S2, E15: Comedian Youngmi Mayer on Identity, Trauma, and Making Hard Travel Funny

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we talk with comedian Youngmi Mayer about identity, Asian moms, and what it’s like to travel to a place that has emotional baggage for you—and still manage to find beauty in it.

Comedian Youngmi Mayer made a name for herself talking about her traumatic childhood and growing up in Korea and Saipan. In this week’s episode of Unpacked, we chat with Youngmi about her recent return to her childhood homes—with her young son in tow—and how she managed to find beauty in it. We also talk about Asian moms, what it’s like to be biracial and Asian American, and why these identities can be so complex.


Mae Hamilton, host: I’m Mae Hamilton and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. This week we’re chatting with comedian, activist, and podcast host Youngmi Mayer, who’s based in New York City’s Chinatown. I first came upon Youngmi on Instagram.

I don’t remember exactly how—maybe a friend had reposted her onto a story. Her post about not quite fitting in with Korean or American culture really resonated with me and made me feel seen in a way I hadn’t before as a half Taiwanese and half white American person. Soon I was tuning in weekly to her podcast Hairy Butthole, and I quickly became a big Youngmi fan.

In this episode, Youngmi and I chat about a recent trip she took to her childhood homes in Korea and Saipan, an island near Guam. Youngmi had a traumatic childhood, a subject which makes a regular appearance in her standup. So returning home for her has always been a bit . . . complicated. And this time she brought her young son, Mino. So we discussed what it’s like to travel to a place that has emotional baggage for you and how to still manage to find beauty in it.

We also talk about Asian moms, what it’s like to be biracial and Asian American, and why these identities can be so complex.

Hey, Youngmi, I’ve been following you and listening to Hairy Butthole for a while. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Youngmi Mayer, comedian: Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited.

Mae: Me too. So I guess just to, you know, people who maybe, don’t listen to Hairy Butthole or, um, haven’t listened to Feeling Asian, um, I [would] just to like know a little bit more about you, like how did you first get into comedy?

Youngmi: I first got into comedy in 2018. I had a realization that, you know, I was sort of living my life in a way that I didn’t want to. It’s so cliché, and I’m so sad to tell my story because I feel like there’s 800 similar stories for some reason. Women are married and they have a kid, they get divorced, and then they do standup comedy.

Um, but that’s, that’s also my story. But I think I had, I think that part of it—maybe what’s a little different—is that I had this, like, epiphany in therapy where I realized that I was, like, living my life in this way that I thought that I was supposed to. And I was, like, very unhappy and um, yeah, I was, like, you know, [a] married kind of stay-at-home mom.

And I’m very careful to say here that nobody made me do that. Like I just, I just thought I had to, you know, like my ex-husband didn’t make me do that. I was like, “I’m gonna do this and I’m too embarrassed to, like, actually say out loud that I wanna do comedy.” And then I think through therapy I realized that that was making me really unhappy. So.

Mae: Hmm. I see. I think I remember you saying that you used to be, like, a really shy and reserved person before you got into comedy. What was it about it that you were, like, able to make the leap into it?

Youngmi: Um, yeah, I, I think a lot of people are really surprised that, uh, I was really shy. I was like the person that, like, you know, hated speaking in front of people and having any kind of attention. I think—oh, this is where it’s gonna get a little, like, woo woo, like gemstones or, but, uh, I’m, like, a Cancer rising, but my sun sign is Sagittarius, so I feel like—you know, if you know about astrology, I think it’s, like, very sort of classic. I’m a classic Sagittarius. You know, if you see me today—but I think it was my Cancer rising making me a little shy in the first half of my life, I guess.

Mae: Yeah, those water signs. I get it. And I think it is such a gift to the world that you went into comedy, honestly. Um, so like [for] people who might not be familiar with your standup or your podcast, what topics do you really like to cover and you know, what interests you?

Youngmi: I guess the majority of, like, my focus has been my Asian biracial identity and, like, being Korean. And you know, sort of approaching it from this very unique standpoint, I think, as somebody that’s, like, biracial, but I grew up in Korea and I moved to the States when I was 20. And so I have a lot of, like, similar, um—I share a lot of, like, similarities with Asian Americans, but then there are some differences and so that’s probably my main focus.

But then I also talk just about being a single mom and um, just sort of being chaotic and, and you know, like, be—whatever that brings. And feminism and just, like, my core beliefs, which are obviously, like, Asian. What, what’s it called? Like social justice? Is that the right term? Is that creeping people out? Like, Asian identity politics and standing up for, you know, Asian people’s rights and feminism and sort of subverting stereotypes around all of those topics? Like, I like to say a lot that I like to show people that I’m not what people expect from an Asian woman, so that it sort of allows other Asian women and people that live the way I do to feel like they have the right to, you know?

Mae: Yes. I love that. I, I think you, you kind of just get into, like, the humanity and complexity of things. OK, so for people who don’t, who don’t know, um, I’m also mixed Asian American.

So what is, what is that like for you? Like, what are the complexities of this identity? What does it feel like?

Youngmi: Um, well first of all, I have to say I knew that right off the bat. Cause I feel like we always see each other, right? I could tell from a mile away. So I guess that’s, like, one part of it. You know, a lot of us are invisible, right? Like I’m sure you’ve experienced this. People think that you’re either Asian or Asian people are like, “We don’t know what you are, but you’re not us.”

And like we—people don’t immediately see you as biracial, I think, unless they are biracial or mixed themselves. So we are invisible and I think that is very unique because even though all of us people as mixed race, biracial people, whatever mix you are, we have very similar lives and experiences.

Um, but because we’re, like, not really grouped together, we’re always, like, stragglers and, like, we’re, like, with the Korean group kind of, or like the white group kind of, or you know, the, like whatever race you are, I’m sure that you, you feel kind of like, you’re like adjacent to it. But no one ever, like, puts us together in a room so we can never, like, band together and, you know, overthrow the government, which we, I feel like we could do, right?

Mae: We totally could.

Youngmi: Right?

Mae: Yes.

Youngmi: But they’re just, they’re too afraid of our power to put us together, I think. And then a, a part of like, why I think a lot of mixed race people are invisible in America specifically. I, I’m not sure. Are you—you’re based in America, right?

Mae: Yes, I’m in L.A. Yeah.

Youngmi: OK. I was like, I don’t know if you’re, like, a sneaky Canadian or—I’m just kidding.

Yeah, but especially in America, it’s even worse I think, cuz [in] other places in the world there is, like, uh, like a section for, you know, like mixed people or, like, in Korea, there’s, like, a word for it, but in America, you know, because of the history of, you know, like, um, like the one drop-rule and you know, like, those laws of, like, race-mixing laws. You know, it’s so harsh here. It’s like either you’re one thing or the other and, and, um, so I think we’re very invisible here.

Mae: I agree. And I think what you were saying about, like, not belonging quite to one community or the other, that suffering, I think, makes us quite powerful.

Youngmi: Suffering.

Mae: Yes, and it has, like, forged us into, into, you know, stronger people, I think. I hope.

Youngmi: Yeah, yeah. And also it’s made us weirdly, like, feel like we’re really special. I went to this, like, comedy show and I didn’t know this at the time, but my friend invited me and it was for mixed Asians.

And the person sitting next to me, she was like, “I, I don’t like being in this room cause I feel like I like being the only one. I’m special.”

And I was like, I was like, “What are you talking about?” And she was like, “Oh, didn’t you know this is like a mixed Asian comedy show?” And I looked around the room and I was like, “Oh my God, everyone is so hot.” And I didn’t even notice cuz, like, we’re invisible, you know? And I, I looked around and I was like, “Oh my God, everyone is, like, mixed Asian here.”

And I was like, damn. I was like, “I am uncomfortable. I’m a little uncomfortable. We’re all gonna like fight the death. There’s only gonna be one that comes out.”

Mae: That’s so true.

Youngmi: It’s gonna be a—

Mae: That’s so true. We would just like eat each other like hamsters—

Youngmi: —Henry Golding

Mae: —or something. Uhhh, [it’s] so nice to talk to you about, about these things. You get it.

Youngmi: Yeah, over Zoom because if we were in the same room, we would fight until only one of us remained.

Mae: Exactly. It would probably be you.

Youngmi: Unfortunately. You, I don’t know. I feel like you’re like a sleeper fighter. It’s always the quiet ones. Just kidding.

Mae: Yes. So, one of the things that I really love that you did recently, I think in the last few months, um, that I think has been kind of new, is doing these little vlogs of your travel experiences and just, I don’t know, being out and about.

And, one of the ones that you did, like, a few months ago is about you traveling to Saipan and Korea. So do you mind, like, talking a bit about that trip, like how long it was? Um, just, just all the basics.

Youngmi: Sure. So you know, that was my first time back to Korea and Saipan, which is a small island in the Marianas, which is in Micronesia and I—half of my childhood I grew up in Korea, and the other half I grew up on Saipan and I used to visit Korea, like, very frequently because my parents live there and I have a son and I, you know, obviously I would take him, but I hadn’t been back since COVID, so last summer was the first time I had been back in, like, maybe three years, at least.

And, and it was my first time back on Saipan since I was 18 years old. And um, it was a month long and we stayed with my parents and I was, like, kind of scared cuz I’m, like, you know, as part of the subverting Asian stereotypes thing, I’m very open about, like, my childhood trauma because I think there is, like, this idea that Asian people never talk about that kind of stuff or there’s a stereotype.

So I’ve been very open about this relationship I’ve had with my parents that’s a little difficult. Um, but it actually ended up being very, very great. Like everything was fine. You know, we had like one or two fights, which is expected. Nothing too severe. And then the Saipan part was amazing cuz, like, my son got to see it and it was really exciting. Yeah.

Mae: Oh my gosh, that’s—I feel like, yeah, there’s so much to talk about there. One of the things that I really appreciate that you do with your work is like, I, I’ve, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this anywhere else, where, um, you have, like, a really complicated relationship with your mom, I think where, you know, she’s done a lot of kind of messed up things to you during your childhood, but in the end, like you still really love her and still wanna maintain that relationship despite all that. And that’s kind of like the same thing I have with my mom and, um, I don’t really see that anywhere else.

So I really appreciate you, like, talking about this in, like, a very real way with the, um, Asian American community because I feel like we have this, like, really polished view of Asian American families for some reason. Like I think of Fresh Off the Boat, you know, where I’m like, nobody’s dad or mom acts like that. You know what I mean?

Youngmi: Well, yeah, that’s like, I’m really glad you brought that up. I think in the Asian community, yeah, it’s like, you know, again, like these are very broad stereotypes, but like, you have to respect your parents and honor them, and you can’t really say anything bad about them publicly. And I think a lot of Asian people feel that pressure, you know?

Um, and they would never say it. But unfortunately, you know, Asian people are human beings like everybody else in the world. A lot of us have abusive parents, and a lot of us had abusive parents and live without realizing it. You know what I mean? And, um, without processing it. There’s a huge scale obviously on, like, what kind of abuse people can go through.

And some people—Asian people—actually don’t talk to their parents or they don’t have relationships because of the history of abuse. And some people are like me, where they’ve processed it and sort of lived through it. And some people, you know, don’t even realize that they went through abuse. But like I said earlier, part of the reason I’m so open is cuz I want who, wherever you are on that scale, the relationship with your parents to feel like, like you’re valid. And, like, that’s totally fine if you’re the perfect Asian Harvard person, doctor, and you, you are still making lunch for your mom every day, even though she, like, beat the F out of you. The S out of you. I don’t know what the F is. Beat the F out of you. It’s a Korean saying, but um, it’s like, even if she beat the S out of you and you’re still, you know, showing up and, you know, washing her sheets or whatever, the perfect Korean kid, Asian kid, um, after going to Harvard, you are valid. Because that’s valid.

That’s your life and you have a very forgiving mind and that’s great. You, you know, you care about your relationship with your mom that much and respect her that much. But if you’re on the other end where you’re not even talking to your parents as an Asian person, I know a lot of Asian people that live like that and they’re not only, like, feeling the pain of this, like, broken relationship, but this, like, unbearable, like, shame cuz they’re like, “I don’t look like the person on Fresh Off the Boat” or you know, whatever representation or, and I think that’s totally valid if you’re not talking to your parents.

You’re right. You know, they shouldn’t have hit you with that slipper, you know, like, that’s horrible.

Mae: I totally agree.

Youngmi: So, yeah. So yeah. So my relationship with my mom yeah, and now it’s fine, but I did have years where I didn’t talk to her and I felt so guilty about it and like I shouldn’t have, cause I was processing stuff, you know?

Mae: Exactly. Exactly.

Youngmi: Yeah.

Mae: Yeah. And I think what you said about shame is, like, such a big thing because again, not to overgeneralize, but I feel like with a lot of Asian cultures, there’s like this whole thing about losing face, right? Like being ashamed that X, Y, Z happened. So it’s just like ingrained, I feel like, in our DNA to, like, have this inherent feeling of shame about things, you know, not, not, not keeping up with appearances, whatever those ideas might be.

So yeah, that’s why I think the work you do is so important. Just getting it all out in the open, you know?

Youngmi: Yeah. And it’s like, so, I mean, thank you so much for being like, so, you know, complimentary. But it’s so weird because all I’m doing is just being very honest. So it’s like, sometimes it’s hard for me to, when, when I hear people compliment me in that way, I’m like, “Oh, I’m not really doing anything.”

But then I’m like, “Oh, I can see that other people don’t want to say this kind of stuff.” So it’s like, that—I think that’s what they’re trying to say: They appreciate it. Um, yeah. Sorry. I feel I’m just feeling weird cause I’m, like, you’re complimenting me and I’m like, “Ugh, God.”

Mae: No, no, I get it. Like you’re just doing your thing, living your truth, which, yeah, I get it. You’re doing a great job. But I won’t say anything more about it.

Um, so I think you said you were born in Korea, but I think you spent the most amount of time in your childhood on Saipan. Um, so like what year, like how long were you in Korea and how long were you in Saipan about?

Youngmi: Um, it’s a little—it’s like birth to 6 years old, Korea; 6 to 16, Saipan. And then I lived in Korea again from 16 to 20.

Mae: I see. Yeah, I’m wondering if you could, like, explain your family dynamic a little bit.

Youngmi: Yeah, sure. So, uh, like I said, I’m biracial. My mom is Korean and my dad is white and he’s American. Um, I guess something that’s a little unique about them compared to other Korean white people or, or American people that are my age is that my dad wasn’t in the military. Um, and my parents actually met in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Mae: Oh really?

Youngmi: Yeah. It’s very random. My mom married somebody in the U.S. military, I think with the plan on leaving Korea, and then they moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, and my mom had my sister. I have an older half sister and she got divorced and then met my dad there and he was, like, a small airplane pilot. I don’t know what they’re called. Like those small seaplanes, I don’t know.

Mae: Oh yeah, seaplanes.

Youngmi: Small airplanes?

Mae: Yeah.

Youngmi: Seaplanes. He’s gonna be so mad if he hears—like, “I’ve talked about this all my life every day.”

Mae: It’s OK, you’re not, you’re not flying them, Youngmi. Probably. You don’t need to know that.

Youngmi: Don’t worry. I’m never ever gonna get into becoming a pilot. Don’t worry. Everyone is safe. Um, yeah. So then, and then when my mom became pregnant, they decided to move back to Korea because my mom had had a hard time, you know, raising my sister alone a single mom—

Mae: In Alaska, oh my God.

Youngmi: In Alaska. She was working at Baskin-Robbins. I was like, “Dang”—

Mae: Oh, geez.

Youngmi: —“that sounds rough.” I was like, “You worked at the Baskin-Robbins.” Or she was like, it was—

Mae: It sounds like somebody spun the wheel on, like, situations you could be in in America, like location: Fairbanks, Alaska. Your job is working at Baskin-Robbins.

Youngmi: It’s like America on mega hard, hard mode.

Mae: Yes, exactly.

Youngmi: So she’s like, “This place sucks. What the hell?” But yeah, she met my dad and then they moved.

Um, I was born in Korea and then I was born in Tsungtan or I was, I, I like my first few years of my life I lived in this Tsungtan, which is, like, near, uh, Osan Air Base. And then we lived on Jeju Island. And then we moved to Saipan.

Mae: I see. What brought you guys to Saipan?

Youngmi: It’s, um, it’s hard to explain cuz I think a lot of people assume that, you know, my dad’s in the military and then I moved around cuz I was, like, a military brat, but I’m, like, nope. My parents are just, like, they just like to travel and they literally had no plan and they, they’re still kind of like that, so, yeah.

Mae: That’s so interesting. Do you mind explaining your relationship with Saipan?

Youngmi: Yeah. Um, I love Saipan. I really—it’s a wonderful place. I also feel very um, protective of it. And when I talk about Saipan itself and the people that live there, I, I like, want so much for the world to know about it because, you know, the Chamorros who are the, like, the Indigenous population of Saipan, they’ve been through so much and, and you know, as, even as an East Asian person, it’s very important for me to point out the fact that like Pacific Islanders were colonized by East Asian people. You know, like, we are the white people of the Pacific Islands and a lot of times, the reason I won’t talk about Saipan is cuz I feel like a poor representative for like—I would rather a Chamorro person talk about it. Do you know what I mean?

Mae: Yes.

Youngmi: So I’m very careful to say it’s a wonderful island. It’s a beautiful culture. There’s a lot of history there. Um, there is a lot of, like, Japanese influence and there’s a lot of, like, World War history, stuff that people know about it, but I think my, my main focus is to make sure that the people and the culture is respected.

Um, but that having been said, unfortunately, you know, when I talk about Saipan, it’s, like, just relates to my childhood and my story and my family. So I—like the travel videos that you were talking about. Unfortunately, they’re just kind of about me and, like, like my sad life, you know, while I was there. Um, which is, like, what I was, like, thinking about while I was there.

So I just made this video like, “Oh, it’s such a beautiful, wonderful place and it’s paradise.” But for me, I’m just sad cuz I remember all this sad stuff and I’m sure a lot of people, like, relate to that, you know, when they go home and there’s like part of you that’s, you know, wherever you’re from, you feel very comfortable going back to the physical location that smells like home to you.

You know, like the air and like the water. It’s very familiar. But then the sad memories are also there. So it’s, it’s, it’s like a mixed bag of very deep emotions.

Mae: Right. I agree.

Youngmi: Yeah.

Mae: Your mom also, like when you guys were living in Saipan, she actually worked at a hotel, right? At a resort?

Youngmi: Mm-hmm.

Mae: Yeah. Um, so like, what, what was, did you grow up kind of at the resort too? Um, because she worked there. Did you spend a lot of time there?

Youngmi: Yes, I did. I, I spent a lot of time there and then we, we were sort of, like, left to play, which is, like, really fun, you know? It’s like, um, I became friends with another kid who became my best friend, whose mom worked there, and so we just, like, ran around like [on] the beach and like the water park all day. And so it was, like, really, really fun.

But it was like, you know, there was like, like I said, again, it’s like, I think for most of us, even if you had a very hard or very great childhood, there’s, like, both aspects. You know, there are parts of it that were, like, super fun and we got to, like, explore this beautiful, like, tropical island, but then it was, like, basically negligent abuse.

Like, you know, like, it’s like, where was my mom? Like, I don’t know. Like, I was seven. I just think back on all these, like, adventures that I got in with my friend and I was like, “Where the hell were our parents? Like, why were we allowed to do that?” Like, you know, it’s stuff like that.

Mae: Exactly. Yeah.

Youngmi: Bittersweet, yeah.

Mae: Yeah, not the same thing, but like my, uh, my family had, like, a Chinese restaurant, so, you know, my, my parents would, or my mom would also be working and, you know, I would just be off like doing my own thing too. So I relate, um, solidarity with working mom, working Asian mom stuff.

Youngmi: Yeah. I totally think that’s the same thing. I think a lot of, like, Asian people, you know, even not only Asian Americans but in Asia, like, know that sort of feeling of my, my parents are busy and you’re stranded at their work and, like, you have to figure out, like, how to keep yourself entertained, you know?

Mae: Exactly.

Youngmi: Yeah. Yeah.

Mae: Um, OK, so I guess like what, how did it feel traveling back to these places, like having not been there in a really long time? Like what emotions are you feeling??

Youngmi: You know what surprised me? I felt most of my emotions when I went to Saipan and they were like these dormant deep emotions that I did not ex—realize I still had.

And then, like, there was this one night where my mom and I finally got into a fight, you know, it was, like, day 28 of my trip. And we were on Saipan. And we got in this big fight and my friend was like, “Well, I’m gonna come by and pick you up.” And he, like, just rolled up and, and I just, like, remembered when I, like, lived there, like, you know, the resorts are all these like East Asian tourists mostly, and they’re all, like, dressed up fancy and they’re, like, getting driven around in, like, taxis or whatever and he just rolled up in his pickup truck. It was, like, dirty cuz he lives up in the mountain and he just had, like, these busted flip-flops on with, like, covered in mud and just wearing, like, shorts, you know, just, like, smoking a cigarette. And he was just like, “Hey!”

And he, um, like just immediately opens up, like, a cooler in the back of his pickup truck and, like, throws me a Bud Light. And I was like, “Oh, this is like, I remember this when we used to live here and, like, we would come pick up my mom from work cuz all the people that live on Saipan are, like, super casual and you know, we’re always, like, coming from the beach or something. So we always have, like, sand and, and wearing, like, just swimsuit bottoms and it’s very, like, stark, the difference between people that live there and, you know, obviously stay at the resorts.” And I was like, “Oh, I remember how, like, how much fun that was when we would, like, show up and just walk into the continental buffet, like, in our flip-flops and stuff like that.”

And you know, in my memory of Saipan, it feels very isolating and lonely. But then I was like, “Oh no, I remember I had like a, like a safety net, like a friend safety net,” you know.

Mae: Oh, that is so beautiful and so important. You know, feeling, I guess maybe you might have felt isolated or alone at that time, like having this big fight with your mom and then realizing you still have, you know, your network there. Um, I’m glad you have that friend. So what was it like also traveling to these places with your son?

Youngmi: Well, it was really, it was really amazing seeing what he reacted to and what he liked and he disliked. Like he loved Saipan so much, and like, we rented like this, like a Mustang, it was like the cheapest rent-a-car. I was like, “Sure, we’ll take the Mustang.” And we like, were driving around with the top down and, and uh, you know, it’s like a really small island.

And I was kind of, like, worried that he’d be bored or something because you know, like, in New York, he’s always, like, doing so many millions of activities, but he, like, loved it and I was like, “Yeah, of course he loves it. It’s like a beautiful beach. He can just walk on the beach and look at crabs and, like, little fish.”

And he really loved the sea cucumbers, which grossed me out. But he was like, “I love them.” And like squishing them, like squishing the water out and stuff. And um, and he just loved, like, chilling and, like, sitting in the convertible and, like, driving around this island just doing nothing.

And I was like, “Yeah, of course, of course he loves this. He’s a kid.” But you know, it surprised me cause I thought he would be like, “I’m bored.” You know, like, um, so it was um, I guess it was, like, pleasantly surprising, like to see what he would like.

Mae: I love that. I’m glad it was a good experience for both of you guys. Um, so like this trip obviously had some highs and some lows, but do you regret going at all or did you feel like it was a growing experience for you?

Youngmi: Oh no, I don’t regret going at all. I think it was really great. I remember going back before that trip and it was way worse. Like it was traumatizing and I think it was cuz I hadn’t processed a lot of stuff from my childhood. But I think COVID made me different in a way where it made me a little bit more resilient cuz like so many, you know, obviously for everybody, so many horrible things happened.

Mae: Yes.

Youngmi: And then, and then I was, like, fine, you know. I think I processed so much without even realizing because I was going through so much, like, turmoil. And then so I, I felt so strong and like so much stronger when I was in Korea this time than previous trips and I was like, “Yeah, I can handle this. What am I complaining about?”

It was like, you know, like when you grow in a way, like, you know, you’re practicing what— sorry, this is a piano analogy. Sorry. It’s Asian alert. Like a whatever, you’re practicing something and you’re making gradual, um, what’s that called?

Like, uh, like you’re gradually advancing and you don’t even notice, and then one day you’re like—you listened to a record of you playing piano five years ago and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, OK. I’ve, I’ve [made progress]. It was like that, like I didn’t notice until I went there that I had, I had changed so much, you know?

Mae: You, you’re, you’re an expert piano player now, Youngmi.

Youngmi: Yes. I’m just kidding. I’m not, I could not do that. My mom made—tried to make me go to piano when I was a kid. That was, I, I could not do it. It was the one thing she couldn’t, like, force me to do. I guess I did learn the clarinet.

Mae: Really?

Youngmi: Against my will.

Mae: Wow.

Youngmi: But I’m not good at it. I barely, like, suffered through, but I, I think if I, like, picked one up today, I could probably still play it—threateningly.

Mae: Love that. Um, OK, you have a new book coming out. Um, do you wanna talk about that a bit?

Youngmi: Yeah, I can totally talk about it, um, now that it’s public. Well, the interesting thing is a lot of the, the chapters are about what I sort of touched on today. But it’s, you know, obviously when I’m on [the] podcast, when I had my own, you know, the [Feeling Asian] podcast or Hairy Butthole, now I sort of talk about ideas in these like abstract ways, kind of like, “This is what I think about this, whatever.”

But in the book, it’s very much taking form as like—it, obviously it’s a memoir. So it’s like these stories that—I have like so many stories um, that I just have never told. And, you know, I’m a comedian, so they’re obviously funny, but they are also very sad.

I always forget the title of my own book, but it’s like, I’m Laughing Because I’m Crying. Um, and it’s about like, which is like, you know, obviously [a] very popular thing that a lot of comedians talk about. You know, a lot of our comedy comes from trauma but not only do I talk about my own life and, um, things that happen to me that are sad and funny, but I also talk about, like, generationally, where that came from because it’s like I could trace it back to my family members through like stories from my mom. And so there’s a little bit of that in there. Um, and this concept or this practice of making yourself laugh cuz if you don’t laugh, you’re gonna cry and then you just end up doing both like that, like where that comes from in my family, you know?

Um, as well as just like, I think funny, funny stories about, you know, growing up as an Asian person and, you know, I think I, I like talk about stuff about certain aspects of specifically Korean culture in a way that I have not seen, and I think it’s really funny and I think it’ll be like relatable, hopefully. But I don’t know.

Mae: I know it will be. It’s gonna be awesome.

Youngmi: Thank you.

Mae: I can’t wait to read it. Yeah. I think it’s really awesome that you, like, draw the dots between your mom’s behavior and, like, trauma that she’s experienced. Because I feel like, like that generation of people that come from East Asia, like, all of them [are] just horribly traumatized, you know?

Youngmi: Uh, so traumatized. Oh my God.

Mae: That’s a whole other level. I feel like those poor people, um, yeah. Yeah, so I mean, in a way it’s like, you know, you can’t excuse the behavior, but at the same time it makes sense like why, why they’re like that. You know what I mean?

Youngmi: Yeah. And I, I also like very early in the book make this, like, um, tie to that. You know, the funny thing is like, I have this, like, uh, desire to, to wanna be funny because of that, you know what I mean? Like, my mom was always like, she’s always, she’s her personality—we have very similar personalities. She’s a Leo and so she takes up even more room than I do. But, um, she, she developed that, like, part of her personality as a survival mechanism, you know.

Mae: Right, exactly.

Youngmi: And she taught me, she taught it to me as a survival mechanism. Cuz for Asian women, that’s like what you have to do. You have to be pretty and then not talk or I don’t know, be funny.

Mae: Exactly. Well, it was so great to be able to talk to you today, Youngmi, and thank you so much for being here.

Youngmi: Oh, thank you.

Mae: Thank you so much to Youngmi for taking the time to chat with me. And don’t worry, Youngmi and I did not fight to the death after the recording ended. If you’d like to hear more from her, you can find her on social media, on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok @YMMayer and on her podcast, Hairy Butthole, which is available exclusively on Joy Sauce. Youngmi is also writing a book called I’m Laughing Because I’m Crying, which is set to publish in 2025.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. This season, we also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.

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