than a parent. That even though my parents are Christian, they can’t get rid of the idea that parents are gods to their children and that to me was the cultural thing that I related to the most.

John Cho: Other than that there weren’t a whole lot of cultural markers, but there is this idea that an Asian-American rule has certain number of adjectives that fit you. I found that I’m attracted to roles where the Asian-American part is much lower on the list of importance. I feel like that’s how I walk around is that I think of myself as … I don’t know, the things that would rank above Asian-American are a father, a husband, actor, man. I don’t know where Asian-American is, or Asian, or Korean is, Korean maybe before Asian-American, and some days Korean is higher, on days that I’m fighting with my father. It’s pretty high. There is a way that we fight. That’s culturally specific. That felt accurate.

Viet Nguyen: That’s what I mean, it felt accurate because the character you are playing is Korean-American. That again plays a part in his life. It’s mostly about this drama between him and his father, who we never actually get to see. We never get to see his face, because he’s a deity that you are talking about. It focuses on human relationships which is how most of us exist. Most of us who are a minority of some kind don’t go around constantly thinking, “I’m a minority.” It would be very unpleasant to be that way. We can’t deny it at the same time.

John Cho: That’s right. It is the strangeness of American life is you are very aware of your race. Sometimes I forget it and then I’m made aware of it. Sometimes it can be on my own, just looking in the mirror, oh, that’s right.

Viet Nguyen: Are you ever … I’m often the only Asian in the room. On this campus, I’m often the only Asian in the room. Not if I hang around students. If I hang around students there is like ton of you guys are Asian. In department meetings, all that kind of stuff. The corridors of power, or whatever that is. Often times the only Asian or the only non white person. I’m figuring in Hollywood this must be a very common thing. That you look around and you are like, “Oh, I’m the only Asian guy here.”

John Cho: You are right. I remember early on in my career … It’s very weird to say my career. When I was young, one of my first jobs. I don’t remember what it was. It might have been The Jeff Foxworthy Show, which is the greatest American comedian who’s ever lived. He had a sitcom and I think I was playing a Chinese delivery guy with a southern accent.

Viet Nguyen: Can you do it for us?

John Cho: I should be able to. I used to have one. You know you are Asian if. That was the joke. At that time I was turning down stuff that I felt was stereotypical. I think I took the job, I agreed to go on the audition because I thought, “Oh well, it’s playing against the stereotype.” Again, that was tricky, because it was having fun with it also.

John Cho: Anyway, I remember doing it, the crew left. If you’ve never been on a set, it is pretty much all white, less so today. At the time, pretty much exclusively male. I remember being so uncomfortable, and I thought, I don’t ever want this feeling again. Then I was extra … I avoided it with maybe again to bring up that word. With a non healthy amount of vigor.

Viet Nguyen: Those of us who are involved in arts and culture. We are concerned with the output, or whatever you wanna call it, the story, like the movie, or the novel, and so on. That’s what mostly the audience get to deal with if they watch a movie or they read a book. That’s important, because then we have John Cho is the actor, or we have The Sympathizer is a novel and these things can transform the American landscape to some extent.

Viet Nguyen: We have to contend with the fact that we work in industries that are not the same way. Hollywood is mostly white as far as I can tell. The literary publishing industry in New York is 87% white, although there is more women there than there are in Hollywood. Real transformation takes place not just through getting John Cho a role or me having my book published. To transform what happens behind the scenes, so that the set that you go on is not all white for example.

Viet Nguyen: That’s why it seems like it’s such an important moment for something like Fresh Off The Boat to succeed on TV. Because it creates new opportunities for Asian-Americans behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. I’m bringing all this up, because I think there is so much important work to be done culturally behind the scenes. You don’t have to become an actor or a writer, we need people to be producers and directors, and stage hands. For those of you who just want to be doctors, we need people to give money. Asian-American are becoming rich, Silicon Valley, this kind of stuff. You’ve got to give your money to the arts and cultural world as well as to saving children or something like that.

John Cho: Yes. There is a greed, and it is important to get people behind the camera, and I think that’s very impactful. I also don’t wanna shortchange diversity in other fields. Things happen when the executives you are talking about. Their children have sleepovers with their Asian-American friends, or they go to the pharmacy and have Vietnamese pharmacists. All those experiences of multicultural life in America I think affect incrementally how we are represented.

John Cho: I think there is an outside importance on what goes on television screens and in cinema. It’s just one facet, the thing that we are so underrepresented in those areas, and I think that speaks to the importance of … I feel like it’s probably, we’ve agreed that it’s our national culture. We want to claim it too.

Viet Nguyen: I remember when I was growing up in San Jose, downtown San Jose. We were refugees in the 70s and 80s. My parents opened the second Vietnamese grocery store in downtown San Jose. As a kid I remember walking down the street into my parents’ store, and there was a sign in a nearby window that said, “Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese.”

John Cho: Get out.

Viet Nguyen: And I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. Of course I didn’t have an Asian-American language, or a Marxist language or whatever to make sense of this. I just thought, I’m pretty sure that guy doesn’t like me. And doesn’t like my parents. That guy, whoever, or woman, whoever put that sign in the window, has never met a Vietnamese person, does not know that my parents are working 12 to 14 hour days, does not know that my parents got shot in their store on Christmas eve. Both these things are true. On the one hand you are absolutely right, change happens because people get exposed to other people that they never get to meet otherwise.

Viet Nguyen: Change happens also by contesting that sign, another American driven out of business by fill in the blank, because before the Vietnamese it was the Chinese, and the Japanese, and at the same time … Now it’s like, it’s the Chinese and the north Koreans now at this point. The battle continues to change story.

John Cho: I used to think how strange it was that my parents had these preconceived notions about African-Americans. I used to think like, “What led you to these beliefs?” Because they grew up in Korea and probably met very few of them. I thought, it’s probably American movies. If you think about Los Angeles riots, uprising whatever you wanna call it, and you think about the chain of events, the images that Hollywood was producing, affected these Koreans. They thought this about African-Americans, they immigrated back to Los Angeles, and then there is … It’s almost like the problems came home to [crosstalk 00:33:57].

Viet Nguyen: I’ll tell you something. Vietnamese people are racist. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that in public, but Vietnamese people are racist.

John Cho: I say that in public a lot.

Viet Nguyen: I’m sure Koreans aren’t any different and every other group. When we are talking about changing stories. It’s not just changing one perception, it’s also changing as you are implying I think the perceptions of our own communities.

John Cho: Yeah. There are so many thoughts I’m having. Again it starts with humanizing all the characters, as many as you can. If you can lean into that, I think things happen. It’s … I think I’m actually psychologically unable to accept the impact of those things. It’s almost too much to think about.

Viet Nguyen: I wanna ask you something that’s not just about the professional stuff, and Asian-Americans or whatever. You said the most important thing for you right now is being a father. Is that number one?

John Cho: Yeah.

Viet Nguyen: I’m a father too. Never thought I’d be a father. Of course, spent a lot of time thinking about how I was raised, and how I should raise my own son, and confronting all the different challenges that any father and son would have. Compounded also by being Asian-American or being minority and so on. What do you do, do you have a philosophy as a father about how you are gonna raise your children?

John Cho: No. I will say that I’ve been thinking so much about, having a kid is like such an examination of the generation before you. You end up … For me I end up thinking about my parents and their parents parents. The things that are passed on … Why I know the things I know, and why I don’t know the things I don’t know. And editing, what do I give, what do I hold back, what do I change, what do I keep?

John Cho: It has been almost like I’m living every day of my childhood as I raise my kids. I’m blindly fumbling my way through it. The overarching thing, the thing that I missed most in my life was stability. We moved around so much. I wanna give him and her a sense of rootedness that I never had, to make them feel safe, and have ownership of where they are. If that makes sense.

Viet Nguyen: Like I said, my parents were working 12 to 14 hour days. We were very rooted, we stayed in San Jose. There was a typical refugee or immigrant story where my parents sacrificed everything to make sure my brother and I were growing up and had everything we needed, except for affection. I’m not dissing my parents. Like I said, now my parents are very affectionate, because they are not working 12 to 14 hour days. You’d be pretty grouchy too if you had to do that every day of the year. Then it makes me think, that’s for me one of the things I wanna change. I work a lot, but I also wanna be more affectionate with my own son.

John Cho: That’s another thing I wanna change is, my parents put into my head the sense of, we sacrificed for you to be here. We came here for you. As I think about it now, I would never say that to my kid. It’s too much to put on a child. That’s a common Asian thing that I hear, for you, for you. It’s like, I don’t wanna know that you left your family and crossed an ocean for me. I’m seven motherfucker. It’s not cool man. I also think it’s a lie. It’s a little bit of a lie. I think it would be healthy, but this has not ever been uttered by an Asian parent.

Viet Nguyen: I have never said that. When my son asks me for legos, or whatever he wants and I tell him he can’t have it. I ask him, do you know why you can’t have those legos? And he says, “Because you are a refugee?” I taught him well. Now we have time for some questions from the audience. You will actually have to come up to the microphones. There are two in the front and one up on top. We’ll just go in rotation. I think this gentleman was first. You first.

Dylan Locke: Hello. Hi, my name is Dylan Locke, I’m a freshman theater major here at USD. Theater, so dumb. Yes. It’s different I guess.

Viet Nguyen: Now that the stage lights are on, I just wanna do this. Can’t help it, I’m Asian.

Dylan Locke: Well, so first of all, one of the things that I really wanted to do is thank you both for your honesty and vulnerability, especially talking about personal struggles and internal conflict. As an actor, one of the things that I’m really trying to come to terms with, struggling to come to terms with now is sort of the extent to which I justify doing theater and portraying characters as a way of escaping a sense of self consciousness and self-esteem struggles. Just to hear the things that you guys have said really means the world to me. Thank you.

John Cho: Thank you.

Viet Nguyen: And keep it up. I think besides all that … Hopefully part of what we do is because we love what we do. I love to write, I assume you love to act. That in and of itself is enough justification I think because you are gonna have to live with yourself for the rest of your life and do what you do for you not for whatever somebody else is expecting.

Dylan Locke: I do, my sort of main question is a little more political. I was wondering how you feel about the sort of tiny tiny niche and place that Asian-American actors and artists have in society. Especially given that there’s been some early signs now that Hollywood is starting to acknowledge the big potential markets of Asia, with countries like China. And sort of how do you feel about those possibilities of Hollywood catering to Asian audiences specifically rather than Asian-American ones? Sort of how would you propose navigating that landscape as an Asian-American artist?

John Cho: You know it’s funny, this is to me thematically The Sympathizer deals with being lost, the idea of where is my home now? I’ve always felt like no one cared about Asian-Americans in the sense that the larger American population didn’t care what we were going through. And neither did Asians. It’s interesting that this sort of casting boon is cynically I feel like is … We’ll get some popstar from China to be an ancillary character in a tights movie, which is what I call the superhero movies.

John Cho: It’s like, who gives a shit? It seems like such a cynical ploy to get Chinese eyes or dollars, or yuan, or whatever. That’s my honest feeling about it. I don’t see it particularly as progression. How does it affect us? I don’t know how it affects you and me. Sorry if that’s not a good answer.

Viet Nguyen: Let’s take a question from up there.

John Cho: I feel deflated from my own cynicism. I bum me out.

Abel Vaine: All right. Thank you guys for being here tonight. My name is Abel Vaine. I graduated 2011 from the MFA program here [inaudible 00:43:41] here. Before I ask my question. I was part of a group called the Hmong American Writers Circle. It was created by my brother and a few of his colleagues. Out of this small little writing group of about a dozen folks from the Hmong American community. Two went on to with the Oscars Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, and one went on to win the Walt Whitman Prize in poetry, Afterland, Mai Der Vang. I’m sure you-

Viet Nguyen: I’ve read her book.

Abel Vaine: Yes. My question is, and this is something that I’ve talked over a lot with my colleagues is that being from the literary world, do you face the same opposition that a screenwriter would face? The folks that have won the Nicholl Fellowship in this group have experienced a very different path in terms of being a writer. For writing content that’s Asian-American they would not get into a room.

Abel Vaine: They would get passed on because the character just happens to be Asian. The agents dropped them because their script had an Asian-American lead, versus a person who would write the same story, but for the literary world would be praised for it, and would get a book deal or whatnot. In your experience, do you face that kind of opposition in the literary world? To you John, as a screenwriter, how do we combat the type of discrimination we face in the film industry?

Viet Nguyen: I think you are right that in literature it’s actually easier to be an Asian-American writer writing about Asian-American things than it is to do the same thing in Hollywood, for all those reasons you outlined. There is a problem there. The Asian-America, it’s a niche, which means it’s both an opportunity and a trap. If you go out there and you say, I am the new ex-Asian-American writer. First it was Vietnamese American, now it’s mong-American for example.

Viet Nguyen: The publishing world would be like, “Yeah, that’s cool. Now we can market that. Now there is an Asian-American audience for that. We’ll publish your book.” The reason it’s a trap is because they too in the publishing world have their stereotypes of what it is that Asian-American literature should be.

Viet Nguyen: I wrote The Sympathizer, I’m a professor of Asian-American literature. I know a lot about Asian-American literature and I know what kind of stories we are supposed to tell. Basically, if you are Vietnamese like me, you are supposed to tell the story of the grateful refugee. You bombed our country, I know that’s bad, but now I’ve got my piece of the American dream, it’s all good.

Viet Nguyen: That’s the story you are supposed to tell. The Sympathizer doesn’t tell that story. We sent it out and it was rejected by 13 out of 14 publishers. These were the publishers that my agent thought would be the most ideal readers. Yes, you can tell an Asian-American story and it can be accepted, but if you deviate from the road you are supposed to follow, according to the people who control the publishing industry, and that’s why I said what goes on behind the scenes is so important, the editors, the agents, the producers, all these people have so much power over what eventually gets put out there, that even in the publishing world, where Asian-American literature is hot, you still have to struggle to get your own, if you have a unique vision to get that vision out there.

John Cho: Please repeat the question you had for me.

Abel Vaine: How do you combat the discrimination in Hollywood as an Asian-American screenwriter?

John Cho: I knew it was something I didn’t have the answer to. I think … I was just thinking about this earlier. If I’m thinking about race or my own identity and stuff, it’s really largely the time after I’m finished with the job. When I’m going doing press for a movie, doing a talk like this. It is not germane to the work that I do, and I sometimes find it’s strange that I’m thinking or talking about these things.

John Cho: I would suggest that the real important work is the writing, and only you know how to get your story on paper. And what feels true to you, and what is meaningful to you. If you focus on that I think that the rest of it will answer itself. That sounds wise, I’m gonna go with it.

Viet Nguyen: Let’s take a question from up in the balcony.

Lang Wing: Hello, my name is Lang Wing I’m a master’s student in Asian-American studies at UCLA. Go Bruins. Sorry.

Lang Wing: My question for both of you is how should the Asian-American community go about telling our stories and highlighting our stories without stepping on other races? Because a lot of times I see Asian-American stand up comedians making fun of Latinos, and Black people and the refugee experience. I also see movies where they highlight children who are refugees being picked on by these other races. How do we go telling our stories and highlighting our stories while also standing in solidarity with other people?

Viet Nguyen: You wanna go first?

John Cho: I don’t know. Again, all I can say is whatever work you are doing, what I like to see, what I’m attracted to is authenticity, if it’s authentic, and if it’s authentically insulting, I think that’s okay. If it’s meaningful to you, if it’s a story that speaks to you, I think you have to tell it. Consequences be damned, I’m certainly not saying be careless or don’t think about others. I just feel like the creative impulse is, it’s a very weak candle. You have to finish my metaphor for me-

Viet Nguyen: It’s a very weak candle? I’ve never heard of that. papier-mache was better.

John Cho: Yeah. It’s just … You have to take care of this flame is what I’m trying to say. It’s the flame, the fire of creativity. When you have an idea, there is … When you have a good idea they are so few far between, I think you go with it.

Viet Nguyen: On the one hand if what we are talking about is the fact that sometimes Asian-Americans can be racists for example. You have to depict that. That then means depicting them saying bad things or doing bad things. Obviously it’s in the manner of how you depict it that becomes important. Another way of thinking about this is that I don’t, one of my problems with Hollywood is they’ll for example have a TV show set in San Francisco and have no Asians. Are you kidding? You have to be well fully blind not to see that there are Asian-Americans in San Francisco.

Viet Nguyen: Likewise, for those of us who are of any population, let’s say we are Asian-Americans, I don’t think … Unless we live in Monterey Park, we are not surrounded by Asian-Americans all the time. We meet other people. If we are telling genuine stories, we include those other people as part of the story. That seems like such a low bar to cross, but Hollywood refuses to cross that bar. There is no reason for Asian-Americans not to do better by depicting Asian-Americans living in a multicultural society, where they have interactions with many different kinds of people in good and in bad ways. That’s a challenge for the artist to tell that kind of complicated story. Let’s go back here.

Vin: Hello. Thank you both for being here tonight. My name is Vin, and I’m a PhD student in engineering. I have a question for John, but professor please feel free to chime in. As you’ve alluded to previously tonight, the number of roles, lead roles for Asian-American, men in particular are pretty limited, at least historically. In addition to that masculine roles, where they are portrayed in kind of a macho way have been limited.

Vin: We’ve seen a lot of improvements lately, one exception is Sulu, which I think was one of the most badass characters ever. I wanted to see what your reaction was when you found out that the writers wanted to depict him and show that he was gay. Personally when I saw that I thought it was kind of unnecessary addition. Do you think in any way it was a slight, this is boring on homophobic? Do you think there was this like, this is a badass character, but he’s gay. Do you think there was any of that, how did you react when you found that out?

John Cho: I had a bunch of thoughts. The first was how is George Takei gonna feel? The reason I thought that was I wondered if George would think that we were conflating character and actor. I was sensitive to what he would think. I didn’t think much about … I didn’t see a gay badass polarity there. I was more concerned with whether it was gonna be authentic too. The universe and how we were gonna handle it, and whether it was gonna be overwhelming adjective, another overwhelming adjective. No, I didn’t think much about that. George didn’t like it because he said Sulu was straight, and his Sulu was straight.

Viet Nguyen: Over there.

Jude: Hi, my name is Jude, I’m a PhD student here, but I share your alma mater. I appreciated the points you raised about the need to reconnect, recover, rediscover our humanity, and John I also appreciated that Asian-American is a political identity. Before coming here I worked with Asian-American college students advising them and helping them come into their racial consciousness. And I just want to ask you both, what is important for Asian-American college students now, especially in this political moment to … Maybe my question is, what might be the danger for our community now to maybe not reckon with and not confront our racialized identities, and maybe what would be the danger in not doing that as we maybe try to think of ourselves as people who are just trying to self actualize? If that makes sense.

Viet Nguyen: On the one hand I think they had it right in the 1960s, when the Asian-American term was coined and everything like that as San Francisco state. It was a radical concept. You weren’t called Asian-American before then you were called oriental, or you call yourself Japanese, or Chinese or whatever. Then they coined the term Asian-American. We have to remember that nowadays when we think of Asian-American neighborhood we think boba tea or something like that, which is important, or modifying your car, important. I don’t want to take away from that.

Viet Nguyen: The origins of it were radical. It linked a racial collective identity with antiwar protests and anti-imperialism, and use Marxist theory. This is super crucial.

John Cho: Yellow hat is aiming at you like crazy.

Viet Nguyen: Just the point upstairs it was multiracial. Asian-Americans aligned themselves with Chicanos, and African-Americans, and natives, and so on like that. Nowadays I’m not so sure. It’s both good and bad that Asian-American as a political term has become something of a diluted political term. Now you can have Asian-American conservatives and republicans, and when Asian-American gets on a plane wearing the red make America great again. I think that person is Vietnamese. And they work.

Viet Nguyen: On the one hand that’s good. Now we have diversity in the Asian-American community. If we wanna use Asian-American as a way to talk about transforming our society, you got to get back to this whole concept that it has addressed all these interconnected things not just being Asian-American, but fighting against economic inequality and environmental racism and things like that. I’m done. Thank you. Would you want to answer that question.

John Cho: I don’t even know if I would be answering this question. The thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that, I’ve been really attracted to the language of feminism a way of thinking about the Asian-American experiences. Terms like leaning in really speak to me as an Asian-American. Asserting yourself, making people, reminding people that you are there, and saying, “I’m speaking right now. Please listen.” I think that vocabulary is extremely useful.

Viet Nguyen: I just wanna say, I’ve never seen so many Asian-Americans want to ask questions before, it is awesome. If you have to be USC students I wish you would do it more often. We’ll only take a few more. Let’s go up to the balcony for another one.

Speaker 9: Hi there. As a bottom level but working screenwriter. I try to put in, I try to find any opportunity I can to create diverse characters to break out of the mold of always imagining a character as a white male. Also the flip side is, sometimes I wrestle with, is this character gonna come off too stereotypical? He’s the scientist. It’s the delivery guy or the waiter. I think maybe I shouldn’t write the character as Asian-American. In a perfect world we would be writing our lead stars that way.

Speaker 9: Realistically, if you really wanna get something through the Hollywood system, sometimes you have to put them in supporting roles, and I wonder, is it better to not do anything that might be stereotypical, or is it better to write that role as Asian-American in the hope that it’ll make its way through the system and there’ll be at least a role for an Asian-American actor to get on their resume and to get a working payday. I don’t know, it’s something i wrestle with.

John Cho: I guess kudos for thinking about it my man. I don’t know the answer to that question, I would question your use of the term realistically, and you got to do what you got to do. Stereotypes, if you feel like it’s a stereotype, it probably is. You could leave out the race. Diversity is a strange word that’s being used right now, and sometimes I feel like it’s a perfume to hide the stink of the real thing, which is racist hiring practices. We say we need more diversity.

John Cho: Well, that’s a cute saying, but what we really need to do is stop racist hiring practices in the workplace. No amen from yellow hat on that one. Tweeting. I get it, or grammy. You could leave it open, you would be vulnerable to somebody assuming. We used to get these things called breakdowns, and that’s how agents get word of what roles need to be filled. I don’t know what it’s like these days but when I was starting it would say Hank. It would say, doctor, amazing with his hands. Likes to motorcycle on the weekends.

John Cho: Then it would say Oliver, open to all ethnicities. That meant what was unsaid in Hank’s description was this is not open to all ethnicities. This is white. I would just say try not putting an adjective, a racial adjective and see what happens. Going to cast it and think of every role as yourself, rather than someone else, another. Then cast it later, and mix it up. What do you think about that?

Speaker 9: Well, usually I guess I would say, by the time … Once I send it off, some other producer or some other casting director, or some other director is gonna control who cast it. You know what I mean? I can write the character’s race neutral, and then sure enough when it ends up on TV or on screen they’ll just assume it’s white, because it’s a chain of white men who are taking over the project once it’s off into the world. That’s the hard part I guess that’s what what I would say.

John Cho: It’s tough.

Viet Nguyen: I think we have time for two more questions. I apologize for all of those who’ve been waiting on line, but we’ll take one more from the other side.

Speaker 10: Hi, both of you. I love your work. Stelmi just signed my book, because you both are on top of your game in the industry. With everything going on in society today, politics, racism, sexism, sexual harassment, harassment in general, how does one handle in your position of power to not remain complicit?

Viet Nguyen: That’s a hard question.

Speaker 10: I wrote it down.

John Cho: I don’t know that I’ve been purvey to the level of stuff that you are reading about. It’s an office, for me it’s an office, and I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of it any other way. That’s how I treat it. What about you?

Viet Nguyen: There is different kinds of complicity. On the one hand, the stuff you are talking about harassment, and all these kinds of things, discrimination. Just being ethical, moral human being. It does take a whole lot not to grab somebody. It doesn’t take a whole lot not to treat another person badly, but yet it seems so hard for certain people to get that concept. That’s one way to not be complicit. Just be decent, have an ethical moral code, and treat people like you wanna be treated.

Viet Nguyen: There is another layer of complicity which is actually even more difficult which is your passive complicity in things. You can be an active asshole, don’t do that. Passive complicity is really hard. All of us, many of us, most of us are in institutions, where we are invited to be passively complicit. If Hollywood is a racist industry and you don’t do anything about it, or a sexist industry, or a homophobic industry, you are complicit.

Viet Nguyen: Academia, it’s built on, sorry to say, even though this is a very expensive … USC is not the worst, but academia in general, it’s built on economic inequality of various kinds. Many of including me are complicit in it, because it’s so hard to change the system, because the system is so universal. That’s a challenge to all of us, not just to be an asshole. But how do we actually change, how can we in our institutional roles, whatever our industries, or our cultures happen to be. How do we actually try to change the institutional culture, so that it is more just for everyone? That’s a question for all of us I think.

Viet Nguyen: Our last question.

Kim Brandon W.: Hi, I’m Kim Brandon Wong, I’m from Berkeley, I just took a class here called Asian, Asian-Americans on stage and in film. Coming out of that class, I was thinking that [inaudible 01:05:41] somewhere. And I was wondering, in Hollywood, what part of Hollywood do you think needs to start the change, to create more accurate representations of Asians and Asian-Americans? Would that be writers, casting directors, directors or actors?

John Cho: Those are all really important stations, but you can’t do anything without the story. I would say the writing. It’s really just when we wrote, when we did Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, the most important American movie ever made, the writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, not Asians, wrote these two characters, and as a defense of measure wrote a lot of extra verbiage about their heritage. The characters spoke about their backgrounds. And it was defense of measure to make sure that the people didn’t get the idea to turn those two guys into white men.

John Cho: The page is, when it’s written down it’s harder to go against the screenplay. If you write it it will … There is a lot, it’s a better chance that if you write it it will be cast in a way that you want it to be rather than if it’s written race neutral and you are campaigning. You know what I’m saying?

Viet Nguyen: I wanna thank everybody for coming. Thank you all for your questions. Thanks John [crosstalk 01:07:41].

John Cho: Thank you.

Category: Interviews


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