“Margaret Cho, Or How To Break Every Oriental Stereotype In The Book,” An Essay By Kenji Oshima

Kenji Oshima’s essay originally appeared in My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack.

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Chink!” … “Freak!” Ah, the verbal genius of junior high school taunting. Why do homophobic bullies never have anything clever to say? In the words of my diva, “Ooo, enchanté!”

The full details of those torturous years evade me now, but seared into my experience is Danny Fitzpatrick calling me (INSERT any “Oriental” slur HERE) wherever and whenever he pleased—in class, the halls, gym, and once even in front of a teacher who only laughed. Name-calling, threats, and punching weren’t necessarily daily occurrences, but it was made crystal clear to me that as the single nonwhite kid in my school, I could be ac- costed anytime. Even the instructors were openly racist when it came to Asians (and you gotta assume I was the tip of the ice- berg). “How do they do it in China?” one blonde teacher skew- ered me with when my friend Michael and I passed notes to one another. Don’t ask me what she meant; to this day, I haven’t a clue. And why “faggot” wasn’t my harassers’ slap of choice was never clear either, given that I was sensitive and long-haired with an obvious crush on the most popular boy.

Since racism and homophobia were de rigueur throughout my teenage years, who better then to inspire my spleen-venting adult- hood than a kick-ass, foul-mouthed, bisexual, brilliant San Fran- cisco Asian woman who has an “inner drag queen,” and wouldn’t think twice about telling someone to fuck off ? Whose diva would win the prizefight diva-bitch-slap contest? Mine.

Margaret Cho is a fully enlightened fabulous diva who is utterly unabashed about sharing her struggles with addiction, racism, and an eating disorder. When a reporter once wondered aloud if her “Korean family was ashamed” of her, she shot back: “Any family would be ashamed of me.” That’s my mentor, of whom I am so proud.

Some of my adulthood has been given over to processing the gauntlet of childhood and rejecting all the lies punched into me: that as a biracial Asian gay man, I’m not unattractive, not second- class, not sexless, and never alone in struggles with my body issues and unfavorable internalized self-image. Luckily, I am off the rollercoaster self-esteem ride from hell. I have the “Notorious C.H.O.” to thank for helping to rid my psyche of these ugly beliefs.

I’ve never been one of those gay boys who lined up for Barbra or paid two hundred dollars to see Céline fly around on wires (would someone please cut them already?). In fact I’d be really hard pressed to name who’s on the cover of People magazine, be- cause somewhere along the Fag-O-Matic DNA-dispensing con- veyer belt, I didn’t get the gossip gene.

Who wants a diva who can strut around in a twenty- thousand-dollar gown, when my diva posted on her Web site the deluge of racist, homophobic hate mail she received after saying that “George Bush is not Hitler … he would be if he applied him- self “? The same ignorant masses who spammed her with “Dyke, chink, gook from Mongolia, go back to your country where you came from, you fat pig” unintentionally included their return e-mail addresses and “all their work information and their home email, and their home telephone number … and what kind of ice cream they liked … what they’re [sic] second choice was.” She confessed, “I didn’t realize this, but there are people out there who realllllly like me, and they are pissed off to begin with … [so] in posting these emails I had inadvertently activated the terrorist sleeper cell Al-Gay-Da.” And we all know what happens when you piss off a bunch of queens who love their divas? Particularly queens who vividly remember their junior high school years? I don’t think most of the morons who e-mailed Margaret knew what hit them. Can you imagine? Five thousand gay men, at work, bored, remembering being called something evil when they were little gay boys, now granted the opportunity to tell some of these dunces what they thought? She joked, “I was getting apol- ogy emails so fast … flooding in … I’m sorry, I’m sorry I called you a chink … please make these gay people leave me alone! I’m sorry … hurry … I’m afrrrrraid … I think Cirque Du Soleil is warming up on my front lawn!!!”

I first met the full force of Ms. Cho in a living-room-sized theater in my current hometown of San Francisco, when a friend suggested we go see her stand-up comedy in her new movie I’m the One That I Want. Of course I knew of her, because how many famous Asian Americans have had a show called, get this, All American Girl ? Seeing an Asian actress on television who wasn’t “a prostitute” in a Vietnam War drama was an oddity. I mean, as Margaret says, we always have to “be something.” The dealer, the broken-English Kwik-E-Mart owner, or the asexual dorky ex- change student. We can’t just be your neighbor or your coworker.

Remember: I grew up in the 1970s, when “Oriental” characters al- ways had to be the buck-toothed laundry boys who pined for the sexy girl, never the hero or hunk (not that it’s changed much). Ms. Cho points out that one of my favorite 1970s TV shows, Kung Fu, starring the Caucasian David Carradine, should have really been named, Hey … That Guy’s Not Chinese! It’s pretty much been that Asians, a.k.a. “Orientals,” were the ching-chong version of the Village Idiot in just about every American drama. Needless to say, I’ve tired of this in my “old age.”

My diva not only breaks all those stereotypes of the oh-so- polite eyelash-batting, teeth-covering Asian girl, but also manages to throw them out—the baby, the bathwater, the chopsticks, and the redneck. “So, Ms. Cho,” said a Midwestern TV announcer, “we’re changing our affiliate. Why don’t you tell our audience in your native language?” Margaret made a “what-the-fuck?” face, turned to the camera, and said, “They’re changing their affiliate.”

The thing about being gay is that I could always sort of hide it, but being the son of a Japanese man, it’s sometimes an unmistak- able difference; technically, I’m “half” Asian—thank you, Cher: “Half-Breed, how I love to hate the word!”—no really, look it up. Cher sang that!

“What are you?” the bus driver, my date, or the kid sitting next to me in class would ask, puzzled by my “racial” features that defy categorization. I wish I could have been more like Margaret in these situations, and especially in junior high. I wanted to be the Action Hero for gay Asian boys who refuse to fit the stereotypes: the sexless bottom or the “mathlete” for that matter—man, I suck at math.

My internal change culminated in a warm, close, and lovingly bitchy relationship with my friend Peter, who’s “foreign” born but from upstate New York. We would recite Margaret’s best lines back and forth to each other in this rhythmic have-to-be-in-the-know secret decoder-ring banter. Why? Because like me, he grew up on the East Coast thinking that as a queer Asian boy he was a second- class citizen, never a brilliant hottie, worthy of love and attention.

Peter and I had a ritual of sorts, wordplay to reinforce our shared “We’re tired of this racist shit,” and the only person who came close to expressing how we’ve felt our whole lives was our hero Margaret. “Go back to where you came from!” A common request thrown at people who seemingly aren’t born in America. Thankfully, Margaret made popular what we always thought but only occasionally said: “Well, I can’t go back to where I came from … I think the only people who can say that are the Native Americans.”

I grew, I learned, I helped organize gay Asian men’s groups across the country. I found other mixed/Asian men, and I became a lot less bitter. While I no longer have a need to vent on every street corner, I still adore biting humor. I think it’s the bitchy- queen gene that I did manage to get.

Divas reflect our sense of drama, tragedy, and love of the lime- light. Or at least a wish to be seen and admired, not punched and insulted. The myriad of divas, and the boys and men who ad- mired them in this collection, just goes to show that there’s one for every one of us: some of them graceful, some tragic, and some who you’d want on your side in a bar fight.

I used to think that I could never identify with the Barbras or the Célines, but I suppose I do. I just needed mine to look more like me, to be the tomboy I wish I could have been, and to have a sailor’s mouth like mine—but as brave, beautiful, and outspoken as I have learned to become, I’ll never have the balls that Margaret has. She keeps me striving for more.

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