Margaret Cho Tells People Who Ask Where She’s from, Where They Can Go

Sep 15, 2017

Each week, you send us your questions about how to behave and here to answer them this week is comedian and writer Margaret Cho. Before answering your questions, Brendan and Rico chatted with Margaret about her upcoming tour and what it’s like to write comedy in the age of instant backlash. In the audio above, she gives our listeners apt advice on how to handle some oblivious friends and acquaintances.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So are you ready for these questions they’ve submitted?


Margaret Cho: I’m ready!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wonderful!

Where are you really from?

Rico Gagliano: So here’s one from Rooney, she’s from Downy, California. Rooney says: “As an Asian person, I get asked this question a lot. ‘Where are you from?’ I normally just respond with, ‘I’m from Los Angeles’, but they always push a little further and ask, ‘But where are your parents from?’ I am tired of explaining my ethnic background. How should I deal with this question?”


Margaret Cho: Well, I think that’s really the answer. I am tired of dealing with this question. People always assume foreignness from Asian faces and Asian names. This idea that we’re permanently foreign no matter where we’re from.

You know, I’m from San Francisco. I was born there. I was raised there. I really am an American in every sense of the word, yet my foreignness is always something that’s sort of, like, highlighted.

Rico Gagliano: That’s interesting. Although, what happens if you have this experience with someone who’s also of Asian descent? Because I know that’s something actually within the Korean community that you get a lot. It’s like, ‘Are you from Korea?’ or ‘How many generations removed from being born in Korea are you?’


Margaret Cho: Yeah, I mean that’s more of a valid question, I think, just because it’s like, “OK, well, we are all from this particular diaspora.’ You know? So we can actually, like, talk about this.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: That word sounds like it immigrated here, too.


Margaret Cho: I know!

Brendan Francis Newnam: So your suggestion is like a meta-answer. It’s like, “You know what? I’m tired of answering that question. I told you I’m from Los Angeles.”


Margaret Cho: Yeah. And you can give them the history lecture of how many times you’ve been asked that question and how stupid it is to have to continue to answer it. And-

Rico Gagliano: By the end of that, they’ll just be like, “You know what, forget it.”


Margaret Cho: Yeah. And then they’ll learn something. That this foreignness that is assumed about us is a racist trope. And does not need to exist in polite society.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. Rooney from Downey. There’s your suggestion, and I don’t care where you’re from, other than Downey, California.

Practicing a new language

Brendan Francis Newnam: OK, this next question comes from Courtney. She sent it via our website. Courtney writes: “I’m an adult trying to learn Spanish. I’m not quite conversational but want to practice with native speakers. Should I ask — in Spanish — if I can practice speaking with them prior to dropping my preschool level mastery of their language? Or is it just rude to ask them to take extra time and effort to be my unpaid educator.”


Margaret Cho: I think you can prac- Everybody appreciates that. Like, if you’re learning a new language and you’re going into an environment where it’s their preferred method of communicating with each other. And if you’re trying, I think people just appreciate it. I don’t think it’s ever rude.

I do the same thing, because I have- my Korean is terrible and yet I try to communicate in Korean in Koreatown. You know, I think it’s charming. Even when you go to France or whatever, people have this long sort of standing idea that French people are rude, but-

Rico Gagliano: My experience was definitely that I’d tried my, you know, high school-level French on them and was basically given the stink-eye.


Margaret Cho: Awwww!

Rico Gagliano: Yeah.


Margaret Cho: Oh, no!

Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s a seductive eye. I think you just misread the eye, my friend.

Rico Gagliano: Ahhh.


Margaret Cho: Maybe you misread the eye.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Maybe you can come to me for eye lessons.


Margaret Cho: I had a good experience with that [in France]. In Germany, too. I had a good experience.

Rico Gagliano: You also, though, I do think, have to be careful that you don’t offend people in another way. I mean, Margaret is approaching this person assuming that the person speaks Spanish.


Margaret Cho: Oh! Yeah, yeah.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Don’t approach Margaret with your Korean questions.


Margaret Cho: Because I’m not very good at speaking Korean. But I try!

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, because you’re from San Francisco.


Margaret Cho: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. We scrambled that enough. Courtney, somewhere in there is an answer.

When your roommate has terrible eating habits

Rico Gagliano: Indeed. Here is something from T.M. via our website. This is our last question. T.M. writes: “My housemate and friend always talks while she eats and I hate it. She also licks her fingers, which also drives me insane. If I see her preparing food, I leave the area until she’s done eating. BTW, she is a highly educated and well-to-do person who has plenty of good manners, just not this one. What can I do?”


Margaret Cho: Ugh, that’s a tough one. I think that… When you’re, like, co-habitating with people, that — and it’s not necessarily a romantic situation — there is a kind of thing that roommates have where they really get on your nerves and it’s just one of those things that you become hyper aware of certain behaviors.

That’s more the issue of, like, this intimacy that is not really about romantic intimacy. It’s this kind of intimacy that’s just about the closeness of another human being, which sometimes can be really horrible.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, you get no benefits from it, except the rent.


Margaret Cho: No! The rent and, you know, it’s also fun to have a roommate too. I just can’t- it’s so weird. I’m so old, but I was in a roommate situation for the last 14 months and it was really strange, you know.

Rico Gagliano: Really?


Margaret Cho: And my roommates were- they’re very nice people, but they were also- some of them had been in prison. So they were all, like, making prison, like, casserole things where they were putting, like, ramen and, like a bag and, like, smashing it and then putting hot water.

And I mean, God bless them for really having an affinity for the food that they had when they were in prison. But, like, for me, I’m like, “This is so gross to me!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Margaret, I’m sorry! We have to ask a follow-up on that. So, you’re roommates, how did you find them?


Margaret Cho: I was in rehab for 14 months, which I talked about in the show a lot. Because sometimes you just need to go back and color. You know, I really needed to, like, retreat from society and get a coloring book. And just color. And it was so good. I really needed it. But a lot of the people that were in my house were coming in from prison.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Like a halfway home.


Margaret Cho: Like a halfway house. Well, they committed these crimes because of drug stuff and then in prison, really loved to break up the ramen in the bag and then put… There’s so much sodium. There’s so much sodium.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Hence the bloat in the title of your new show.


Margaret Cho: Yeah. The bloat of the show has to do with the sodium content of all of my roommates’ food.

Brendan Francis Newnam: But I think you actually point to something more poignant for T.M., which is, you know, that’s such a small thing, chewing with your mouth open. Maybe just, you know, take it in stride.


Margaret Cho: Yes. You could have had it way worse.

Rico Gagliano: Margaret Cho. Thank you so much for telling our audience how to behave.


Margaret Cho: Thank you!

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]