This is part of This Made Me, a HuffPost series paying tribute to the formative pop culture in our lives. Read more stories from the series here.
The first time I heard about Simon & Garfunkel was on an episode of “Arthur.” Art Garfunkel — or the cartoon moose version of him — was walking around Ellwood City, singing “The Ballad of Buster Baxter.” It wasn’t until a few years later, watching “The Graduate,” that I realized that he was half of one of the most influential musical duos of the 20th century.
As the only child of immigrants, “Arthur” and other PBS shows enabled my first foray into American pop culture — and in the process, my first attempts at figuring out what it even means to be American. Without a baseline of cultural references acquired from my parents, I unknowingly (and later knowingly) started to cobble together my own pop culture reference points, acquiring my own mental library of formative movies, television, books and music. It’s a process that continues today in my professional life as a culture reporter and writer.
In my teens, I thought becoming a cinephile would help me become more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. So I checked out VHS tapes and DVDs of Oscar-winning and nominated films from my local library, perused IMDb message boards and film blogs, and read about “auteur directors” (almost all of whom were white men). On TV, I watched a lot of sitcoms, admiring the density of the jokes and topical references on “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “30 Rock.”
The latter was especially formative. I saw a lot of myself in Liz Lemon: nerdy, bespectacled, and deeply committed to and successful at her job as a writer (and not so successful romantically or socially).
During the same period, I also started to become a writer — and once again, had to teach myself a lot of things. I collected memorable figures of speech, expressions and turns of phrase, filing them away in my brain (and later, in a Google Doc). I had a lot of trouble figuring out which prepositions went with which turns of phrase and discovered expressions that I was using wrong because I had misremembered them.
Whenever I used an expression, I would Google it and triple-check to make sure I wasn’t misusing it. Is it “cut and dry” or “cut and dried”? What’s a “ballpark figure”? How do you “call an audible”? Why are there so many sports metaphors? I felt like I had to be overprepared and extra thorough in order to make up for what I didn’t know and stake my claim as a writer, a profession I assumed I couldn’t enter because I didn’t know anyone who looked like me doing it.
Being a child of immigrants is like playing a game of telephone your entire life. There are so many references I’ve misheard or only half-learned, concepts that I only vaguely understand or have retained in some modified way. I feel like I have secondhand or even thirdhand knowledge of “American culture” because I had to learn it myself. At the same time, I also have second or thirdhand knowledge of my parents’ Chinese culture because there was only so much they could replicate or pass down.
I spent a lot of time writing about this bifurcated existence in my journals and in essays, trying to articulate what it was, but failing to find the right words. I wondered whether I was doing all of this “correctly,” as if there was one “correct” way to do all of this, or one “correct” definition of “American pop culture.”
Throughout my childhood, I could sense that my parents also struggled with these questions: What is “American culture”? What does it mean to be American? They, too, tried to teach themselves aspects of pop culture. We developed a ritual of watching the evening news each night, followed by “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.” My dad subscribed to whatever newspapers and magazines we could afford: our local paper, Time and Newsweek. Sometimes, he would buy the Sunday New York Times, and when I was a teen, he indulged my budding interest in movies and TV by paying for my subscription to Entertainment Weekly.
Sometimes, we would watch those library VHS tapes or DVDs together. Or, I’d convince them to drive me to the only indie theater in town to watch that year’s Oscar contenders. A month or two later, we’d tune in to the Oscars to see if the movies we had managed to see won any awards.
But there was something missing here. My process of acquiring pop culture for myself didn’t always feel authentic and didn’t always feel like me. It’s like I was trying things on for size. Sometimes, I felt like I was going off of what I was expected to like, or letting other people’s tastes determine my own. Many of those tastes, many of those definitions of what was “great,” what was “the best,” what was “the most influential,” were shaped by people who did not look like me. And many of the things I found formative did not center on people who looked like me, even in work that I loved dearly.
“In my teens, I thought becoming a cinephile would help me become more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. So I checked out VHS tapes and DVDs of Oscar-winning and nominated films from my local library, perused IMDb message boards and film blogs, and read about ‘auteur directors’ (almost all of whom were white men).”
Now, as a culture journalist, I often get to cover people who likely had to go through a similar process of acquiring pop culture on their own and didn’t often see themselves represented in that work. But now, they’re reshaping and transforming the culture. They’re taking existing genres like the sitcom and making them their own. They’re becoming auteur directors and directing award-winning movies.
I got to tell Lulu Wang how much “The Farewell” meant to me because of how much it mirrored my own existential crises of being caught between two cultures. For instance, it meant so much to hear Awkwafina speak Chinese the way that I speak Chinese: mangled, slightly off, with some Chinglish thrown in, and occasional pauses to ask my parents for a quick translation. I got to ask Sandra Oh about how she has built her formidable body of work as one of the few Asian actors on TV whose characters get to be their whole selves, whose cultural identities are not the sole definition of the story or catalyst for the plot. I got to talk to Mira Nair about how her movies have so powerfully evoked the experience of having to live across multiple cultures, and Sarita Choudhury about the joy of getting to see her play a glamorous South Asian woman just living her life.
As I keep moving forward in my career, I’ve started to consider more deeply how I, as a culture journalist, am now shaping other people’s pop culture tastes and helping them acquire their own library of formative cultural works. It’s a role that I take seriously, trying to elevate pop culture that I find meaningful and that is likely meaningful to others.
It turns out that my parents and I do have some common pop culture reference points. My dad also listens to Simon & Garfunkel. Unlike me, he did not discover them through a cartoon moose on a PBS show: He has been a fan since the 1980s (apparently when Simon & Garfunkel became popular in China).
When I remember to call my parents, they often pepper me with questions: “We saw a commercial for this movie. Is it good? Will we like it?” “What movies will win Oscars this year?” “What’s that actor’s name again?”
At the beginning of 2021, while staying at my parents’ house during the pandemic winter, the three of us watched “Minari,” a movie that, among other things, is about an Asian American immigrant family grappling with what it means to be American.
Afterward, sitting in the same kitchen where we’d eat dinner before watching the evening news and “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” each night, where I’d pore over those newspapers and magazines, my dad said to me: “I liked it because obviously, I can relate to it. But what if only people like us like it?”
I responded: “Who cares? We shouldn’t have to ask that question. Countless times, we’ve had to imagine ourselves in movies and TV that were not about us and that we couldn’t directly relate to.”
Earlier this year, I got to interview the cast of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” featuring a career-defining role for the legendary Michelle Yeoh and an unexpected career comeback for ’80s child star Ke Huy Quan. Recounting reading my article, my dad said: “Wow, I always wondered what happened to that kid from ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Indiana Jones’!”
Over the years, my parents and I have butted heads over my career choices, and sometimes it’s still hard for them to understand what I do and how hard it was for me to get here. So for my dad to have learned something from my reporting means the world to me.
For my parents, I am now their pop culture guide — a role that I never expected. And slowly, I’ve been able to guide them toward more pop culture that looks like and feels like us. Like my early attempts at assembling some pop culture building blocks, it’s complicated and imperfect, and it might always remain a work in progress. But instead of a patchwork of whatever I could find, it’s starting to feel a bit more whole.