Brian Park is unapologetically himself and making waves in comedy along the way
This interview was originally published in the July 20, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.
Brian Park is the co-creator of a new web series called “Eating It” which details the story of a Korean-American who is deviating from his well-crafted life plan of becoming a doctor to pursue a secret lifelong passion of cooking. In addition to this web series, Brian is a stand-up comedian based in New York. We had the chance to chat with him over the phone.
Natasha Chan: You’re originally from Texas, went to school in Southern California, and now you live in New York. Tell us a little more about this journey and where you feel you resonate with most?
Brian Park: I was born in raised in El Paso, TX. Growing up there was a very interesting experience for me. El Paso is predominantly Hispanic — there are basically no Asian people there. I didn’t see any other Asian people growing up there. I didn’t really think much of it, because that was just the norm. It’s one of those things where you don’t realize what things are like until you leave the place.
When I was 12, my parents sent me to Korea to study there for a year and to have an immersive cultural experience. They didn’t really like that I couldn’t speak Korean that well, and I was a little out of touch with my Korean heritage. So yeah, I lived there for a year and that was a huge culture shock for me. I was ostracized in Korea for being American, and it was this weird disjunction — growing up in El Paso, I was seen as “other” because of the way I looked, but then when I went to Korea, I was seen as “other” because of my cultural upbringing, although we looked similar. So that was a pretty insightful and eye-opening experience for me, but I learned so much.
I came back to the states and my parents sent me to boarding school in Southern California. That was another culture shock for me because in El Paso, I owned up to and embraced the identity of being the only Asian guy. In some ways, that just became who I was. In Southern California, where there is a large Asian population there, and it was sort of confusing for me because, in some ways, it meant that I had to develop a personality. It was very cool being able to interact with other Asian Americans who were similar in age to me because that was my first experience with that.
I went to college at UCSD and UCLA, where there is a humongous Asian American population, and in some ways I felt lost. I felt like a number, and it was a strange feeling for me. I don’t know if I can speak for all second-generation Asian Americans, but I think in large part, because I grew up in a community where there were no Asian Americans, I tried very hard to reject that part of my identity and assimilate myself as fully as possible to what was considered a very Western ideology of being American. I was a pre-med all throughout undergrad, I really didn’t like, but I did it because my parents kept pushing me in that direction.
My parents are very strict Korean immigrants, and I’m sure as you know, there are times where it’s Eastern philosophy vs. Western philosophy, and there’s the whole thing about respecting your elders, and trying to get an understanding of the sacrifice your parents made for you when they immigrated to a new country. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure to make them proud or to make their journey to America worthwhile. I think for a lot of Asian immigrant parents, it’s an opportunity to provide a safe career for your children. Though I really didn’t like my pre-med studies, I did well academically. So it was really hard for me to follow my gut and just do what I wanted to do, because there are other external pressures that are placed on second generation Americans that a lot of other Americans aren’t attuned to.
For a while, I felt very torn internally, and I started taking improv classes at the [Upright Citizens Brigade] theater in my third or fourth year at UCLA on the weekends. I was at a point where — I’ve always been a creative person, and I just needed an outlet for that. The class structure of UCB was a good introduction for me.
So yeah, I did that on weekends, and I graduated with my biology degree, took the MCAT’s, and after college worked for an endovascular surgeon while I prepped my medical school application. It was during this time that I was doing stand up mics in Los Angeles, so I had a few years of improv under my belt and it gave me the confidence to try stand up. It started as a challenge for myself, this is something I would never do and I’ve always been interested in it, but I should make myself uncomfortable and just do this thing. What started off as a casual interest just turned into a full-blown obsession.
At this point something in me changed, and I had lost all interest in becoming a doctor. I couldn’t fake it anymore, basically. Up until that point I was good at suppressing my own desires just to appease my parents or fulfill this expectation that I put on myself, what it meant to be a good Korean son. I knew I wanted to take stand up comedy more seriously, and I knew that I wanted to move to New York. All my favorite comedians developed in New York at some point, and through a lot of good luck and fortune, I was able to do a writing internship at Saturday Night Live during Season 40. I flew there, interviewed, and they gave me the offer to start in 5 days and I had to fly back to LA, sell my stuff, and move to NY, and I’ve been in NY ever since!
NC: At that point, did your parents know that you didn’t want to pursue medical school anymore or did have to tell them while you were on your way to New York?
BP: They knew. I was very vocal about my frustration with going to medical school, but I think this is just an attitude that a lot of Asian people adopt — the idea of delayed gratification. So my parents kept hammering this idea that “it’s tough right now, but if you endure it, eventually the reward will prove itself worth it.”
I told them about comedy and they thought it was just a little hobby or a phase. During my last year at UCLA, I was in an annual comedy competition against USC. I made it to the finals and I invited my parents, and they flew out for it to come see me. It was a packed house, and it was a cool thing for them. Stand up comedy is not a thing in Korea. It is an American invention. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it and it was so different from what they grew up with and tried to teach their kids.
NC: I want to circle back to something that you mentioned earlier — while you were in Texas, you were one of the only Asian people in your community. You did your best to really fit in, but when you came to Southern California, it was just a complete 180, and you had to come to terms with the fact that you were just another number. However, do you feel like through that experience, it also helped strengthen your bond with your Asian heritage and appreciate it more?
BP: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I have a completely changed perspective on my Asian identity. As you know, there isn’t a lot of representation for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry, and honestly just across all fields. You can say that there are a lot of Asian doctors or Asian lawyers, but of those, there is a disproportionately low amount of them that do rise to leadership positions. I think that all stems from the top down — the gatekeepers are white men.
Though growing up, I tried very hard to deny my Asian heritage, now it’s something that I’m the most passionate about. In my comedy and in my work, I want to fight for Asian Americans and their representation. I am so proud of my heritage, and in some ways, I feel very guilty for trying to deny that part of me.
If anything, now, it’s something I love talking about and sharing with other people, and that’s what I love about stand up comedy. I have this platform where I can speak to people every night and tell them — this is my experience. It’s not shown a lot in popular media, but I have this opportunity to show you how unique it is, and help to dismantle stereotypes. It’s very fulfilling and it’s very awesome.
NC: Was there a poignant moment where you feel like you actually got through to people and changed any stereotypes that they might have had about Asians? Or an a-ha moment where you felt like all the things you are working on are worth it and are actually making a difference?
BP: Those moments happen most often through stand up. A lot of my material is personal stories, but I do touch a lot on my Asian American identity and use it as a way to subvert stereotypes. I do get messages from people who might have been in the audience. They’ll say things like, “You’ve got to keep going,” or “I love how you speak to the truth of the Asian experience without putting down Asian culture for laughs.”
That’s one of my biggest pet peeves — there are Asian comedians who put down our culture at the expense of a laugh. Credit to them, everyone’s MO is different, but personally for me, I try to make all my material as an opportunity to educate people. The messages I get from audiences who really see that and get that gives me so much joy. It keeps me going.
NC: That’s wonderful. A lot of the things you’ve touched on, I feel like there is some overlap in your web series. For our readers who aren’t familiar, you have a web series called Eating It, which follows a Korean-American student who contemplates dropping out of medical school — which seems very similar to your own journey — but instead of comedy, he pursues culinary passions, much to the dismay of his first-generation parents. You describe this as a dilemma that many second-generation Americans are hyper aware of, but is often misunderstood by the rest of the U.S, because it’s rarely depicted in mainstream entertainment.
I watched the entire series, and there is one scene in particular that I’d like to discuss — in episode 4, your Caucasian friend witnesses a tense phone call between you and your mom, and you have to spend some time explaining to her why it’s important for you to obey your mother’s wishes and orders, even if it means giving up something you love. She responds, “You can do something that makes you miserable because you think it will make someone else happy, or you can just do something that you love, and your parents who love you will also be ok with it eventually.” You respond “That’s such an American thing to say.” She responds, “Are you not American?”
That scene really struck me. I think this is a struggle that all Asian Americans face. Like you mentioned, when you were in Korea, you weren’t really “Asian” because you didn’t ascribe 100% to the traditions of your parents and their home country, but when you were in Texas, you also weren’t really “American” because you were raised with immigrant values — I really appreciated this scene, but other viewers who aren’t Asian American might not realize it’s impact. Do you find it challenging to not only appeal to Asian Americans, being as authentic to the experience as possible, but also making it easily digestible and relatable to anyone else viewing the show?
BP: That’s awesome. I’m so so glad you brought up this scene in particular, because at its essence, it’s the thesis of my entire web series and was the inspiration for it.
As Asian Americans, we experience a different set of struggles. It comes from the cultural differences between our parents and the culture we’re raised in. This is something I’ve tried to express on stage through stand up, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the right medium because in order to create a joke, you have to subvert an expectation of some sort. But because our experience is so rarely shown in popular media, people don’t really know what it’s like to be a second generation American.
This is something I’ve grappled with. This is why I decided to create the web series, I feel like it needed that visual element. Having my parents in it, it elucidates any confusion that people might have. To visually show the parental pressures that come from Asian immigrants, it’s unique to us. On paper it can be easily dismissed, but it is very real and it influences our behaviors, actions, and oftentimes our career choices, and who we date.
I ultimately just wanted to show through this web series that Asian Americans can’t be categorized into a stereotype like a “nerd” or a “jock.” Our experience is complex. And this internal struggle, in and of itself, might be a hallmark of what it means to be an Asian American. Rather than trying to shape ourselves in a certain way, or fit a caricature, I think we should just embrace it. This is what makes us unique.
NC: Your web series is short, it’s only 5 episodes currently and they’re each about 6–8 minutes long, but I feel like you’re able to capture so many different elements of the struggles that Asian Americans face, and also just the perception of how other people feel about Asian Americans and these issues we face.
For example, when you’re complaining to your roommate about how you’re not passionate about medical school anymore and he wouldn’t understand because his mom never forced him to go. He’s kind of like, “What are you talking about? I wish I had parents who forced me to do things to better myself.”
I feel like a lot of times, it’s hard for people to identify with the issues that we face because they feel like they’re “first world problems.” Like, “I’m sorry you don’t want to go to medical school and have it be paid for by your parents” or “I’m sorry that you’re not happy with your career choices, I’m just trying to survive and feed myself.” I’m curious what you say to people who approach you and don’t really get it when you talk about these issues because they don’t really think they’re actually issues? Like you’re a model minority, what do you really have to complain about?
BP: I think we just need to have more empathy in this country. It’s attributed to the model minority label that Asians experience. I think that it’s a dangerous label because it can be used as a way to dismiss our struggle. Yes, Asian Americans have been able to assimilate in America if you’re looking at average salary as a measurement of success. But I think that’s where I think the Asian experience can be hard to portray and talk about because, admittedly, I suppose the level of oppression or obstacles we’ve faced aren’t as extreme as other minority groups. But that isn’t to say that we haven’t experienced our own set of experiences either.
That’s why I think it’s important to have empathy. We can’t operate on extremes. Every culture and group experiences their own struggles. Through this web series, I just wanted to show a very accurate and realistic portrayal of some of the issues that Asian Americans face. It’s very subtle, it’s very nuanced. There are a lot of layers to it, and I think it makes for interesting view. And I think it’s a good way for helping people to understand where I’m coming from.
NC: Another thing you cover in the series that isn’t covered very often is mental health issues in the Asian American community. I had a good laugh when you said that your mom in the series said, “I don’t understand why you need therapy, can’t you just try harder?” I also saw some of your tweets where your mom in real life said something along the same lines, like, “Why do you need therapy? Just be happy.” I was curious, are your actual parents the actors in the series?
BP: Yes, they are my actual parents. For one, they just wanted to see what I’ve been up to in New York, but honestly I just don’t know very many 65 year old Asian actors that speak Korean fluently. It became a matter of practicality.
NC: Side note, your dad is very stylish by the way. I love his glasses.
BP: Oh my god, everyone says that. My dad is a very cool guy. But anyway, I’m so glad you brought up mental health though. I do have a stand up joke about that, but it’s really not talked about in Asian culture. Especially for Asian immigrants, in some ways, I get where they’re coming from. Coming to a new country, it’s a daunting experience. They come with no money, no connections, no resources — so the problems you face are larger. The term “anxiety” is usually ascribed to hyperbolizing or exaggerating “trivial” things. Being an immigrant in a new country just requires mental fortitude. If you don’t have that, you won’t be able to survive in a new country. That’s why I think it’s very hard for immigrant parents to grasp mental health. You have to be really resilient and have mental fortitude to make it. That’s another disjunction I find very interesting. Here in America, there is progress to be made in regards to mental health, but the fact that my mom knows what therapy is, it means that it’s a conversation that people are having.
NC: I get some Aziz Ansari and David Chang vibes from Eating It. Even some Louis CK vibes. There are these individuals in the industry, though not many, like Aziz, David, and even Ali Wong who are sharing their experiences as Asian Americans. What do you hope to bring to the dialogue?
BP: All of those people you mentioned are such big role models for me. And you know what they say, you’re just a product of your role models, and through tweaking you find your own voice. It’s awesome that you made those comparisons as I hold them in such high regard. I think there is space for us to tell stories that are unique to us. And if what you say is true to who you are, by proxy, it will be unique. For me, I just want to portray a realistic experience of what it is to be an Asian American male. I’m not a stereotype, I’m not a caricature of who you think I am. I’m just me. I have my own experiences, my own thoughts, and through that I just want to show that we’re all human. It’s not some foreign, alien thing. The web series is short, but I’m just so happy that you seem to have caught onto all these little things.
NC: I really appreciated the web series — I went into watching it with no expectations, but I was able to catch all these little nuances, and I do think you were very true and authentic to the Asian American experience, even down to the very last scene. I noticed that in the beginning of the series, every time your mom called you would speak Korean with her, but in the last scene when you were sort of declaring your independence, you spoke English the entire time. I don’t know if that was purposeful, but I thought that was a really good storytelling prop.
BP: Yes! Yes! That was definitely purposeful. I mean, my Korean isn’t great, but again, that’s what it is, I’m just trying to play a version of myself. Although my Korean isn’t great, I do speak in Korean with my parents. I know it’s easier for them, and that’s their preferred mode of communication, but that last scene — it’s a very emotional climax. I noticed at times when I’m upset or really excited about something, my Korean just…
NC: It goes away.
BP: My fluency just does not match the emotion that I want to convey. That’s just another subtle way of showing what makes us unique. We’re Asian Americans and — in a scene like that — it’s just beyond language. It’s so awesome that you caught that. When I’m upset or something, I just let my guard down, and it’s like, you know what, I’m American. I was born and raised American. English is the way I communicate. This is what I want to say.
NC: I want to circle back to something you said earlier — you mentioned that these were your real parents doing these scenes with you that you wrote for them, and you know, they said some pretty harsh things that a lot of Asian parents say to their kids.
You know, in my own experience, I’ll never forget when I was applying to graduate school, I was still living at home to save some money while working. When I got up to go to work one day, it was like 6 AM and my mom was already sitting in the kitchen, in the dark, by herself. And I was like, “What are you doing here, mom?” and she says, “I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about how you’re not going to get into graduate school. And when you don’t, you’ll have to be a waitress to support yourself, and I’m not going to let you live here anymore. You’ve just spent too much time playing.”
I mean, just totally ridiculous, like I HAVEN’T EVEN SUBMITTED AN APPLICATION YET. Though, in the moment, you can understand where these fears come from, as crazy as they are, but at the same time, they don’t really realize the impact of their words and how they can really hurt. After I successfully graduated from a great program, and I have my own career now, I bring up that moment to my parents all the time, and I’m like — do you remember that one morning you said that thing to me? Do you regret saying those things now? And she’s always like, “Yes, I apologize, I’m so proud of you now.”
So I’m curious — going through these scenes with your parents, having them say these words that you wrote for them, how was that experience? Do they realize now, having to go through it again, that maybe they were too harsh on you? Or do they still stick by what they said to you?
BP: It’s a mix of both. You know, again, one day I hope to turn this web series into a TV show. I had to explain to my parents that these words are not verbatim what they said, it’s a script, and some things were heightened for dramatic effect. But you know, by seeing me pore over this web series and my stand up, they’ve certainly opened up a lot. Their perception has changed — in some ways, they’ve become more Westernized.
I do the same things that you do, I’ll point out certain moments and be like, “Mom, that was kind of harsh. Do you have anything to say about that?” And you know — sometimes they’ll apologize, but they’re pretty firm in their convictions, and I’m pretty firm in mine. That’s another thing I’d really love to explore.
My parents are 60 now, they were born and raised in Korea, it’s not my place to change them. I just want to be better at understanding them, and I can internalize things differently. I shouldn’t cast judgement on them, or paint things as right or wrong. So yeah. It’s interesting. These expectations can confuse us, and misguide us in a lot of ways. To the point where we don’t really know what we want or desire because there are already so many expectations set up for us.
NC: Where do you see yourself in 5–10 years? You mentioned that you have all these thoughts and passions, but comedy may not be the right platform or medium to express that. Do you think you might transitioning more into digital media? Or do you still hope to build a bigger career in comedy?
BP: I still hope to build a bigger career for myself in comedy. The way I describe it to people is — my first introduction to the performing arts was through comedy. Through comedy, I started doing more acting work, and through acting, I wrote my own project, produced it, and created it. The entertainment industry is so fickle and capricious — in 5-10 years, I just — I try my best to take it day-by-day, follow my passions, and hopefully I’ll be in a place where I can just tell stories that I’m passionate about.
For me, that’s what it’s all about — speaking to my experience and, hopefully, in the process, educate audiences about the Asian American experience. Honestly, it could be through stand up comedy, acting, it could be through creating — anything! That’s just what drives me, I don’t care what medium it is, I’m open to it all. My ultimate dream is to one day create my own TV show.
NC: That’s awesome, that was actually going to be a follow-up question — do you want to join a cast like SNL? Did you want to have your own series, kind of like Fresh Off the Boat? Do you want to have your own tour or special? All of the above?
BP: Man, all of the above! I think it’s crazy that SNL has been on air for 43 seasons, but has never had an Asian American cast member.
NC: That is crazy.
BP: They’ve had Rob Schneider, who is I think half or a quarter Filipino, I don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m talking about a full 100% Asian American cast member.
NC: So while you were writing at SNL, did you ever bring that up to anyone?
BP: No. I didn’t. I should have — but I didn’t. I think I was so focused on…
NC: Your job?
BP: Yeah — just doing a good job, I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I had taken this huge leap of faith away from medicine, and moved to New York with a plan to pursue comedy, and I didn’t want to create any turbulence in that. But the times are changing, and I think we’re going to have our first Asian American cast member soon.
NC: I hope it’s you!
BP: *laughs* You know, beyond SNL, I love acting. I go on auditions a lot. Even to this day, I’m still trying for parts like, “Nerdy Guy.” There are still these broad brush strokes of what people think Asians are. So again, I’m really just hoping my web series can tackle these stereotypes and add some complexity to our characters.
NC: So Eating It sort of ended on a cliff hanger, and I’m hooked! I want to know what happens to Kevin. Will there be more episodes or are you done with the series now?
BP: No! I want to continue the series. The next step is to get a following for it, and I want to pitch it to development teams and networks, and hopefully we can find a home for Eating It, and get it produced, and hopefully I can make some more episodes for you guys.
NC: That’s awesome. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it. So I just want to wrap up with a fun question. Every time we interview someone, we always ask them to ask our next interviewee a question.
Over the course of the last year that The Slant has been around, we’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot of different people like Awkwafina, William Hung, Faiz Shakir from the ACLU, and most recently April Pascua, the co-founder of Untold Improv out in the San Francisco Bay Area, and her question for you is — if you had to smell something for the rest of your life, what would it be?
BP: If I had to smell something for the rest of my life — I love the smell when it’s just about to rain. It’s called petrichor.
NC: Oh interesting, I didn’t realize there was a word for it.
BP: It’s this palpable scent in the air, when you know that raindrops are about to fall. And I just love that smell. Yeah, I think that would be it.
NC: What do you want to ask our next guest?
BP: Just a side note, I love trying new restaurant — and ugh, I hate the term, but I consider myself…
NC: A foodie?
BP: Yes, a foodie. I mean that’s part of the reason why I chose that as Kevin’s career choice. Because, for immigrants, food just serves a very utilitarian purpose. People have created careers of this foodie lifestyle. I liked the disjunction between what is considered utilitarian vs. what is considered hedonistic. As a big foodie, my next question for your next interview would be — what is a dish from your home country that you think more Americans should try?
Brian Park has been featured on CollegeHumor, Dorkly, and Seriously.TV. He also hosts and produces the monthly “College Humor Live” show at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City. You can follow him @itsbrianpark on Twitter and Instagram.