We had the privilege of interviewing actor and comedian Jes Tom on their latest work, their take on the terms “banana” and “FOB,” and how they navigate the stand-up world.
Their solo show, FRESH OFF THE BANANA BOAT, will debut at HOT! Festival at Dixon Place on Thursday, July 17th in New York City.
As[I]Am: Could you talk about your upcoming one-person show, Fresh Off the Banana Boat? What was your inspiration? What kinds of life experiences informed this piece of work?
Jes: Absolutely. FRESH OFF THE BANANA BOAT (I stylize it in all caps) is my stand up/monologue driven solo show about getting (back) in touch with my Asian American (specifically Japanese American, though I am mixed Chinese and Japanese) heritage. Or, “how not to be a banana anymore.” It will be debuting as part of Dixon Place Theatre’s HOT! Festival, a queer theatre festival, on July 17th.
This show started as a sort of “final project” in my last year at Smith College. I had majored in theatre and was very disappointed by the white/Western-centric education I received, so I thought, “fuck it, I’ll just write my own story.” When I started, I had the vague notion that I would write “a solo show about being queer and Asian,” but other than that I didn’t know exactly what story I was trying to tell. To give you some context, I’m a fourth generation American (on my Japanese side), so I haven’t had the experience of diaspora that tends to be common in Asian American narratives. (My Chinese family came to the US from Mexico, so I’m pretty distanced from a “home country/culture” centered diaspora on both sides.) So I have always felt like I occupy this sort of vague, liminal space. What kind of story does a queer Asian kid who fits in with American culture have to tell?
I started writing everything out of order: little stand up bits, pieces of monologues, etc. without really knowing what they would become. Then I started interviewing my family members, and that was when the truth really came out. (My mom and I talked frankly for the first time about me being queer in an interview for this show.) I learned some things about my family members that I’d never known, but more significantly I was able to draw connections between parts of my family history that I’d always taken for granted. I began to realize that I am a part of a 100+ year legacy of my family struggling NOT to “banana”-fy, and that I have inherited that responsibility. After that, the pieces just sort of fell into place. For this main stage production at Dixon Place, I’ve rewritten & revamped the show with my director Christopher Gabriel Nuñez and it is harder better faster stronger!!
As[I]Am: Nice! What was a story you learned about your family that particularly struck out to you?
Jes: You’ll have to come to my show to find that out! 😉
As[I]Am: The words “banana” and “FOB” are controversial in Asian Americana. How do you claim these words?
I want to be clear that I don’t believe being a “banana” or any other “one race on the outside, another race on the inside” food item is actually valid. The somewhat flagrant use of “banana” in my show is meant as a tongue in cheek nod to how ridiculous the concept is. It’s supposed to be satire. In my adolescence to young adulthood, I felt a lot of internalized racism and I really did identify as a “banana” (though probably not with that exact term). It has only been in the past few years that I have begun to confront that. Assimilation is complicated, and to call any person of color “white on the inside” completely flattens and erases entire histories and identities. So I don’t claim “banana,” but I use it (in the show only) because most people would say that I am one.
“FOB” is…much more complicated. Of course, as I said, I’m a fourth generation American, so that’s definitely not an identity I can claim. To be honest, when I came up with this title at Smith, I had not even considered that “FOB” was a controversial term. I had only intended for the title to be a punny take on the idea of cross-cultural confusion. I grew up in San Francisco in a densely Asian American environment, and I had only ever heard Asian American people, of all generations, use the term. So I never thought of it as a slur. I’ve definitely heard it in a derogatory context (that is how I used it in my terrible “banana” days, usually to mean “not cool”), but I’ve also definitely heard Asian Americans use it to describe themselves. I rarely heard it from white people, and on the rare occasions I did, I considered it a gross faux pas. Maybe that isn’t true in other parts of the country, but that is my context for the term.
The other thing is that even though I’m fourth gen, I am still constantly read as foreign. I’ve had people ask me if my (second gen) grandmother could speak English while she was present. I get asked “where are you from?” like every other day. A guy told me “your face looks like you’re from China” yesterday. I am not a “FOB,” but I’ve been called that by a white person. While “fresh off the boat” is not an identity I hold or a term I use very often, I still consider it part of my lexicon.
That being said, I do understand that the use of “FOB” by more assimilated Asian Americans upsets people, and if this show gets produced again I will probably change the title.
As[I]Am: In response to ABC’s new sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, based on the life of restaurateur Eddie Huang, many Asian Americans have felt that the show’s use of “FOB” is inappropriate. Buzzfeed recently published an article defending the word “FOB.” What are your thoughts on this?
Jes: Again, I don’t think “FOB” is a slur that non-Asian people have historically used to dehumanize Asian people. “Chink” and “jap” are slurs, “FOB” is part of the Asian American lexicon. I think that radical communities need to be careful of demonizing things, particularly issues of language, as immediately oppressive without considering every dimension of the issue. To think of issues of language as inherently “empowering versus oppressive,” “good versus bad,” “right versus wrong,” can be well, binary. It’s always more complicated than that. This is certainly not to say that I think people should run around screaming slurs, I just think it’s important to leave room for empathy. For example: When the Fresh Off the Boat trailer came out, I saw a lot of radical activists speaking out on “the protagonist’s appropriation of AAVE,” but when I was growing up in San Francisco, all the cool Asian American kids were wearing Rocawear and BabyPhat and learning to rap. It is cultural appropriation (and the reasons and ramifications of that are very complicated), but it is also an Asian American TRUTH. If we dismiss Fresh Off The Boat because it has “cultural appropriation,” we will miss out on that truth. Social justice kind of has these rules, but our truths very rarely follow those rules.
In the article, Eddie Huang says, “I would never call myself an American…I’m a Taiwanese-Chinese-American. My parents came here in the late ’70s and had me about three years after they’d lived in this country. So I consider myself fresh. You can’t tell me to not consider myself something.” I agree with that. Who am I, as an Asian American, to police Eddie Huang’s experience of being Asian American?
As[I]Am: In an Asian Pacific Forum interview, you mentioned that you lost some connections with mainstream comedians because your jokes had offended them. That’s very interesting because stand up is one of the few platforms where people are encouraged to be edgy and critical. Could you speak a little bit about stand up as an industry and what kinds of compromises one has to make in order to “make it” professionally?
Jes: I think stand up is so important as a radical art form, because it’s about getting people to listen & making your point of view accessible. Unfortunately the stand up scene is mostly a giant white guy party. I’ve heard some of the most unabashedly racist/misogynistic/homophobic/transphobic/ableist shit come out of the mouths of stand up comics. In spaces where that grossness is considered being “edgy and critical,” my comedy tends to sound pretty different. As I said, comedy is about making your views accessible, so my job is to figure out how to get these people to laugh with me. I am trying to succeed in the mainstream stand up industry, so I have to network with a lot of gross people in order to get stage time. It’s that same narrative with every up and coming artist: “am I selling out?” Navigating stand up as a queer person of color is very difficult. This is something I’m struggling with right now: I prefer to use “they” pronouns in professional contexts (in my personal life I alternate between “they” and “she”), but in mainstream stand up settings people read me as a woman because they don’t know any better. I have no idea how to get mainstream comics to use “they” pronouns for me. I will probably have to write a joke about it.
As[I]Am: In the same interview, you mention that you often flip the script when performing in front of white, hetero audiences. What does flipping the script look like when the audience is primarily politically minded, Asian American, and/or queer?
Jes: I like to poke fun at (and with!) more radical audiences. Politically minded folks, particularly queer people of color, can be so seeeerious. Queer of color spaces are often very heavy. Of course I understand the necessity of naming our traumas and oppressions, but I think that sometimes we need to laugh in the face of oppression. When I perform for my own communities, I just wanna see my people laugh.
JES TOM is a comedian and actor based in New York City. Jes is a new voice in stand up comedy, gleefully providing the genderqueer Asian American radical separatist perspective that everyone never knew they wanted. A San Francisco native, Jes has performed alongside prominent West Coast personalities Marga Gomez, D’Lo, and The Zodiac Killer (he was never caught, so this might be true). Jes can be found scowling in the corner at NYC open mics, at their day job selling dildos to the wealthy, and in their pajamas at 2pm, having just woken up.
Jes’s work has been featured at the Five College Queer Gender & Sexuality Conference, Queens Council on the Arts, Bowery Poetry Club, the Smith College Theatre Dept. New Playreading Series, and Hot! Festival at Dixon Place.
Jes Tom holds a BFA in Theatre with a Concentration in Writing from Smith College. Jes is currently studying at Maggie Flanigan Studio in NYC.
Learn more about Jes Tom at their website.