Celebrating Filipino identity

Netflix presents ‘Jo Koy: In His Elements’

4 minute read
Jo Koy enjoys a jeepney ride. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)
Jo Koy enjoys a jeepney ride. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

In the world of streaming, there is no shortage of comedy specials. I watch a lot of them, desperate for some levity in lockdown, including Filipino American stand-up comedian Jo Koy’s third Netflix special, Jo Koy: In His Elements, released on June 12. He departs from the typical stand-up structure to create a variety show spotlighting the culture and complexities of Filipino people through comedy, music, dance, and food.

Koy celebrates a country that is often misunderstood, stigmatized, alternating his own stand-up with segments featuring other Filipino American artists including DJ CherishTheLuv and breakdancer Ronnie Abaldonado. Koy is a hype man spreading his palpable excitement for Filipino staples like Chicken Adobo and jeepneys. As someone who has often felt disassociated from my Pinoy identity, I felt the show spark a profound reconnection to my roots.

Born and raised disconnected

In His Elements demonstrates the complexity of Asian American identities. Comedian Andrew Orolfo expresses his anxieties about performing in the Philippines for the first time: “I’m Filipino, but I grew up in America, so I was honestly scared … I always had that weird thing in my head that they’re not going to get my stuff.”

As a Fil Am military brat, I am no stranger to the complicated sentiments of the Filipino diaspora. My dad met my mom when he was teaching for the Department of Defense Education Activity at Clark Air Base. Shortly after I was born, we were evacuated due to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. I grew up speaking English, and at Filipino gatherings, the syncopated, sing-songy language of Tagalog, one of the 187 languages spoken in the Philippines, was just white noise. These chasms created an unease that helped shape my perspective. It was reassuring to hear other Filipino Americans normalize similar discomforts with their identity on a massive platform.

“Where are you from?”

I dread the recurring question, “where are you from?”, which I used to ask my mom growing up. Exacerbated by the fact that I grew up in South Korea and Germany, the cherry on top of an already convoluted sundae, this question typically spirals into an interview. I have been accused of not being Asian enough and of not being white enough. Strangers volunteer to guess my race as if I’m a word on Wheel of Fortune. These microaggressions can cause insecurities about identity.

Perhaps comedian Andrew Lopez can relate. He’s the child of two immigrant parents who moved to Iowa before he was born, and he traveled to the Philippines for the first time to do this special. Koy was born in Washington to a Filipino mother and a white father. He relentlessly celebrates his Pinoy side, which has helped give me permission to do the same.

Jo Koy celebrates his Pinoy heritage and encourages others to do the same. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)
Jo Koy celebrates his Pinoy heritage and encourages others to do the same. (Image courtesy of Netflix.)

Two places at once

On Koy’s first appearance on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2010, he wore a Filipino flag on his jacket to inspire aspiring Fil Am comedians. Growing up, I did not see Filipinos in the media; my ideas of success, beauty, and worth were saturated with whiteness. Today, there are significantly more people of Asian descent in American pop culture, not only representing their identity, but redefining it. In His Elements helps debunk the stereotype that Filipinos are subservient caregivers. Koy repeatedly jokes about the number of Filipino nurses: “That’s what Filipinos do: they sing, they dance, and they laugh … and they take your blood pressure.” He helps eliminate these stereotypes by giving entertainers like Joey Guila and Inigo Pascual a platform to showcase their art. True representation is seeing Filipinos doing what they love outside of the narratives that have been assigned to us.

Humor has always been an integral part of my Filipino identity. At Filipino gatherings, the moments of unanimous laughter were when I asked for a translation. Filipino American artist, professor, and author Jenny Odell describes in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the way a third-party force can make someone who is from two places feel whole: “things like the atmospheric river, or even the sight of Western tanagers migrating through Oakland in the spring, give me an image of how to be from two places at once.” In His Elements had this effect on me. Comedy, art, and food by Filipino people help us forge deeper connections to our family, ancestors, and other Pinoys across the globe.

What, When, Where

Jo Koy: In His Elements is available to stream on Netflix

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation