A Vietnamese Comic Mines His Culture, and Misunderstandings of It, for Laughs

During lockdown in his apartment in Drumcondra, Nghia Mai has been working on his comedy skits.

He’s been work-shopping a Vietnamese character called Grandpa Mai, he says.

A grandfather brimming with ancient wisdom that compels him to offer unsolicited advice, says Nghia Mai. “His lessons could be quite awkward.”

The idea is to familiarise the White audience with Vietnamese culture and mores using the old fictional character.

“What I want to achieve is promoting Vietnamese culture in particular, not Asian culture in general because I think a lot of comedians are already doing that,” says Mai.

The Absurdist

As a Vietnamese comic, Mai welcomes the absurdities of racial typecasting.

“It’s just a set-up leading into an absurd situation; it’s the absurdity that I can profit from, like taking credit for something I didn’t do,” says Mai, smiling broadly.

He often pokes fun at episodes of everyday racism that take him to the heart of the absurd, assigning him a brand-new identity.

Like one night in Edinburgh in 2015, when revellers in a crowded pub watching a rugby match congratulated him when Japan beat South Africa.

He didn’t bother correcting them. “Obviously, the Japanese team had worked really hard. I’m taking credit; I’m not from Japan,” he says, with a quiet smile.

He wrote the incident into hiscomedy routine: “You can’t disrupt people’s joy, you gonna be like, ‘Ah yea, cheers,’ he said on stage in 2016, competing for the UK’s Chortle Student Comedy Award.

“I think that’s one of many cases of positive racism,” said Mai, finishing the bit.

“There are some positive stereotypes, you get praised for being good at something just cause of your ethnic background,” says Mai.

Joke’s On You

Mai started doing comedy in 2014 when he moved to Scotland to study at the University of Edinburgh.

There, people often mispronounced his name and when he began doing stand-up, the experience became a part of his routine. Not that it bothered him, it was just funny, he says.

On stage, he lists various wrong versions of his name before the audience, and some sound so wrong he gets an ovation.

“I’ve seen people getting his name embarrassingly wrong,” says fellow comic Matthew Tallon.

Tallon, who’s known Mai since 2019, says he has a way of talking about his experiences of being othered without repelling his audience, using good humour and avoiding self-deprecation.

Mai’s bits about people mispronouncing his name, Tallon says, prompt his audience to laugh at themselves, making the joke and the idea behind it linger long after the show’s over.

“He’s not saying, ‘Ha-ha, I have a weird name.’ It’s Nghia saying, “Ha-ha, all these other people are so silly for getting my name wrong,’” says Tallon.

Mai, who has almost always performed in front of a mostly White audience, is serious about comedy. He got in touch with Tallon about a spot before touching down in Dublin in September 2019.

“He messaged us with, like, a really comprehensive list of credits and things he had done,” says Tallon, who ran an alternative comedy club called B-Side at the Workman’s Club at the time.

Mai shares an apartment with Emman Idama, a Black Irish comedian.

They’re opposites, says Idama who laughs boisterously. When Idama is talking about things that vex him, his eyes and forehead signal the emotions before the words find their way out of his mouth.

Mai, meanwhile, is quiet, shy, bookish and painfully introverted, says Idama. “I’m very extroverted, I come in the morning, ‘What’s up, dude’, and then he’s like, ‘Hello’, I’m like, ‘That’s not the energy I wanted from you,’” he says, laughing.

Idama says he is impressed by Mai’s diligence in writing his master’s thesis under lockdown and the solidity of his comedy.

“He can write 1,000 words in a few hours, and I’m talking proper researched 1,000 words, not waffle to fill the page,” he says.

Building a Career

Grandpa Mai, his new character, will make his stage debut once the city’s comedy clubs re-open, says Mai.

Managing to squeeze in time to perform can be tough, though.

To get a work permit through his graduate visa, and to be able to stay in Dublin long-term, he has to find a job that ticks all the right boxes.

“I do try to stay positive as much as possible, but at the same time, there will be times that I want to scream,” says Mai.

One possible solution, Mai says, is for the Irish government to introduce a form of arts and culture visa. “For people who contribute to the local arts and cultural scene on a more full-time basis.”

Having a better appointment system or “clearer guidelines” can also help ease people’s worries about immigration deadlines, he says.

Tallon says he struggles to do comedy when he’s stressed about a personal problem.

So he especially respects Mai for hustling for giggles while he has these immigration worries hanging over him.

“Like, every day, and still go up on stage and be able to just turn on the funniness,” he says.

Knowing that other Vietnamese comics scattered around the world share the same problem and still try to pursue a separate life in comedy helps, says Mai.

Mai often talks to Vietnamese comedians on his podcast, The Hot Potcast – a Podcast where Vietnam Laughs with the World.

“They have to do all the paperwork. They also face casual racism, but at the same time, they strive for the same goals. It’s comforting,” he says.

Finding a Space

Idama says comedians of colour face an extra obstacle in breaking into the city’s scene, because of what he describes as “comedy cliques”.

Personal connections, he says, shape career opportunities in Dublin’s small scene, pressuring newcomers to the city or Black comics like himself to try too hard to fit in with the right crowd for stage time.

“I say almost every comedy club in Dublin, bar the Laughter Lounge, is run by comedians, and comedians are like a clique of friends,” says Idama, who grew up in Blanchardstown.

Mai says that while he is daunted to be from outside Ireland and navigating a clique culture, he is more optimistic.

He’s grown close to some comics, he says, “but I wouldn’t say I’m part of any clique”.

“If you’re funny, as in you make the audience and other comics laugh, and you’re easy to get along with, then doors will open,” says Mai.

Idama, who frowns in disgust when discussing tokenism in comedy (“I don’t want to be on the line-up just because I’m Black”) worries that comedians of colour would lose their identities trying to fit in with the cliques.

Comics shouldn’t have to alter their identities or culture to appease anyone, he says, because in the end, “you can’t make everyone happy”.

For Mai, what matters the most is letting his audience know that there’s more to Vietnam than American Vietnam war veterans with PTSD getting “flashbacks of Nam” in Hollywood films, Mai says.

To bring Grandpa Mai to life, he has invested in a traditional costume using overt “elements of Vietnamese culture” to attract the attention of the White audience.

“He’s very traditional but tries to understand the world that is changing around him, through his grandson,” says Mai.

Just like the comic himself, Grandpa Mai’s grandson happens to live abroad.

As the old man learns to navigate an ever-evolving world, his grandson struggles to remain faithful to his roots, says Mai.

That intergenerational identity dilemma makes for good cross-cultural comedy, says Mai. Grandpa Mai, he says, is an odyssey to “find my own particular niche”.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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