We didn’t have cable growing up so I watched a lot of TV that was beyond my comprehension as a child. Most nights I watched whatever primetime programming was on network television with my dad. This was in the mid-90’s when family sitcoms were pretty popular (read: white upper middle class families). Then came the show All American Girl, a family show centered around a Korean-American family and all of the shenanigans of their teenage daughter, Margaret. You could not believe how elated I was as a 7 year old seeing somebody that looked like me on TV. More than looks, Cho’s character was always trying to break out of the model minority myth, not being the submissive, studious, passive idea of a Korean girl. This show shaped my idea of self as a young girl, confirming that I didn’t have to be something that I’m not. This was the first (and only) time I had seen an Asian-American family on network television with a star that was funny and not tokenizing of Asian culture.
While the show was canceled and replaced with something that I couldn’t relate to, Margaret Cho was still an integral part of my life. My dad would record any TV appearances she did on late night shows so that I could watch them in the morning. This was all pre-internet, before one could YouTube anything you wanted more information on. Cho wrote two books about life, lessons learned, and a bit of calling out those who had done harm to her. I consumed those books, certain experiences sticking with me throughout my formative years.
One that stuck out most to me (other than her talking about her relationship with her mother, a given) was her experiences with body image. I suddenly related to Cho on a different level, rather not focused on being Korean, but both feeling the pressure of society and media to lose weight, to be less of a person. But the best part of all of this is that Margaret Cho didn’t lose her sense of self to all of these demands. She turned her pain into comedy, speaking out about the bullshit that we are told to succumb to. An inspiration to me, I try to take this idea with me.
I recently read a blog post on Cho’s website about a trip to the jimjilbang (Korean day spa) and the discrimination she faced there. I have a soft spot for jimjilbangs, spas where women are fully naked with other women scrubbing their bodies, sitting around in saunas and hot tubs taking in all the gossip imaginable. Some of my fondest memories I have of my mom and aunties are in a jimjilbang, all taking care of each other and then talking shit about people. The part that I love the most about this experience is that you’re fully naked, every thing just hanging out and nobody is saying a single thing about your body, it’s just not the topic of discussion. Cho was basically asked to leave the jimjilbang because of her (awesome) tattoos. Othered by her own community, it hurt to read. Because I hope my mom and aunties would never do that, not to someone who could very much be their daughter or niece. It was difficult to read about this mostly because the shape or look of your body isn’t the defining factor of these places. Cho spoke up and called out the place and it was great. Let’s just add this to the reasons why I love Margaret Cho.
I think we would be good friends, chatting about life at the jimjilbang while we caught dirty looks and laughed them off. I’m not saying that our lives are parallel, but I hope she knows what she means to so many other awkward, slightly chubby, loud, non-pristine Korean Americans.