by Esther Wang
Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.” At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)
Is online celebrity strange?
It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.
What did you do after Jeopardy!?
Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers — they weren’t bad answers — but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.
You started writing for the Daily Beast. There was that piece that was a critique of nerd culture, and specifically the misogyny in nerd culture, which seems to be a topic you’re obsessed with talking about.
I was the weird smart kid when I was in school, and it sucks being isolated for any reason. But especially guys in our culture, when you feel like you have no romantic prospects, the girls look down on you. It’s baked into our TV, books, and media, that validation comes from girls who like you, and being rejected by girls is sort of being rejected by society. I didn’t date much, and when I’d have fights with my girlfriend in high school, it would always come back to me feeling this sense of being judged. Like, you’re a girl, you’re attractive, you’re automatically on this higher level than me, on this pedestal. People always talk about this like it’s a good thing. The nice guy narrative — “Oh, I admire you so much. I would lavish so much attention on you” — that quickly becomes about getting what you want. Resentment.
I feel like what happened with Jeopardy! was that I got public recognition of my membership in this club. The nerd club. I was specifically lambasted online for being a nerd. If you want to talk about nerds being an oppressed class, a ton of people attacked me in public for being socially awkward, the way I came off. And yet I still have a huge problem with the narrative of the nerd underdog that’s being used to justify all of these things. Awkward guys have taken a lot of abuse, but we are not the actual victims right now in society. We’re taking our past victimization and using it to justify the terrible things that we do. Weirdly enough, I started saying this, and this past year become the year of the big events that highlight that. Elliot Rodger, Gamergate, the low-level nastiness that’s in gamer culture just blows up, and starts drawing attention to itself. That’s not unique there. You see it everywhere when people say, “Oh Christians are oppressed in the US. Or white people are oppressed.” Everyone wants to have that victimization narrative.
How do you see this affecting Asian-American men?
Speaking of horrible things on the Internet, there was a forum called AutoAdmit. One of their memes was this guy who would get really mad and post a photo every time he saw a white guy with an Asian girl. You know this is a long simmering issue in our community. That blog “Stuff White People Like” had a post that said, “What do white guys like? Asian women.” Everyone thought that he was an Asian guy for a while because of how angry he sounded about that. Anytime there’s a fracture between Asian man and Asian women, it’s always like, Well who are you trying to date? Why are you trying to date white guys? Why are you trying to date white girls?
I’m in this Facebook group that’s basically just Asian guys railing about why Asian women don’t date Asian men, and their perceptions about how Asian men are emasculated in the media. There’s all of this anger and resentment.
Yeah! I mean, I can speak to this. When The Joy Luck Club, way back when, was a bestseller, the one woman’s story whose life most closely mirrored Amy Tan’s — she marries a white guy. And it’s the happy ending. Every Asian man in this story is a horrible abuser, or he’s an unloving cold fish that gets dumped for a white guy. It was a small part of what the book was about. But for a lot of Asian guys, it hit pretty hard. Some guys make it a whole part of that men’s rights activist thing, saying Asian women are privileged relative to Asian men — Asian men are almost an unnecessary demographic.
A lot of the positions you take perhaps aren’t mainstream Asian-American positions. Talking about race, talking about police violence, talking about sexism.
You get raised to run away from politics. That was how I was raised, in an evangelical Christian family. People from our backgrounds, you want to be just like everyone else. You want to integrate into American culture, you want to be invisible, you want to be the same as your white friends. For me, that was very much true. For a long time I’d say things like, “Why bring up race? Why not try to be colorblind? Why not have an identity that’s distinct from any racial background you have?” I was one of those guys. I’m an American. No hyphen.
There’s just a point — the more you confront what America actually is and how America works — you can’t say that America is apart from race. America is race. It’s a series of colonies that were founded by people taking land away from people who they felt didn’t deserve it. Because of race and then working the land with people who were enslaved because of race. It’s built on that. Do you look at your black friend and say, “I don’t see your race. It’s just a coincidence that you get stopped by cops when my white friends don’t. It’s just a coincidence that this black kid got shot”? When you try to be an actor and you look around and say, “Hey, there’s no other Asians here. Weird”? There are all these spec sheets that they put out, audition sheets, and they all say, “Whites or other race.” I’d like to keep thinking that it’s just merit, but gosh, it feels like, once you actually have your eyes open, you can’t keep lying to yourself about that stuff anymore.
What does it feel like to become a bit of an Asian-American icon?
I thought it was weird. I compared it to Linsanity when I first started thinking about it. It’s not just that there is a successful Asian-American that’s in a field that we’re not used to — we get sick and tired of the same narrative, someone with a web-based business, some computer scientist, an engineer. To see someone become successful in a different way, it’s liberating. I didn’t think an Asian-American winning on Jeopardy! by itself would be a big deal. The funny thing being there’ve been very few champions who are Asian-American — the contestant pool has been overwhelmingly white. So it was funny when it happened and people were like, “an Asian guy winning Jeopardy!, that’s predictable.”
The idea of an Asian in the news for being controversial and unapologetic, for having strong opinions… Asians are supposed to work hard and do well but not to make waves. Not to create controversy. When you’re raised to think that’s not your place, to me, it’s important to make that space. It’s okay to be loud and rude and opinionated as an Asian. It’s a good thing.
Margaret Cho comes to mind.
Yeah, like Margaret Cho! Her show, her standup is so good, and her show, as soon as they gave it to her, they were like, “We can’t let this happen, we have to shape it into something that we’re comfortable with.” Pat Morita did stand up his whole life, he was a very outspoken, profane, funny guy. But America remembers him as Mr. Miyagi.
That’s how I remember him too, to be honest.
Exactly. That’s what they want to see. So it’s always fighting to see something else, to push some other narrative.
Did this influence you as a kid? This lack of a different narrative about Asian-Americans.
I often grew up in communities where there weren’t many Asian kids, so I tried to identify with my white friends.Then there was the flip side, in high school, when we moved to California, and there were a lot of Asians. I didn’t fit in with them either. My dad always had this idea, once you’re with other Asians who won’t reject you because of your race, you’ll fit right in. I was like, “No! I’m still a weird person.” Most Asian-American kids in LA are like white American kids in LA — they have certain tastes, and it was very, very different from me. It was always me kind of feeling like, whatever community I’m in, I’m always different. Having spent a lot of my life feeling alienated from the Asian-American community, it’s weird to be welcome back.
In retrospect, I know there’s been Asian-American activists being very loud and political even before I was alive, but where I lived, it just wasn’t visible. That’s not something we do, that’s something that Black activists do. I think it would’ve made a lot of things easier for me if I’d had those messages — like it’s okay to be mad about racism, it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to think about and analyze things in terms of race, instead of just pretending like you don’t notice.
Would you describe yourself as an Asian-American activist?
I’d like to think of myself as one. A slacktivist, maybe. I haven’t put in as much work as people who’ve put in work, but it’s something I care about.
So what’s next for you?
I’m looking at writing a book about my journey on Jeopardy! and the idea of success around nerdy guys in America.
Any title ideas yet?
No, not yet.
Time to get on the Chu-chu train? I can tell from your face that you’re not really into that.
Ken Jennings likes Chu-phoria.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.