Connie Wang was 3 when she chose her own name. Her given name, Xiaokang, was tough for most Midwesterners to pronounce. Her parents asked their first-born daughter if she'd like to take on an English one, and she replied with the name of the most recognized face in America that looked like hers.
"I said Connie because I admired Connie Chung. She was pretty. She was serious. She was famous," Wang told me, adding that these were virtues important to a preschooler.
How Wang, 35, and an outsize sisterhood of Asian American women got the name Connie provided the impetus for the most artful essay on representation I have ever read. Wang, a journalist born in China and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie, wrote about "Generation Connie" in the New York Times last month, an offshoot of the reporting and research she conducted for her new memoir.
Wang interviewed dozens of Asian Connies, including the OG, and chronicled "the ripple effects that one woman on TV prompted just by being there, doing her job," as Wang wrote in the opinion piece.
Though the name Connie hasn't been trending since the 1950s, Wang said there have been Asian Connies in every place she's worked. She realized the popularity of her name within Asian American families when she stood in line at a campus cafe on her first day at the University of California, Berkeley, where nearly half of the student population was Asian.
Someone shouted, "Connie Wang!" (Hilariously, the greeting was intended for a different Connie Wang beside her.)
But Connie Chung never knew that so many Connies were named after her until Wang told her about the phenomenon.
"I think what I'm about to say is very Chinese, but I saw myself as a worker bee who was trying to survive in a business that was very brutal," Chung told Wang. "I was just clawing my way through a lot of hazing, and sexual and racial reactions to my existence. I was clueless, really. I couldn't imagine what anyone was perceiving as a viewer, or if anyone noticed."
She inspired me, too
It was hard for me to fathom Chung being this unaware of her influence on Asian immigrants, who were so inspired by her success that they began to imagine that their daughters could ascend to similar heights. I grew up in a household where we'd all freeze and scramble to the basement TV if one of us hollered, "There's an Asian on TV!"
Chung was, of course, the most stable, powerful Asian American on our Magnavox console. She was the first Asian, and only the second woman, to anchor a major nightly news program in the United States. Unlike the stereotype you often hear about immigrant parents who won't settle for their children becoming anything less than doctors or engineers, my mother, a writer in her native Taiwan, nudged me toward journalism. Chung's example had helped my mom envision my path.
What does Wang remember most about watching the evening news with Connie Chung as a kid?
"That she was there," Wang said. "That is probably the most pronounced memory. We had the TV on a lot when I was very young, and it was predominantly a way to understand America and practice English. I didn't understand a single thing coming out of her mouth, but I knew that she was there, and that my parents watched her, and that she held a very special position, who asked serious questions of serious people."
And what was Chung like when Wang interviewed her?
"She was so silly, so crass, so foul, so funny," Wang said, with admiration. "During our conversation, I heard the door open, and she was like, 'Oh, hi, Maury [Povich, Chung's husband].' He had come in with two cocktails that he had made for her. She was drinking as we were talking, and it was just getting even raunchier. It was the best conversation."
Chung and her namesake continued to stay in touch like old-fashioned pen pals, albeit via email, through the pandemic. It was Chung who advised Wang not to take a trip to New York in March 2020, saying she should take early reports of COVID-19 seriously. And Chung was one of the people Wang messaged, later that year, after she gave birth to her son.
Not 'another sad book'
Wang mentions Chung just once in her book, "Oh My Mother!: A Memoir in Nine Adventures." It's a tender yet rollicking reflection on her family's immigration story and Wang's relationship with her mother, Qing Li. They worked on the memoir together. But when Wang sent her mom a reading list of other books about the immigrant experience, Li protested.
"She accused me of trying to depress her to death," Wang recalled. "She was like, 'I don't want to read another sad book.'"
Li told her daughter that publishers gravitate toward stories about the suffering of immigrants, and yet Li — who had to give up her career, her home language, her old mind-sets — never saw her life story as sad. She saw it as a series of adventures that made her stronger, that made her lucky.
The joy and silliness often missing from the genre of immigrants-overcoming-hardship tales may be one reason Wang describes in her book her mother's adoration for Channing Tatum and the "Magic Mike" movies.
Wang's family lived in Nebraska and Alabama before settling in Eden Prairie when she was 7. "I had a wonderful childhood," she said. "The greatest thing about growing up in Eden Prairie was that nothing major ever happened to me, both in terms of very exciting, stimulating things, but also very devastating, life-altering things. I had the opportunity to be a kid, as much as an Asian parent allows their kid to be a kid.
"I had total free rein to ride my bike wherever I could get to, to play outside with my friends, to hang out in the woods and build forts."
She also remembers being one of only about a dozen Asian students in her graduating class of about 850 at Eden Prairie High School. Now based in Los Angeles, Wang still keeps tabs on the place that reared her, through family and friends. Her parents continue to live in her childhood home, and her father, Dexin, runs a Kumon tutoring center in town. Today, Eden Prairie is much more diverse, and Wang gets a kick that her once-homogenous community is now the home of the thriving Asia Mall.
In my first message to Wang requesting an interview, I fell back on the journalist's habit of mentioning a mutual friend. In this case, it was my Star Tribune colleague Frank Bi, who also grew up in Eden Prairie. Perhaps the name-dropping paid off.
"FRANK! If it's the same Frank I know, he's good friends with my younger sister Julia," she typed back. "Named after Julia Child."
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