Book review – How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents

I had never heard of Jimmy O. Yang until I saw him play a small role in Crazy Rich Asians. I wasn’t that impressed, but he turned up on Youtube suggestions and I still wasn’t wowed. I’ve never seen Silicon Valley, so I really had no reference point to evaluate who this guy was.

But then I saw his book on audible.com and the title intrigued me. It got great reviews and I like a memoir, so *click*, in my basket and in my ears. Jimmy reads his own book, so you get to hear his story in his own voice. Always better.

Short review: I liked it and I definitely recommend it, but it isn’t for everyone’s taste. The humor is sometimes juvenile (sue me, I like juvenile humor and laughed out loud). There’s some swearing (not gratuitous). Some of the situations are not mainstream (he was a strip club DJ; not my idea of the American Dream). Still, it will make you think about the immigrant experience in America. More than that, it’s a story about finding and following your dreams, even when everything seems to be a strike against you.

Long review: Well, more like a response (below the promo video).

Jimmy O. Yang is a very insightful, well-spoken, college graduate, so this book is not a string of funny stories and jokes. When he uses the Chris Rock-style voice, it’s meant to be funny (and it is). But when he uses his normal voice, you can be sure something thought-provoking is on the way. He was born in Hong Kong to parents from Shanghai and moved to the US when he was 13. He also had a study abroad experience in Italy during college. He has a very deep understanding of what it means to be so obviously a fish out of water and how to survive it, thrive, and then find and follow his dreams.

I’m an immigrant several times over and the child of an immigrant, and many of his insights really ring true to me. He learned English from BET (thus the Chris Rock stylings), while Mom and I learned English from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers – I was 3; I imagine Mom watched other programs too.

One big difference in my immigrant story is that I am not obviously an immigrant in America. I have no accent. I’m white. I spent a lot of time learning how to be the most American I could possibly be, except for one thing: I am Jewish and I did “crazy” things like walk out of music class when it was Christmas carol season. I purposefully set myself apart. Was it me embracing the American ideal of individualism? I doubt it. I was also set apart because Mom had an accent and came to school to talk about Jewish holidays.

I remember in 8th grade a Vietnamese girl joined our class. I wondered how she would fare. She was embraced whole-heartedly by all the popular kids and became super All-American. And I knew then that, while it didn’t help that I was born in the Evil Empire (thus a Communist, whatever that means to junior high kids) and I was also responsible for the death of Jesus, it would be an uphill battle for me to become super All-American.

I’m also an immigrant to Israel. Here I have an accent and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a native-born Israeli. But nobody cares. Oh, you were born in Russia and your mom is Russian? Join the club. Half the population has roots in Russia and more than a million Russian-speakers came to Israel in the 1990s. Oh, you’re Jewish? Welcome home!

So the two things that made me not-quite American are the two things that make me more Israeli. And being not-quite American makes me not quite fit in with other American immigrants here in Israel. And throw in the great love of British humor and Korean dramas and I’m a nation unto myself. (You might note that Russian is out. That’s a story for another day. Ya nye gavaru pa’ruski. ‘Nuff said.)

One of the roles that Jimmy is most proud of is Dun Meng, one of the heroes in Patriot’s Day, the film about the Boston Marathon bombing. He had a chance to bring some authenticity to the role (including getting his real dad to play his big-screen dad) by bringing in the correct accent to the Chinese dialogue. How many non-Chinese-speakers would really notice the difference between a Cantonese dialect and a Shanghai dialect? He also connected to the role because he was playing an Asian immigrant in America. He mentions connecting to the Asian immigrant experience a few times in the book as something comfortingly familiar – “this person is like me.” It’s not a struggle like some of his other cultural experiences in America.

Israel is a small country with lots of immigrants. When so many people are immigrants, the details don’t matter because we are all struggling with the same things. The one thing the majority of the population – whether native or immigrant – is sure of is that we are all part of the nation of the Jewish people living in the modern State of Israel.

Still, I’m not exactly Israeli and I’m not exactly American. I guess I’m a fish with legs playing on the beach in and out of the water enjoying both water-life and land-life.

Bottom Line: This book was especially touching to me given my immigrant experiences, but the truth is that this book is for all kinds of people. It’s an inspirational story about someone overcoming internal and external obstacles, making life-changing choices, and pursuing his dreams (even if his dad tells him that pursuing dreams is what makes people homeless).