Arthur Chu’s championship run on the TV game show Jeopardy inspired visceral reactions among some viewers at home.[Actual Twitter Tweets]
“#Jeopardy #goodbyegook see you chink face! Hes eating the dog tonight”
“Oh thank fuck finally I can stop seeing Arthur Chu and his stupid smug face on #Jeopardy”
“This little shithead had better lose tomorrow. His board-hopping pisses me off. And he stole Kim Jong Un’s haircut. #Jeopardy.”
America expects its champions to be gracious, humble, and white [see all-time Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings]. Arthur composed a confusing stereotype riddle for the American audience. He fit the physical appearance of a brainy Asian male nerd with questionable social niceties who would apply game theory on the show, but he was also unrepentantly aggressive – cutting off host Alex Trebek, intimidating opponents, then using humor and wit to face down outraged critics and trolls on Twitter and social media.
As I read and watched Arthur’s ascent to media focus, I couldn’t help but think that Jeopardy was merely his breakthrough event – a coming out party of a journey in life to doing things his own way and finding his own voice. From nerd, to Jeopardy champion, to social media instigator, to actor, Arthur Chu defies limitations put on him.
Elliott: Can you talk about your family and childhood background? Was it a typically strict and academically focused upbringing?
Arthur: My mother was born in Indonesia, went to Hong Kong, and then moved to Taiwan. My Dad’s family was Catholic and moved to Taiwan from mainland China after the Communist Revolution. They were both in the sciences, met in Taiwan, and both came to the US for graduate school. I moved around a lot as a child for my Dad’s jobs. I lived in Rhode Island, Idaho, and Southern California.
Both my parents are PhDs. There was very strong expectation that I would go into the sciences, or into engineering. In fact my Dad came and talked to me about it directly. When I told him I was interested in acting, comedy, journalism, that kind of thing, he directly said to me, “This is a country built by white people. White people will always choose their own people before they will choose a foreigner. Racism will always be an obstacle for you in those fields. You should choose something where your success can be measured objectively, where people can’t deny your ability.” I kind of had that weighing on me my whole life. Especially because I was very gifted, more so than my siblings and parents. I suffered all the typical gifted kid isolation, gifted kid emotional problems, and struggling, wanting to be normal. It all added up to a lot of emotional conflict for me.
I don’t think I’m unique in that way. It’s hard enough being a gifted kid, but when you have the issue of race serving as this barrier between you and other people it compounds everything.
My parents always encouraged me to hang out with Asian people. I was living in two different worlds. I had one side I presented in school and one I presented of myself to the Chinese American community and neither one was what I was comfortable with. I kind of resented anything that made me feel different. And having to take Chinese classes made me feel different and I resented that and struggled against it. The end result being I don’t read or write Chinese very well now. And I regret that.
Elliott: I want to lock in on that schism you talk about that I think a lot of Asian Americans struggle with as well. You married a white woman, you experienced various reactions because of Jeopardy in how people respond to you. How are you dealing with those feelings now?
Arthur: I’m at a point in my life now where I just am who I am. I think these questions of “Who are you really?”… that seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with when they’re young. But the longer you’ve been alive, the more stuff happens to you, you realize we are all the sum of the things that have happened to us. That the specific thing that have happened to me in my life mean so much more than any one word description of who I am.
So I’ve come to let some of that go, have more confidence in the things that make me unique. Things like my decision to not go into engineering or the sciences. Getting a history degree. Jumping into the job market without that whole predefined Tiger-Mom plan for my life. I made my break. Maybe it wasn’t the best decision, but it was my decision.
Elliott: When did you make this break?
Arthur: When I went into college and my dad leaned on me really hard wanting me to major in the sciences. It was a huge fight with him about it. I almost ended up having a breakdown about it because of it because I really didn’t want to do it. You reach a point where you’ve been following someone else’s plan your whole life and you realize you have no emotional investment in that plan.
And you realize… “What do you want to do with your life?” You’ve never even asked yourself that question. So I had a tough time in college and without getting into the gory details, I had to take some time off from college and eventually finished my degree from home.
I ended up spending a lot of my time and energy on things I really loved: acting, improv, comedy. This was uncharted territory, because my whole life I’d been ahead of the curve in my classes. Now all of a sudden I was saying I wanted to be in theatre and suddenly i was behind the curve, competing against kids who’d been doing it their whole lives, and here I was just getting my feet wet in college.
So that too was a struggle; to ask myself “What do I really want to do?” and decide that doing what you really want to do mattered more than being good at it. If you’re a gifted kid you may end up learning that way later on in life that most people.
Elliott: I was also one of those kids. We don’t even have this concept that we are able to choose our own destiny. What is it that I want to do with my life? This is something common to a lot of Asian Americans trying to fulfill the immigrant narratives of their parents. So for you what is it about acting and comedy that peaked your interest? It’s doesn’t seem like the most natural fit.
Arthur: I dunno. Maybe it was a reaction to this immigrant narrative, this idea that Asians as a people excel in fields of measurable achievement – that’s a glass ceiling. If you talk about Asians as being a successful minority etc., Asians are not a successful minority if you control for other variables. What they did was open up immigration to people who were already on the track to high paying careers, like my parents’ PhDs in the sciences. But if you control for that, compared to people with the same degrees, Asians still make less than white people.
That’s because if you get a bunch of Asian engineers and tell them all you’ll be is an engineer, then they’ll always be working for someone else. They’ll never move into management or entrepreneurship which is where the real 1% of society comes from. So the elite of our society are still white people because those are the people who still the freedom and have the support structure; to take a risk, explore a new idea.
I was ahead of the curve when it came to school, and really behind the curve when it came to street smarts and dealing with people. And I kept thinking, what if I could use the same skills learning mathematics or history to learn how to interact with people on a one-on-one level?
And that’s what kind of set me on this path of being interested in speaking and acting. This challenge, all this stuff that I was told I can’t do, being told that I’m an awkward nerd, that Asians and especially Asian males are awkward. How much can I overcome that? And I found a lot of joy in doing that. I had been raised to lead a life inside my own head, and a lot of what I do now is trying to live outside my own head.
Which is why it’s kind of ironic that I’m getting all this attention for Jeopardy which is very much a very logical, very nerdy pursuit. The interesting thing about it is I’ve been able to show people other sides of me as well.
Take voiceover, for instance. One of the interesting things about American English is that there are recognizable African-American dialects and Latin-American dialects, but Asian kids learn to talk like white kids. Me in particular, I worked very hard to really eliminate any trace of an accent from the way I spoke. It became a kind of an obsession. And so eventually I ended up overshooting and ended up having this artificially perfect radio announcer voice in high school. And that’s when people would say, “Oh, you have an announcer voice. You should go into voiceover.” Studying voice and how to manipulate your voice, that’s always been a concern of mine because of my upbringing, something that takes up a lot of space in my head.
Elliott: Well early on in life you changed your voice to avoid being teased. But going on Jeopardy you allowed yourself to be criticized. You’ve obviously conquered it.
Arthur: You see all these strategies that people use to try to avoid being teased, and it turns out overcompensating is worse. You see all these people in high school trying too hard, attempting to mimic the cool kids in a totally fake way and totally failing at it. Some people take that out of high school into adulthood. It’s embarrassing. It’s worse than if you hadn’t done it.
That’s the thing. Being thrown in the working world at a lower level jobs, working blue collar jobs and working as a tour guide, I saw there was much more diversity out in the world than you’re aware in an insular environment in your school. There are a lot of different cultures out there and none of them have a monopoly on what is correct or acceptable. That there are different cultures out there and you don’t have to fit in any one of them.
You learn that other’s people’s opinions just aren’t that important. The first time I ever tried to be on Jeopardy was in high school, trying out for the Teen Tournament and I’m really glad I didn’t make it. If I’d been the Teen Tournament then I would have spent a lot more energy thinking about how I’m gonna look, what are people gonna say to me, how am I gonna come across. I probably would’ve ended up tanking the game because of it.
I ended up making a ton of money on Jeopardy by caring only about how well I played the game and saying to hell with how I come across on TV. How shallow would I have to be to throw away something that could make such a big difference to me and my wife and our future family, because I was too afraid of putting myself out there on TV and afraid what people would say to play as hard as I could? So I’m really glad this happened when I was 29, to have some perspective, to understand that other people’s opinions don’t matter so much.
Elliott: Was there anything you learned personally through this bizarre experience with Jeopardy?
Arthur: I didn’t really anticipate it would be really such a big deal. I knew I had done well on the show but I wasn’t Ken Jennings. I didn’t think it would be front page news, and yet something was there that made me front page news, and that’s what surprised me.
People had this very strong visceral emotional reaction to me on the show. “I hate this man!” “I want him gone!” “This man makes me angry!” That’s been an education for me. I still don’t know entirely why it is. I can see some reasons that have to do with my demeanor or dress. I do feel race plays a part in it. It has this unfortunate effect if someone reflects some negative stereotype in someone’s mind, race is the secret ingredient that makes those stereotypes that much more powerful. If someone is seen as mechanical, arrogant, and hyper-rational, if they’re also Asian, that impression has a lot more power. Negative first impressions have a lot more power when they’re linked to these racial narratives.
Looking back at Colby Burnett [an African-American contestant on Jeopardy, winner of the 2013 Tournament of Champions] I find it shocking how he was treated by people watching Jeopardy. He was a very nice guy, he had a lot of energy on stage (which I did not), he was happy to be there, he smiled all the time. But they perceived it as him being arrogant, cocky, smug—they hated him! Why? I couldn’t come up with an answer except that he was a black guy who smiles a lot and excited about winning and that’s seen as overstepping his bounds whereas a white guy in the same situation would go unnoticed. I couldn’t come up with a better explanation than that.
I did some soul searching. People have said, “Well you pissed off so many people—shouldn’t you at least consider you did something wrong?” But looking at it from a third-party perspective, these are the same people saying those things about Colby, and from where I’m sitting I’m really sure Colby did nothing wrong. So I’m going to take what they say with a hefty shaker full of salt.
In general the more you understand people, the less scared you are of people, the less automatic credence you give people. They’re just as small as you are. They are coming at this with their own prejudices and baggage.
Elliott: I think the whole uproar was not because you were robotic or aggressive. I think the subtext is, that for some viewers, they were not used to seeing this from an Asian male – to cut Alex Trebek off and be unapologetically dominating, but they couldn’t directly address that. I don’t think most people are even consciously aware of where those feelings come from. What they expected to happen did not happen and that rocked their paradigm. The Asian guy is supposed to be meek and nice and then get off the fucking stage after a while.
Arthur: It’s always a minefield when you talk about race. When you say “racism” or “racist” – people think of a Ku Klux Klansman in a hood and torch. The walls go up, the defenses go up. I’ve talked about this in a couple of other interviews and you see the comments on the article go, “Arthur’s blaming everything on racism so he doesn’t have to look at criticism.”
I’ve tried to make it clear that I know other Asian people have been on Jeopardy who have not gotten the same kind of reactions. It’s like you said, that there’s a certain script that people have in mind and when someone breaks that script they get upset. It could be a white guy breaking that script, winning in a way that isn’t expected, causing similar reactions. There have been similar reactions to past champions who were white, like David Madden and Roger Craig. But the intensity of it gets turned up when race is introduced.
You know, my Dad told me Asian people can’t be in leadership positions in this country. That white people won’t tolerate that. That we have to be meek, that we have to be polite, to be self-effacing because we are the guests in this country and show deference for every achievement we’re allowed to accomplish by the white establishment. People won’t outright say “You don’t deserve to win because you’re Asian.” But they will say “This person is entitled, this person is smug…”
Why is Colby “smug?” Doesn’t he have the right to be smug? He knows the answers. It’s that a black man is daring to take the stage and show pride. And there are some people who can’t handle that. They would never consciously say or think black guys aren’t allowed to be proud of themselves. But why is it always black athletes that are singled out for their “bad attitude”?
Richard Sherman [the black NFL player recently accused of being unsportsmanlike] and I actually got compared to each other, that I was the Richard Sherman of Jeopardy!, hilariously enough. And the people who hated me would just get madder and madder even when I was giving a straight interview because what they wanted to hear was an apology for my attitude. They wanted this meekness and humility they expected. Part of it is the Asian thing. Part of it is the whole fat-shaming thing, if someone who isn’t conventionally attractive dares to feel proud of themselves. It comes down to people appointing themselves the gatekeeper of whether you have the right to feel proud of yourself, and if you don’t have that right I’m going to label your feelings “smugness” and “arrogance”.
Elliott: How has the response been from the Asian American community and family?
Arthur: I’ve gotten a really really positive reaction from a lot of Asian communities. Jeopardy is an American TV show, it’s a very American-centric show and yet this is actually a news story in Taiwan and China. I’ve been interviewed by news outlets over there. I’ve gotten this overwhelming outpouring of support especially from Asian Americans guys my age who have made me into this icon. Which is weird because I didn’t think of it was this big of a deal. I think Asian Americans have been wanting permission to have that swagger for so long, it’s something that’s been denied. A gilded cage is still a cage.
A cage where you can be doctor or lawyer but you can’t be a celebrity, you can’t be the face, you can’t be the owner of the business, you have to work in the back office to make someone else look good—that’s my dad’s story.
Then you have Jeremy Lin, the first Asian American star player, something people have been hungering for. Jeopardy is maybe not as big a deal as being on the basketball court, but it’s not just that I was winning but that I was talking trash about it, and being defiant, willing to step on people’s toes and break the rules. There’s this hunger among Asian Americans for someone willing to do that.
I don’t think I’m even the best icon you could have. In fact the fact that I, on this silly game show, became this icon shows how strong this hunger is. You could feel how much they wanted someone to be that hero.
Elliott: Like most Asian Americans I’m a fan of Jeremy Lin, but the distinction between you two is that he is still a model minority. He was humble and worked hard when adversity came knocking. Whereas you, you’re not following that storyline. And I think that is part of the reaction to you. Yes, I want to see an Asian American dominate on the basketball court, but I would have preferred if Jeremy Lin was less of a nice guy and Christian. For you Arthur, the way you look, you look like someone I might hang out with versus some Asian beauty we usually see on TV. We don’t see someone who looks like you presenting themselves in an honest and assertive fashion.
Arthur: Definitely. I feel it surprised a lot of people. They assumed because of the person I was that if they started attacking me I would be intimidated into silence and scared off or contrite and apologetic. When I refused to play along with that and took it back to them, that was when a lot of them were won over, and a lot more of them got angrier.
And I’m not sorry. Saying that openly, that you’re not sorry… Not being sorry is this very powerful thing. And in whatever small-scale sense I’ve been an example for other people to not be sorry, then I’m glad that happened.
Elliott: I do have some mixed feelings about your success on Jeopardy as legitimizing your life and your life choices. You might not otherwise have been embraced by Asian Americans. We’ve been trained to be achieving. Jeopardy is the pinnacle of success. You won money! You showed your intelligence. You beat white people.
Arthur: It would have been more legitimate if I beat Ken Jennings’ record! Winning $300K did legitimize what I’ve been doing to an extent, sure. But the flip side of it is I was successful at getting attention as a separate matter from my success of the game. I was getting this attention even when I won four games of Jeopardy. Whenever people talk about me, it comes back to the fact that there was a controversy, there was a social media kerfuffle, there is this whole other narrative not about being good at the game but about the polarizing reaction to my game. And the fact that I’ve embraced that controversy and talked about it openly does break the typical Asian-American success narrative.
My dad recently took me aside and told me you can’t talk about racism, you can’t say the word “racism” when discussing your success in the media.
I don’t think I’ve talked about it that much. But for him, to continue being the model minority means you can’t ever say “racism”. You score model-minority points by not saying “racism” even when you should. And yet it’s the elephant in the room. It’s there. No matter how difficult it is to talk about.
I’ve said that the thing that upsets me isn’t even racism, itself. Racism as a concept, it’s been around forever and will probably always be here. It’s human nature. But we can’t do anything about it if we don’t talk about it. My problem is the hypocrisy. Pretending we are not racist even though we are. People pretending to be absolutely colorblind.
I used to see colorblindness as an ideal. I used to want to believe I could be colorblind and other people could be too. Really what it was was, if I could find people who could look at me and literally not see what race I was, then how could I not be an American? Because i worked so hard at it. Worked so hard at my diction, pop culture, being an obnoxious hipster about knowing more bands than you, learning all the things that I could to be an American and yet my race was the one thing standing in the way. And it was a big step for me to let go of that dream of a color-blind world…
If we eradicated all traces of race from our world we would be throwing a lot of the baby out with the bathwater.This is something i’ve felt weird talking about, but it’s also almost been a spiritual experience, a spiritual transition, becoming willing to identity myself specifically as Chinese instead of insisting other people as not seeing myself as that. There was a time I would have been really resistant to be an icon of the Asian-American community because I wanted to be a regular guy. To talk about race would be to raise those barriers. I wanted to date white girls and be friends with white people without talking about race. But that in itself was a form of denial.
Elliott: Can you talk about how all this relates to your acting career now and how you see it unfolding?
Arthur: It was a really oddly liberating experience for me to go out for auditions to play the Asian guy and not feel bad about it. It’s empowering for me to play a character with a thick Chinese accent and not feel bad about it. To own that as part of my identity, part of who I am.
It’s only been a few years since I’ve seriously been into acting. Since I moved to Cleveland I’ve become super involved in the local scene and it’s very exciting. I did the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival last summer. I’ve become the narrator for the audiobook updates on erfworld.com, a nationally known webcomic. Things were already looking up before all this Jeopardy stuff happened.
As far as what opportunities this may bring, that still remains to be seen. I’ve definitely address a lot of the issues we talked about when I started doing stand up comedy, and if I go back into that world this whole Jeopardy experience would obviously be what it would be about. I’ve had people ask me if I plan to write a book, and it would probably be more interesting to write about this whole viral social media experience–and stuff that’s come up because of it like race and nerd culture—than write yet another book about what it’s like to be on Jeopardy. That’s all up in the air right now.
Elliott: Now that you have a financial safety pad of sorts, are you planning to pursue acting full time?
Arthur: After taxes my winnings are closer to $200K, and that’s not enough to be a lifetime guarantee of financial security. So I’m not quitting my day job anytime soon. But it does give me options. If I really wanted to move to LA now and do the crazy starving actor thing, I could. I guess we’ll see.