By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Local comic Bernice Ye never saw herself as humorous.
“I didn’t consider myself a funny person,” said Ye, before her life as a comic. “I’d say things about my life and people laughed. It was the way I thought about life that people just found funny.”
Ye was born and raised in China’s Hubei province. A self-described “good kid,” Ye always loved studying and school, especially math, science, and computers. Her natural interest in these subjects led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science in computer science at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing.
The computer science field looked different in China than it did in the United States.
“Growing up in China, nobody had really done [computer science] at the time,” said Ye. Of her 40-person program, a third of it was comprised of girls, “and the girls were killing it.” Women were the top students and the most confident in her program. It was different compared to the United States, where men had an advantage, she said.
In 2004, Ye came to the United States for her master’s degree in computer science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. She was 21 years old.
There weren’t many Asians in the area, and Ye felt isolated. Although she’d taken English classes in China, she learned the British dialect and didn’t have exposure to daily conversation. She struggled to speak English in her early days here.
Ye was so insecure about her English that, during her first month in Indiana, she ordered the same Subway sandwich every day based on the handful of words she recognized from the menu.
It’s anecdotes like these — life as a foreigner in the United States — that initially made up Ye’s comedy sketches.
Over time, Ye learned more English through a boyfriend, attending parties, and consulting online resources like urbandictionary.com. Her confidence grew.
A Microsoft internship brought Ye to Seattle in 2006. She currently works as a senior technical program manager lead at Hulu, where her team manages content delivery to subscribers.
Craving a creative outlet — and inspired by many Netflix comedy specials — Ye started to pursue comedy three years ago. She first took stand-up comedy classes, and eventually hit the open mic circuit in 2018. These open mics led to new performance opportunities, and Ye’s comedy career started to gain traction. She’s since performed at various comedy festivals, including the Intersections Festival, Mutiny Radio Comedy Festival, and the Northwest Women’s Comedy Festival.
Ye admitted that there aren’t many Asian or Asian American women in the local comedy scene. There’s more white male comics than there are females. And even with minorities, Ye often finds that she’s the only Asian woman there. It’s another scene in Ye’s life where she’s an outsider yet again.
Comedy through an immigrant’s eyes
While Ye’s early comedy focused more on physical insecurities and her Chinese upbringing to early experiences in America, her current sketches highlight where she is now in life, finding her own confidence as an immigrant and a U.S. citizen, and making fun of her entitled American self a bit. She likes exploring the in-between spaces of being a foreigner in the United States.
“Now that I’m more settled, more American, there’s a progression where I’ve realized that things are not always right, and that not everyone treats me with dignity,” she said. “I don’t like it when people step on me.”
Reflecting back, Ye acknowledged that she had started to reject her Chinese roots after living in the United States for several years. She started to feel more American and didn’t want to follow or observe Chinese traditions or culture, so she rejected everything.
But in developing her comedy, Ye’s revisited her childhood stories, and it helped her respect the cultural differences that lie between her Chinese upbringing and her American life today.
“Comedy helped me get back to my heritage,” said Ye. “It really made me proud to be Chinese. I realized that I’m not rejecting [being] Chinese… I’m embracing it,” said Ye. “I’m Chinese, but also a Chinese immigrant with two cultures that have blended. Comedy’s helped me define this, and I really appreciate that about comedy.”
Ultimately, Ye hopes to create comedy that speaks to Chinese people in China.
“We don’t have stand-up comedy or free speech in China,” said Ye. “It’d be banned.” Stand-up comedy is not a natural interest for Chinese people or an immigrant, she said. Because of this, Ye wants to share the stories and lived experiences of other Chinese immigrants like her. She hopes her comedy inspires other people to share their own stories.
On Ye’s personal website, there’s a quote that reads, “I might be a cancelled Chinese, but I’m a perfect American.” This is a perfect description of how she sees herself today.
When Ye gained American citizenship in 2017, she had to renounce her Chinese one. For her first trip back to China after becoming an American, she had to apply for a Chinese visa. Upon arrival, Chinese officials took Ye’s Chinese passport, cut it up, and put a “cancelled” stamp in it.
“It literally said ‘cancelled,’” said Ye of the stamp in her defunct Chinese passport.
Throughout her childhood, family members criticized Ye’s physical features and her then budding interest in dance. Here in America, though, Ye said she gets to embrace her imperfections and her art — a byproduct of gaining self-confidence with age, and the freedom to accept who she is in the land of the free.
“I’m perfect the way I am,” said Ye.
What’s ahead for Ye
Although she enjoys her day job, Ye would like to eventually become a full-time comedian.
“I feel like I can touch people through my comedy,” said Ye. “I never get that satisfaction from my [current] work.”
Ye acknowledged, though, that developing comedy takes time. For now, she plans to hone her writing skills, and improve her delivery technique and stage presence.
“It’s not about the fame. And it’s not my goal to make a living from comedy,” said Ye. “I just want to focus on being the best artist I can be.”
For more information, visit berniceye.com.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.