by Sara Wiatrak
Comedian Karen Chee came to the University of Maryland on March 6, bringing with her a night of laughs and conversation on her experiences as an Asian American woman in the comedy industry.
Co-hosted by the Asian American Studies (AAST) program, the Office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy (MICA) and fully funded by an anonymous donor, both the meet-and-greet and stand-up brought in dozens of students to enjoy the presences of Chee and her opener John Hedrick.
Hedrick, a 2019 alumnus of this university, warmed up the crowd with sarcastic material on bubble tea, escape rooms, and — with a more serious tone — being biracial. He spoke about his half-Chinese identity affecting his connections to cultural communities, and tied it back to an “enlightening” Asian American history course that had helped alleviate his racial dysphoria.
Then Chee took to the stage, immediately drawing laughter from students with her jokes about being Asian in the midst of the coronavirus scare and getting told by Ohioans that she’s “so good” at English — her native language.
“It’s a very sweet time to be Asian, I feel like,” she said, smiling.
Chee, 25, had been invited to campus by AAST lecturer Terry Park, who was her senior thesis advisor when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University.
“She was one of my senior thesis students — this was back in 2016 [or] 2017,” Park said. “And so, as her writing and comedic writing career took off, I messaged her last year. I think it’s great for Asian American students — especially Korean-American students and Korean-American women students — to see Karen being successful, pursuing her passions.”
Park, who Chee endearingly refers to as her “Korean mom,” explained how Chee is able to offer room for more casual dialogue regarding social equity without it being too serious or overbearing.
“Her comedy addresses issues of race and gender from a specifically Asian American perspective, so I think it’ll give space for students to not only think critically, but do so from a comedic standpoint,” Park said.
That night, Chee effectively combined comedic value with an understanding of racial relations in the U.S. Many of her personal anecdotes revolved around her supportive parents, who’d immigrated from Korea, and her grandparents who live there. Her quips on “white culture” landed well, and frequent laughs ensured the audience appreciated her humorous outlook on making Caucasian friends — which, she joked, she has 17 of right now.
But her performance wasn’t restricted to her experiences as an Asian American. In correspondence with Women’s History Month, she had plenty of material on troubles with dating and staying on birth control, wrapping it all up with a joke about experiencing microaggressions against both her race and her gender.
“Intersectionality, right? We love to see it!” she exclaimed.
Chee now writes for and is regularly featured on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” and has previously written for the Golden Globe Awards and publications such as the New York Times. Her career trajectory is one that particularly impresses students like Sarah Nguyen, a senior marketing and management student.
“It’s pretty rare to see Asian Americans actually succeed in entertainment, so to see her have her own starring segment on ‘Late Night with Seth Meyers’ is really inspiring,” Nguyen said. “It’s a really unique time in American culture and in entertainment to see more Asian Americans getting that screen time and getting that spotlight.”
When asked how she’d made such impressive strides in her career since graduating in 2017, Chee said, “I think people have been very generous to me. And they’re often women, they’re often people of color. Obviously there definitely are a lot of nice white men in the business, but a lot of times it’s people who are like, ‘Hey, I remember it was really hard for me to get my foot in the door,’ and so those people have been super generous in terms of making it easier for people like me to get in.”
Chee went on to explain how valuable it is for minorities to bring their own perspectives to spaces largely occupied by whites and males, a sentiment she’d later reiterate during the Q&A session following her stand-up.
“I genuinely feel like if you are someone who is not the standard protagonist — in terms of like, you’re not a white man — then you have this entire other perspective that people need and want right now,” Chee said. “Because you grew up here… you already know what it’s like to be a white man. I grew up reading ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Harry Potter’ — and I’m like, ‘Great. I understand this perspective, but you have no idea what my perspective is like.’”
Attendees like Dorothy Kou, coordinator of Asian American and Pacific Islander Student Involvement and Advocacy in MICA, echoed the significance of minority recognition and varying perspectives.
“I think that representation is really important insofar as seeing people who look like you, but also important to see things that are different from what you see,” Kou said. “And so, being able to bring someone like Karen Chee on campus to do both of those is really important.”