The Angry Asian Man is Actually a Really Nice Guy

Photo credit: svennevenn/flickr
He only gets mad when people act stupid.
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As Mash-Ups, we can get angry sometimes — at cultural pressures, at racial injustice, at the plain frustration of not being understood by the mainstream. Which is why we love Phil Yu.

You may know Phil by his incredible blog — and what we like to think of as his superhero alter ego — Angry Asian Man. Thirteen years ago, the Korean-American Mash-Up started the site shortly after graduating from Northwestern University. Today, he publishes smart media and cultural critique, produces film and digital projects, and is a leading voice of the young, savvy, Asian-American community. So what is the Angry Asian Man really so mad about? Bad grammar, it turns out. Stay angry.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My parents immigrated from Korea in the 1970s. I’m pretty much a West Coast kid through and through. I grew up in the Bay Area, on the literal border of Sunnyvale and Cupertino. Little did I know at the time, I was growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley and one of the biggest, fastest-growing Asian-American communities in the United States.

When did you start to understand racial dynamics? Ashok Kondabolu talked to us about moving from a Colombian and Indian neighborhood to a Jewish neighborhood as a kid and being like, whoa.

Growing up, I came across a lot of little microaggressions that you don’t really understand — shit that I would not put up with today as an adult. Yes, you learn that racial intolerance is bad, and everybody should have equal rights, and people fought for those equal rights. But nobody ever taught me where I, as an Asian American, fit into that message. It probably wasn’t until I went to college that I really started to understand what being Asian American meant as a political identity. This West Coast kid found himself plunked down in the Midwest, where I realized that I had definitely taken my comfortable community for granted.

Photo credit: J. Lee
Photo credit: J. Lee

What was the catalyst for starting Angry Asian Man?

I started the blog in 2001, largely out of boredom. Honestly, there was no dramatic catalyst, just a spark set off by Asian American Studies classes. Armed with some rudimentary HTML coding skills, it was really about carving out a little space to jot down some of my thoughts on being Asian American, responding to stuff I was seeing in the media, and just having an outlet to be creative. Back then, I didn’t even know what I was doing was referred to as “blogging.” It was just a website I updated regularly. I didn’t anticipate that anyone would actually read it, but somewhere along the way, it caught on.

What has the process of growing the blog been like?

On a day-to-day level, I just keep grinding away. The blogging never stops. But sometimes, I feel like I have no idea how I got here. Thirteen and a half years later, I’ve somehow grown a loyal, awesome audience by virtue of the fact that I just kept at it and never gave up. I think in the beginning, the key was truly not caring if anybody read the blog at all. It was just a really fun hobby for several years while I worked a part-time job and went to grad school.

Then over the last six or seven years, the blog really started to pick up steam in readership and notoriety while I was also working full-time as an editor at Yahoo! Movies. Considering all the hours I was putting in, it was basically like working two full-time jobs. When I was laid off last year, the choice to become a full-time blogger was pretty simple, but certainly not something I ever anticipated when I started the site all those years ago.

What do your parents think of the blog? Do they get it?

They totally get it. I have to give them credit, because for the longest time — years — I never told them about the blog because I didn’t think they’d understand. But they’re so on board. Of course, the clincher was when I got profiled by the Korea Daily earlier this year. Really. Big. Deal. That was a whole other level of validation for them — something they could brag about to their friends and relatives.

How have you seen the landscape of Asian-American media change? Diverse, dash-American media in general?

For one thing, there are a lot more Asian Americans on TV. I grew up watching a ridiculous, unhealthy amount of television, but seeing an Asian face was a true rarity.

When I first started the blog, there were five actors of Asian descent on primetime. Five.

When I first started the blog in 2001, there were five actors of Asian Pacific Islander descent as series regulars on primetime network scripted television. Five. I counted. Today, there are way more — more than I name off the top of my head (and I still watch a lot of TV). So, at least quantitatively, things have improved. Of course, you’ve still got characters like that guy on Two Broke Girls. So quantity doesn’t equal quality.

On top of all that, there’s the whole phenomenon of Asian-American YouTube personalities, which is crazy and amazing and confounding and awesome. The other day, I was talking to a 10-year-old Asian-American kid who said he wanted to grow up to be a YouTube star. This same kid interrupted a conversation between adults to ask, “Who’s Angelina Jolie?” That blows my mind. Also, I feel old.

Do you see positive movement in mainstream media in how Asians and Asian issues are covered?

Positive, yes. But it takes hella work. One thing I’ve learned is things will not get better on their own. We can’t just sit back and let “time” do its thing. It takes speaking up, disruption and a lot of “oh hell no”s on the regular. This is true of challenging mainstream media as well as just every day mainstream perceptions of Asians in America.

Asian dudes are having a major moment in American culture — Jeremy Lin, Korean dude chefs, Fresh Off the Boat. What is these guys’ impact on pop culture?

Baby steps. As an avid consumer of pop culture, I love that these guys are having a moment, but hopefully it’s more than just a moment, because it’s been a long time coming. And yet, aren’t we always chasing the next big thing? I hope and do believe that people will be talking about their work and impact long after the novelty wears off. Because we’ve always known they were awesome — everybody is else is just catching up now.

When you were growing up, who was your pop culture idol?

Bruce. It’s always been Bruce.

It’s incredibly subversive to think about Asians, and Asian men in particular, expressing anger. Why is anger significant for you?

It’s funny, because anyone who knows me can attest that I’m not a particularly angry guy.

The notion of Angry Asian Anything is really subversive to a lot of people.

The name was kind of a joke at first, but it was also chosen to be confrontational and to bust some stereotypes about the quiet and passive Asian. This is not a new idea, but I couldn’t have anticipated that it would hit such a nerve.

It’s true, the notion of Angry Asian Anything is really subversive to a lot of people — even fellow Asian Americans — and their idea of what a good little Asian should be.

What makes you angriest?

Blatant ignorance of when it is appropriate to use an apostrophe.

What makes you happiest?

Simple. Good food, drink and stories shared around a table with good friends. The kind of meal you wish would never end.

What’s the silliest thing anybody has ever said to you about being Asian? (We feel this.) How do you respond?

“If you don’t like it here, go back to where you came from” has to be stupidest thing that is said to me on a regular basis, though it has never been expressed directly to my face. As a general rule, I don’t respond to haters. I have neither the time nor the energy, and why give them that power?

What advice would you give to someone who’s feeling way angry?

Use it. Use it as the fuel to take action. I also find that taking a mid-day nap is very helpful.

Posted by Amy S. Choi
Amy is co-founder and editorial director of The Mash-Up Americans. She specializes in getting people to tell stories they never expected to share. She's mom to two Korean-Colombian-Mexican-American kids, aka The Future of America. You can follow her @awesomechoi and find her in Brooklyn.

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