“Hello, everyone. My name is He. It’s spelled H-E. And that’s it. Yes, it is my name. It is not my pronoun.” He Huang’s opening line earned pretty intense laughter during a quick three-and-a-half-minute set televised on Australia’s Got Talent. The Chinese-born comedian proceeded to tell a few other jokes she’d been telling for years, thinking she’d gotten tired of them and was comfortable burning them on TV. She joked about COVID, and about her parents pressuring her to get married, comparing herself to leftover Chinese food—all as an audience of mostly white people laughed their asses off. I was one of the millions around the world who watched it online, and I laughed, too.
But not everyone who encountered the comedian’s jokes online enjoyed them. She first got a slow trickle of hateful comments and personal attacks on her social media, then they became a flash flood. Someone in China had posted screenshots from the broadcast, with her jokes translated beneath them. I talked to He about what her week has been like since she’d gone viral, what she makes of the storm of hate she’s received from China, and what’s next for her comedy career. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: What’s it like to wake up internet famous? What kind of response have you gotten so far?
He Huang: I’m mostly getting a lot of negativity. Right now, I’m just overwhelmed by people’s overreactions. I’m a new comedian, so I’m still learning how to craft and deliver a joke. Everything is still new for me. I think I’m just making jokes, but people are taking it really seriously, especially in China. They’re really offended by me. I’ve been doing these jokes for a couple of years, and I’m pretty tired of them, to be honest. It was good for me to go on TV and burn them. So, to me it feels like a delayed reaction. But, you know, I’m a comedian. Taking hits is part of the job.
What’s going on in China?
I haven’t lived there since COVID, so I didn’t even know my clips went viral in China until my friends asked me if I was OK. Most of the comments early on were very positive from white and Chinese ladies, even some guys. Then last week I noticed a lot of personal attacks written in Chinese on my Instagram. I realized something was wrong and stopped looking. My friend summarized the comments for me and I was like “Oh my god. That is so intense.” Someone took my jokes and posted them as screenshots one by one, and interpreted them into Chinese literally. Like, of course that’ll make my jokes sound wrong. People got so angry at me. They’re like, “Who are you to apologize for COVID on behalf of us?” And “Why would you say Chinese women are cheap? Why are you degrading your family? Your culture? Why are you using stereotypes to please white people?” I’m like, “Oh … What? What’s going on over there? They’re overanalyzing all my jokes and then calling me a disgrace to our culture?” That’s the exact reason why I left China. I’m still seeing a lot of Chinese people posting that I’m a disgrace and that my parents should be ashamed of me. I’m like, “Dude, are you guys trying to prove to the world you don’t have a sense of humor?”
Did you see any of this backlash coming?
I think they’re just triggered. They think everything a Chinese person says should represent China as a whole. That’s why my apologizing for COVID, as a joke, was taken as apologizing on their behalf. They’re also triggered by the word cheap. In China, there are many white guys who teach English, and people don’t like seeing them with Chinese girls. Also, some white guys with fetishes think of Asian women as cheap or easy. That deeply influences a lot of Chinese people, so seeing it on the internet is triggering. I also joked about “leftover ladies,” because there’s a rivalry between Chinese men and the Chinese girls. Some comments were like “What about Chinese men? We’re being discriminated against as well!”
And the joke about me being pressured to marry by my family, I’m surprised people really think that happened. I find that really funny. Jokes don’t have to be from a comedian’s real experience, you guys. They’re like, “You’re such a disgrace to your family. How can you say things like that about your parents.” It’s so funny that people think my jokes actually happened. I’m alluding to our collective experience, not just Chinese people. I have friends who are not Chinese that relate to my jokes. Anyone can relate to my material. As a comedian, my job is just to make people laugh. Most of my gigs here in Australia are mostly crowds of white people. They relate to my jokes too, and if I can make them laugh, that’s my job done. And when I started doing gigs in the UK and America for more diverse audiences, I could make them laugh, too. But if you screenshot any of these key words and literally translate them, obviously it will make me look really bad.
I see a lot of the same kind of reactions in the Muslim community here in the States. People can be extremely sensitive about how they’re represented in media. Does any part of you also see it that way?
Yes. I’m actually a little bit overeducated. I don’t think a master’s degree was necessary for me to be a comedian [laughs]. My background is in politics and policy. I was in the U.S. for six years, and worked in countries all around the world. A lot of women come from China into the Western world to get super highly educated. We experience intense value differences and try to mediate between the two cultures, so I know how a joke might sound to different people in different rooms. When I write a joke, I ask myself, “Am I comfortable saying this?” I don’t mean to say Chinese people are bad or Americans are bad. I think everybody’s bad. I want to make fun of everyone, including myself. I’m not intentionally trying to offend Chinese people, actually most of the time I’m just making fun of white guys [laughs]. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to write jokes about things people don’t have a lot of knowledge about. It’s unfortunate, but for a joke to work, you have to reduce people’s thinking time. And so, most of my jokes might realize people’s stereotypes. If I want to do a tight five minutes, I need to play with stereotypes. So, I just try to find an angle that I feel comfortable with. I was mostly concerned with how my parents might react. So, I never joke about Confucius, just making jokes about me. I just never realized how much it might trigger a lot of Chinese people.
Have your parents seen your comedy? What do they think?
I think they probably agree with the internet trolls. My parents saw it online and thought I was giving speeches about Chinese culture. I was like, “No, mom! I’m joking!” She is from a working-class family. They love China and aren’t very jokey. But my dad is pretty liberal. I think he understands it but doesn’t really care for it. I sent him a picture a few years ago of me doing comedy in Shanghai, and he called me a lowlife. Because comedy from their perspective is lowbrow, not classical entertainment like ballet or opera. So, I don’t think my dad was disparaging me, or that he is necessarily wrong. I totally understand where he’s coming from, because I went to the United States to learn to be a politician and ended up a comedian! Understandably, he’s like, “What? What happened?”
How has your life changed since going viral?
Actually, it’s pretty much the same. I do have agents reaching out to me, but I am already pretty established in Australia in terms of gigs. Before Australia’s Got Talent, I had already been booked up until the end of this year, including another TV appearance. I’m pretty hard-working, and I’m doing gigs every night. It’s rare for the audience to see a Chinese woman doing comedy, so they give me a lot of love. Every booker wants to get me in their room. This industry is not made of the same people hating on me. They love me.
Is there anything that you wish to say to your trolls?
I’m still in the stage of my career where I’m still learning. I’ve been chatting with a lot of female comedians in the industry who have become my friends. I was actually surprised to find out it’s not rare for people to personally attack female or minority comedians. You won’t see comments about us like “Oh, they’re just not funny to me.” The attacks are extremely personal. It’s really bad that I’m not the only one, but I see this as a rite of passage. I’m like “Oh! Thank you for your negative comments! Just wait till I stop holding back!” [Laughs.] I used to think to myself “Hmm, are you sure you want to do this joke? Won’t I hurt some Chinese guy or some white guy’s feelings?” Now I’m like, “Bring it on.” Why not? They’re going to be mad anyways.