For this immigrant kid, pop culture became a guide to life in America

by Brent G. Oneal

This is part of This Made Me, a HuffPost series that pays tribute to the formative pop culture in our lives. Read more stories from the series here.

The first Time I heard about Simon & Garfunkel was on an episode of “Arthur.” Art Garfunkel – or the cartoon moose version of him – walked through Ellwood City singing “The Ballad of Buster Baxter.” It wasn’t until a few years later, watching “The Graduate,” that I realized he was half of one of the most influential musical duos of the 20th century.

For this immigrant kid, pop culture became a guide to life in America

As an only child of immigrants, “Arthur” and other PBS shows made possible my first foray into American pop culture — and in the process, my first attempts to figure out what it even means to be American. Without a foundation of cultural references given to me by my parents, I unconsciously (and later consciously) began to piece together my own pop culture reference points, acquiring my mental library of formative films, television, books, and music. It is a process that continues today in my professional life as a culture reporter and writer.

In my teens, I thought that becoming a cinephile would help me become more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. So I watched VHS tapes and DVDs of Oscar-winning and nominated films from my local library, checked IMDb bulletin boards and movie blogs, and read about “author directors” (almost all of whom were white males). On TV, I watched a lot of sitcoms and admired the density of the jokes and topical references on “The Office,” “Arrested Development,” and “30 Rock.”

The latter was especially formative. I saw a lot of myself in Liz Lemon: nerdy, bespectacled, and very committed and successful at her work as a writer (and not so successful romantically or socially).

During that same period, I also started to become a writer – and had to teach myself many things again. I collected memorable tropes, expressions, and phrases and stored them in my brain (and later in a Google doc). I had difficulty figuring out which prepositions belonged with which turns of phrase and discovered expressions I had missed because I had misremembered them.

Whenever I used an expression, I would Google it and check it thrice to ensure I wasn’t abusing it. Is it “cut and dry” or “cut and dry”? What is a “ballpark figure”? What do you call an audible? Why are there so many sports metaphors? I felt like I had to be overprepared and extra thorough in making up for what I didn’t know and stake my claim as a writer, a profession I assumed I couldn’t get into because I didn’t know anyone who looked like I did it.

Being a child of immigrants is like playing a phone game all your life. There are so many references that I have misheard or only half learned, concepts that I only vaguely understand or have kept in an adapted way. I have second- or third-hand knowledge of “American culture” because I had to learn it independently. At the same Time, I also have a second or third-hand understanding of my parents’ Chinese culture, as there was only so much they could copy or pass on.

I spent a lot of Time writing about this split existence in my journals and essays, trying to articulate what it was but failing to find the right words. I wondered if I was doing all this ‘right’, if there was one ‘right’ way to do it all, or one ‘right’ definition of ‘American pop culture’.

Throughout my childhood, I felt that my parents also struggled with these questions: What is “American culture”? What does it mean to be American? They also tried to teach themselves aspects of pop culture. We developed a ritual of watching the evening news every night, followed by “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune.” My father subscribed to every newspaper and magazine we could afford: our local newspaper, Time, and Newsweek. Sometimes he bought the Sunday New York Times, and when I was a teenager, he indulged my burgeoning interest in movies and TV by paying for my Entertainment Weekly subscription.

We tuned in to the Oscars a month or two later to see if the movies we’d seen had won awards. Sometimes we would watch those VHS tapes or DVDs from the library together. Or I’d convince them to drive me to the only indie theater in town to watch that year’s Oscar nominees.Wa month or two later

But something was missing here. My process of acquiring pop culture for myself didn’t always feel authentic and didn’t always feel like me. It’s like I fitted things to size. Sometimes I felt like I was going off what I was supposed to like or letting others’ tastes dictate mine. A lot of those flavors, a lot of those definitions of what was “great,” what was “the best,” and what was “the most influential,” were shaped by people who were nothing like me. And much of the stuff I found shaping wasn’t aimed at people who looked like me, not even the work I loved dearly.

“In my teens, I thought becoming a cinephile would help me become more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. So I watched VHS tapes and DVDs of Oscar-winning and nominated films from my local library, checked IMDb bulletin boards and movie blogs, and read about ‘author directors’ (almost all of whom were white males).”

As a culture journalist, I often deal with people who probably went through a similar process to acquire pop culture and didn’t often see themselves represented in that work. But now, they are reshaping and transforming the culture. They take existing genres like sitcoms and make them their own. They become authors, directors, and direct award-winning films.

I had to tell Lulu Wang how much “The Farewell” meant to me because it reflected my existential crisis of being trapped between two cultures. For example, it meant so much to hear Awkwafina speak Chinese; the way I talk was warped, a little crooked, with some Chinglish thrown in, and the occasional pause to ask my parents for a quick translation. I have to ask Sandra Oh how she built her formidable body of work as one of the few Asian actors on TV whose characters become their full selves and whose cultural identity is not the sole definition of the story or catalyst for the plot. I spoke to Mira Nair about how her films have powerfully evoked the experience of living in multiple cultures and Sarita Choudhury about the joy of seeing her play a glamorous South Asian woman just living her life.

As I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve thought more deeply about how I, as a culture journalist, now shape other people’s pop culture tastes and help them acquire their library of formative cultural works. It’s a role I take seriously, trying to elevate the pop culture that I find meaningful and probably meaningful to others.

It turns out that my parents and I have some common pop culture reference points. My dad also listens to Simon & Garfunkel. Unlike me, he didn’t discover them through a cartoon moose on a PBS show: he’s been a fan since the 1980s (apparently when Simon & Garfunkel became popular in China).

When I remember to call my parents, they often bombard me with questions: “We saw a commercial for this movie. Is it good? Shall we like it?” “Which Movies Will Win Oscars This Year?” “What’s that actor’s name again?”

In early 2021, while staying at my parents’ house during the pandemic winter, the three of us watched “Minari,” a film that centers on an Asian-American immigrant family struggling with what it means to be American.

Then we sat in the same kitchen where we ate before watching the evening news, and ‘Jeopardy!’ watched. And ‘Wheel of Fortune every night, as I delved into those newspapers and magazines, my father would say to me, ‘I liked it because I can do something with it. But what if only people like us like it?”

I replied, “Who cares? We shouldn’t be asking that question. Countless times we have had to imagine ourselves in movies and TV that was not about us and with which we had no direct relationship.”

Earlier this year, I got to interview the cast of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which featured a career-defining role for the legendary Michelle Yeoh and an unexpected comeback for ’80s child star Ke Huy Quan. When he told me he’d read my article, my dad said, “Wow, I’ve always wondered what happened to that kid from ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Indiana Jones’!”

Over the years, my parents and I have argued about my career choices, and sometimes it’s still hard for them to understand what I’m doing and how hard it was for me to get here. So that my father learned something from my reporting means the world to me.

I’m now their pop culture guide for my parents—a role I never expected. And slowly, I’ve been able to guide them to more pop culture that looks and feels like us. Like my early attempts to collect some building blocks for pop culture, it’s complicated and imperfect and can always remain a work in progress. But instead of a patchwork of whatever I could find, it’s starting to feel a little more whole.

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