Time To Stand Up
“Making her debut here, let’s welcome the incredible Catherine Yeo!”
I shuffled to the front of the room, an illuminated open mic “stage” in what felt like the modern-day American dungeon: the dingy gray basement of a fast-food restaurant in downtown Boston. It was a Monday evening in September, yet the sides of the room were already lined with dozens of amateur comics. My heart hammered against my chest; I wondered if I could magically wind back time by 30 seconds and call an Uber home.
I grabbed the microphone and squinted against the searing spotlight. I had done stand-up on campus several times before, but this was my first taste of performing for the world outside the Harvard bubble. I noticed that there was only one other Asian woman in the line of comics. It was too late to bolt off the stage, so I swallowed my fear and took a deep breath.
“In America, elementary school math questions look like ‘Mr. Smith bought 94 apples at the supermarket… How many apples did he buy?’ Meanwhile in Singapore, the questions actually asked me to do math… which I thought was very rude.”
Joke after joke fell flat. Every time I paused—for laughter that never came—I peered into a sea of blinking eyes and sympathetic winces. In the silence, I could hear the audience munching on soggy French fries and slurping their sodas, the crinkles of the greasy paper wrapped around towering burgers that threatened to fall apart in one’s hands with any wrong move.
Three minutes into the set, a sequence of three jokes finally sparked a burst of chuckles. I latched onto that laughter and powered through the rest of my jokes, with deafening silence ringing in my ears.
I finally stepped off the stage to polite claps. What was I doing here? I sank back into my chair, with the shadow of my mother’s lifelong disapproval fluttering in my mind. But there was something else too: a burning desire to come back and prove everybody wrong—most of all myself.
“One Asian stereotype is that we’re bad at driving. I’ve always known that this stereotype is wrong, because my mom failed her driving test six times… That is SO much worse than ‘bad.’”
Growing up, it was hard not to look up to my mother. No matter the setting, she could rise from her seat, and a heartfelt monologue would pour out of her. Public speaking seemed second-nature. She brought me to watch her give work-related talks on stage in front of thousands of people when my feet still swung over the edge of the chair, barely scraping its spindle. Audiences were impressed at how a diminutive Asian woman could speak with such thundering eloquence.
But her loquaciousness loomed over me. A “quick goodbye” to a party host inevitably turned into an hour-long conversation. I would shuffle my feet behind her, alternating between standing and sitting as I waited.
I soon developed a conviction that it was better to say as little as possible. Why waste time speaking when a few words sufficed? I charged forward with this minimalist mind set.
Of course, my mother noticed. While other third-grade parents fussed over their children’s extracurriculars and whether they found new friends, my mother was concerned about why I told her so little about my school day at the dinner table. I was not intentionally withholding information—I just thought going through the motions of classes, recess, and lunch was unimportant. If language were a currency, I was saving up an allowance that I never planned to spend.
After talking to my mother, my teacher handed me a blank notebook: “You need to record at least three things about your school day, every day. Then you bring it home, and then you tell your mom about those three things.”
In middle school, when another student fell sick before a debate tournament, my mother volunteered me as a replacement. In high school, she enrolled me in public speaking classes, ignoring my tearful opposition. By then, I had embraced being an introverted nerd who wore rectangular glasses and an oversized hoodie. I grew so anxious about these forced speaking obligations that I developed a routine of hyperventilating before each one.
My relationship with my mother is still peppered with contradictions. I admire her deeply and fear letting her down. She is the best friend to whom I want to tell everything, but I choose my words to her selectively. Like many other Asian kids, I learned early on that winning your mother’s approval is a lifelong Sisyphean journey.
“I recently watched two high schoolers flirt at a coffee shop and exchange contact info when they had to leave. She said she only uses Instagram and Snapchat, he said he only used Discord… My conclusion from this is that romance is truly DEAD.”
After a gap year, I returned to Harvard in 2021 as a junior very aware of the hourglass hanging over every step. I knew my remaining time in college was short, so I asked myself: what have you always wanted to do but never dared to try?
An immediate answer popped into my head: comedy.
In middle school, I was entranced by comedy sketches on YouTube. I saw that there were people out there—very few who looked like me, but out there nonetheless—who made other people laugh. I used to imitate their wacky impressions and dreamed that one day, I could do the same thing.
Suddenly contemplating this idea again years later, the introverted nerd in me was realistic: public speaking is frightening enough, and stand-up comedy is the most vulnerable form of it. But I felt an impulse to embrace this fear. And so, that November, I joined Harvard’s stand-up comedy club.
Comedy workshop sessions are spaces to pitch premises for jokes and receive feedback. I came in with a list of ideas I’d jotted down on my phone over the previous month. When it was my turn, I took a deep breath.
“A few years ago, I made Tim Cook take a selfie with me on my Android phone. Which I think is pretty ironic.”
I looked up to a room full of confused stares.
“How… did this happen?” someone asked.
“I was attending Apple’s developer conference—”
“You attended Apple’s conference with an Android phone? Why?”
“This premise,” another student added, “implies an immense amount of privilege, so I’m not sure it would work.”
The conversation continued like that, with other club members questioning and probing every joke. Their bafflement and discouragement grated on every nerve. Here I was, finally spending my allowance of language, and it was being hurled back at me.
I made up a reason to excuse myself early from the workshop and went outside to cry, silent tears rolling down my cheeks. But nothing could have made me more determined to succeed. In a twisted way, I revel in failure because I know that I can learn with each subsequent try. By embracing fear and imperfection, I can grow. And, indeed, soon I would stand onstage as a comic.
My time to perform finally came a few months later, at our club’s student comedy show in March 2022. I donned a pristine white blazer and swept my hair, dyed violet and bubblegum pink, down over my chest and shoulders like a coat of armor. Hundreds of people squeezed into the blue foam chairs inside a Science Center lecture hall, but from the stage, their faces faded into darkness. The only thing I saw was a spotlight, and I instinctively raised my palm to shield my eyes from it.
I swallowed my nerves. “So lately there's been this hugely popular game Wordle…”
The crowd’s laughter came in sputtering flurries at first, then suddenly all at once. I could barely hear their laughs above the sound of my racing heart.
My five minutes zoomed by in a blur. I don’t remember which jokes made the crowd laugh, or how I managed to move my trembling legs off the stage as applause and cheers erupted across the hall.
“I’m Catherine, and this was my first time ever performing stand-up, thank you!”
“During Pride Month, you see brands stick rainbows everywhere; similarly, for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, brands smack a Made in China label on everything.”
I see now that pushing me to speak, at whatever cost, was my mother’s way of loving and protecting me. Life experience had taught her the importance of expressing her opinions out loud. She’d learned that it did not matter how hard she worked if she were unable to stand out. And one cannot stand out without speaking up.
She was an Asian woman raising an Asian American daughter, and this revelation, about the importance of speaking up, is especially true for people who look like us. Hollywood depicts Asian women as quiet, submissive, and helpless objects who are fetishized and hypersexualized. Centuries of Western imperialism and legislation rooted in racism also contributed to this stereotype: America’s first restrictive immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, specifically barred Chinese women from entering the country in order to, in the words of the statute, “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”
The pervasive “lotus flower” stereotype portrays East and Southeast Asian women as timid, passive, and obedient. Anna May Wong, the first Asian American woman to become a Hollywood star, was repeatedly cast in docile roles; in each of her films, her character died. In the real world, women were 68 percent of the victims of the 3,800 anti-Asian American hate crimes reported in 2021. What does it mean for us that even when we are perceived as meek and subservient, there is still no space for us to simply exist?
The effects of these harmful stereotypes are even more prevalent in the world of comedy, known for being loud, crude, and rebellious. I’ve watched Saturday Night Live my whole life and wondered why I never saw anyone who looked like me; it turns out that in 48 seasons, there have been, in total, three cast members of Asian descent—zero women. A mere 11 percent of stand-up comedians identify as women, and just under 5 percent identify as Asian.
This means I tiptoe in a crevice occupied by less than 1 percent of comics.
Despite falling flat on my face on my first try at the open mic, I dragged myself back two weeks later. Then again. And again. Sometimes minutes would pass before the first ripple of laughter. Other times, multiple punchlines in a row produced roaring guffaws.
Not only was I improving as a comedian, I knew I was also building a shield against realities I cannot wish away, growing incrementally more comfortable. When I perform, I cannot hide who I am. I am forcing my voice to be heard: as a meticulous collector of observations through the eyes of an introvert; as a daughter molding her own self; and as an Asian American woman carving out space for myself in a realm where I previously didn’t belong.
“I’m worried my kid won’t be able to get into any college at this rate… Will I need to name my kid something crazy so that they have a default college essay of overcoming a traumatic obstacle? Sorry, Dim Sum Yeo. I had to do it so you could have a brighter future.”
After my first show at Harvard, I headed back to my bedroom to send my parents the recording. Then I braced for their criticisms. Would my mother point out how some of my jokes fizzled out? (She has since done that.) Or how fat I looked on stage? (Another checkmark.)
Finally, my phone shook. I swiped it open and saw my mother’s text messages:
I am really proud of you.
It is something not typically done by Asian women.
I am so proud of you.
Recently, I invited a friend from our comedy club—another Asian American woman—to join me at the Boston open mic. The grim basement matched the New England weather. Wet umbrellas lay strewn across the greasy restaurant floor.
It was her first time performing outside of our carefully curated campus. Just as I had, my friend bombed spectacularly. I could see her frustration, but she left with her head held high.
“Do you think you’ll come back?” I asked gently. “To do this again?” I wondered if I had made a mistake bringing her to the open mic. What if I had scared her away from performing stand-up comedy forever? I thought of how my mother must have once stood at the same crossroads, protecting me while pushing me.
My friend nodded. “Next time, I’m going to make all of them laugh.”