Comedian Ali Wong On Her New Book, 'Dear Girls'
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In 2016, comedian Ali Wong brought a fresh take to the standup comedy scene in her Netflix special "Baby Cobra." She performed her set while pregnant with her first child and offered pointed views on sex, sexism and life as a woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BABY COBRA")
ALI WONG: And her book is called "Lean In." Well, I don't want to lean in, OK? I want to lie down.
MARTIN: And yes, that's one of the few jokes we can actually play on NPR. Since then, she has kept grinding. She was a writer on ABC's "Fresh Off The Boat," costarred on three seasons of that network's "American Housewife." She co-wrote and starred in the Netflix movie "Always Be My Maybe." She had another baby and did another special. No wonder she wants to lie down. But she didn't.
She's also written a memoir in the form of essays dedicated to her two young daughters. It's called "Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, And Advice For Living Your Best Life." And it manages to be raunchy, sweet and wise all at the same time. And Ali Wong is going to tell us how she did it. She's with us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif.
Welcome. Thank you so much for being with us.
WONG: Wow. Thanks so much for having me. It's so crazy listening to that clip of "Baby Cobra." You know, I don't - I haven't watched that since I was in the editing room.
MARTIN: Let me just say, it's so hard to do an interview when you can't talk about half the things in the book...
WONG: Yeah (laughter).
MARTIN: ...At least not in the way that you talk about them. So please help me thread the needle so I can continue to work here, please, and do not lose lose my job. So, with that being said, what a wild ride you've been on - a movie, two specials, touring. So why a book?
WONG: There were a lot of knocks on my door to write a book, and I didn't have an idea really until I thought about writing letters to my daughters. That's very much inspired by a letter that my father wrote to me before he passed away that began with dear Alexandra. And it's one of the few things that if my house was on fire, if there was an apocalypse, I would take with me along with, you know, my passport and my kids. I just wish that he had written a lot more because I have so many more questions for him that it's too late to ask.
MARTIN: Would you mind talking a little bit about your family? Because I found it really fascinating that you kind of got there - like, almost two thirds of the way through the book, you actually really told the backstory about your family, which it is quite extraordinary I mean, your dad is Chinese American. Your mom is Vietnamese American. And when you really hear their backstories, you just - I don't know. It just kind of takes your breath away. Would you mind - just...
WONG: Yeah, right.
MARTIN: ...A little bit about them?
WONG: My dad was born in the U.S. He grew up in Chinatown. He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with no running water. He slept in a twin bed with his mom and his two sisters. And his father would just sleep on newspaper, and he was a chef. And his father, my grandfather, came to the U.S. when he was 8 years old. He came through Angel Island on a boat by himself, and he came and worked as a houseboy for a family.
And in our family, we have that picture of my grandfather as an 8-year-old boy when he came through Angel Island. And it's this black-and-white photo, and he just looks so young. And now that I have my own kids, who are both under the age of 4, I really understand just how young he was when he came all by himself like that.
And my mom came to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was - in 1960. She came when she was, like, 20 years old, and - which is very early. It's very unusual for Vietnamese people. They're always shocked when they hear that because most Vietnamese people came in 1975.
And so yeah. I mean, I grew up just in a very interesting family that was very interested in art. We would always - they would take me constantly to the Asian American Film Festival. Every time there was a new Wong Kar-wai film, they would take me to see it. And it, you know, made a huge difference in my confidence because, you know, now there's all this conversation about how representation matters, and people talk about how they never saw themselves on screen.
I saw myself on screen all the time because my parents made sure of it. And I don't know if it's because they were consciously trying to make it so that I saw myself on screen. They were just so interested in what Asians and Asian Americans were doing in the creative field.
MARTIN: Well, tell me about standup, though. Why standup? I found - I really learned a lot about the whole standup world from your book in a way that I - I didn't even really see it before. So why standup?
WONG: Well that's one of those things where I guess I kind of always wanted to try it. And then the day I did, something clicked. And I was, like, oh, this is what a calling is. You know, it's like the first time you fall in love, and you're, like, oh, my god. This is what all the R and B songs are making all a big deal about. This is what Babyface is talking about. This is...
WONG: ...Toni Braxton is talking about. It wasn't - you know, we go through heartbreak. You're, like, oh, my god. This is what heartbreak is. And that's how I felt when I found standup. And I don't really know how to explain it. But I do just think that it was just - it was just a very strong calling.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, I have to ask you about - one of the last essays in the book is titled, my least favorite question. And that question is, what's it like being an Asian American in Hollywood? And you go on to say that most of the people asking you that question are also Asian American. Why do you think that is?
WONG: I don't know. It's very strange when they ask me that, and I'm - often feel disappointed, I guess, because I think it's a really boring question, and whatever answer I have to that is very boring as well. But I understand - I do fundamentally understand why they're asking it. I just wish they could see themselves beyond just being Asian American women. You know what I mean?
WONG: And just being, like, if you - like, for "Always Be My Maybe," for example, I always say that when you populate a movie with Asian American people, then they get to be people, right? So for Jenny, who played Randall Park's girlfriend - she's that Asian American woman with dreadlocks...
WONG: If she...
MARTIN: Sorry I'm laughing. She was so crazy.
WONG: She was so - she was great, you know? And, like, I grew up in the Bay Area. I knew, like, 10 Jennies.
WONG: And they were, like, growing their own kombucha and stuff, and they went to Burning Man every year.
WONG: And I grew up with so many women like that, and so it's, like, if she was cast in a movie with all white people, then she would be known as the Asian girlfriend. But in our movie, she got to be, you know, that girl with dreadlocks who's kind of wacky who makes the hot dog spaghetti...
WONG: ...Who's, like, you know, works for this community center that does slam poetry. It was, like, she got to be a person. So it's, like, if you challenge yourself to describe yourself outside of being an Asian American woman, how would you describe yourself? You know what I mean? And I'm, like, why don't you look at yourself as that first before identifying first and foremost as, like, an Asian American woman, you know?
MARTIN: I was going to ask, if there's one lesson you want your daughters to take away from reading this book, what would it be? That certainly is a good one. But is there another one?
WONG: Don't date a deejay.
WONG: You read that chapter.
WONG: People will have to find out what I'm talking about.
WONG: Yeah. Do not date a deejay.
MARTIN: That's Ali Wong. Her book "Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, And Advice For Living Your Best Life" is out now.
Ali Wong, thanks so much for your time.
WONG: Thanks. Bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREATHE AGAIN")
TONI BRAXTON: (Singing) Will I never make love to you once again? Please understand, if love ends, then I promise you, I promise you that, that I shall never... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.