Nothing Will Stop Jiaoying Summers from Speaking her Truth

From Chinese politics to Asian beauty standards to penis jokes, nothing is off limits for this comedian

Comedian Jiaoying Summers

Courtesy of Jiaoying Summers

Words by Clara Wang

In 2021, China-born comedian and actress Jiaoying Summers was going through a painful divorce, fighting for custody of two small children from an ex-husband who was refusing child support. At the time, her fledgling stand-up career in the United States was still mostly confined to small open-mic-style club gigs—she was supporting her family primarily by sharing her comedy on TikTok, where Chinese sponsors would give her more than $5,000 per video for access to her 1.2 million following and impressive bilingualism. Then, she posted a joke about her parents nearly getting rid of her (a play on China’s one-child policy).

Her TikTok overlords gave her an ultimatum: Either delete all mention of the joke, or face temporary banishment and the loss of a major source of income to feed the kids. She chose the latter—after all, she came to the United States to tell her truth.

@jiaoyingsummers One China Policy 🇨🇳 #onechildpolicy #jiaoyingsummers watch me do #standupcomedy @thehollywoodcomedy every weekend. Tix link in bio #comedian ♬ original sound - Jiaoying Summers (梁娇颖)

In just four years of practicing standup, and despite learning English as an adult, the 33-year-old entertainer has built the kind of standup career native English speakers dream of—and she’s done it by talking about everything a Chinese woman isn’t supposed to. The Beijing native owns and operates the Hollywood Comedy Club, has been featured in Netflix Is a Joke Festival and Comedy InvASIAN 2.0 with specials running on Peacock and Amazon Prime, and was inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame. She also recently just signed her first one-hour comedy special with Amazon. In addition, she tells me she is confirmed to perform at the Apollo Theater in November for the NYC Comedy Festival.

Some people are born knowing they have something to say, even if nobody else agrees. Speaking to Summers, whose last name is Liang but when performing goes by the English translation of her ex-husband’s last name “Xia,” via video chat, I quickly realize that she is the same person with or without a microphone; dressed in a silk kimono over a fitted top and a full face of makeup, she blurts anecdotes and stories with an unfiltered energy that is anathema to the common practice in Chinese culture of speaking one way to acquaintances and professional associates (all politeness and respect) and very differently to a friend or family member (nothing is off-limits, including jokes about your weight, career, and general intelligence). Sharing private, intimate details to non-family members not only “loses face” for yourself but is sacrilegious to your family, of which you are seen as a permanent extension. So is voicing opinions on sexuality, marriage, your parents, or anything that could make other people uncomfortable.

“I can’t lie about how I feel,” she says. “I felt that a lot of the time I’m getting judged for speaking my truth, that I was too harsh, too this and that. I don't think I always say the right thing, but as long as I’m speaking my truth…They can say, ‘Oh, she’s wrong,’ but we don’t need comedians to please people.”

In fact, Summers has found her voice through subverting the norms expected of her: Onstage, she delivers a Joan Rivers’ brand of brash, raunchy comedy that blasts her personal struggles and turns many of the offensive stereotypes she encounters inside-out. In one popular joke, she mocks the Asian beauty standards—“Chinese people like tiny lips like a baby bird asshole”—she’s been held up against. In another, she questions people who ask her whether “all Asian men have small penises.”

The punchline: “All Asian men? Did you get on your knees and give one billion Asian men a blowjob?” It’s obviously funnier when she tells it.

On her podcast (aptly named Tiger MILF) and in interviews, she acts like an archetypal immigrant mother: blunt, quick to call out hypocrisy, but always with an undercurrent of compassion for the underdogs that makes it difficult to refute her candid opinions. “When you treat people below you like shit, you are nothing to me,” Summers tells me in our Zoom call.

Summers’ ability to thrive on her own terms has been developed in many ways as a survival mechanism. Growing up in Anyang, on the border of China’s Henan province, she built and retained a fierce confidence from a young age, despite being continually reminded that she wasn’t pretty enough to be an entertainer. Summers was too dark-skinned and square-jawed to fit Chinese beauty standards, which demand extremely fair skin and a V-shaped face; she tells me her nickname was “cage fighter” as a child, and she was forbidden to wear pink by her mother because it accentuated her skin tone.

In her standup, Jiaoying Summers is not afraid to share her truth.

Courtesy of Jiaoying Summers

“I was an ugly girl,” she says. “You know, it didn't stop me from thriving in life. I was just like, I need to learn and be smart because my looks are not gonna give me a rich husband to take care of me. If you’re smart and witty, people like you. I always wanted to be liked.”

A natural leader and performer, Summers inherited her businesswoman mother’s hustle and started her first business when she was 6 by organizing the neighborhood children to catch scorpions, which they sold to traditional Chinese medicine shops. She excelled in classical calligraphy and painting, and communicated with male crushes by writing letters and doing their homework, although she was once rejected by her crush for being too dark-skinned to go out with in public.

However, she discovered a world where her talent and look could be celebrated, by watching Hollywood films at her babysitter’s DVD store. If Halle Berry and Beyoncé were beautiful, why couldn’t she be? With dreams of Hollywood firmly planted in her head, she begged her mother to send her to the United States for school. At the time, it was unheard of to send a daughter abroad all alone, so her mother attempted to dissuade her with the impossible task of raising $20,000 in a week towards her school fees. Her best friend’s extremely well-to-do father gave her the money, and she landed in Kentucky at 18 to study finance with a minor in theater, where she met and married her first husband and eventually getting a corporate job in Los Angeles (and divorcing her first husband) after college, before marrying her second husband and reluctantly acquiescing to his demands of being a stay-at-home wife. During this time, she took acting classes with Howard Fine but hid her aspirations from her mother.

Jiaoying Summers has been hustling since she was a kid and that hasn't changed.

Courtesy of Jiaoying Summers

“I just knew it was going to be an endless fight, so I just never told her,” she says. “She was like, ‘Can you imagine anyone being an actor?’ I was like, ‘That’s disgusting, mom.’”

After she got married, she continued going back and forth between LA and Beijing while auditioning for onscreen parts. She quickly found that her accent automatically excluded her from many roles, but a fortuitous audition with director and screenwriter John Singleton in 2017 helped her discover comedy. Singleton didn’t find her right for the part, but saw in her an instinctive sense of comedic timing. “He was convinced that I would be a star, because I improvised a thing for a role on a TV show,” says Summers. “I didn’t understand what he meant. If you think I was great, why wouldn’t you just cast me? When you’re young, you’re always the victim when you don’t get what you want.”

Two years later, she took his advice to heart and moved to LA permanently to begin performing standup. It was a revelation—rather than being held to unachievable beauty standards or rejected because of her accent, she realized that all that matters in standup is being able to make your audience laugh. “They forget that you are a woman, an Asian woman, that you have an accent. All they care about is that I’m funny,” she says. “And it’s a business—the club wants you to sell tickets, and I can sell tickets.”

To practice onstage as much as possible, she purchased the Hollywood Comedy Club on Melrose in 2019 and began performing as much as 10 times a day. She harnessed the power of social media and built a substantial following; after she was locked out of TikTok, she migrated to Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram shorts, where she regularly accrues tens of thousands of views. Her reels, like “Uber Karen” (where she plays an obnoxious Chinese Uber driver picking up unsuspecting riders) and gonzo-style street interviews (where she quizzes innocent passerby on their knowledge of Chinese culture) turn her “foreignness” into an advantage by forcing Americans to admit their unfamiliarity with the world’s second-largest political player.

After a lifetime of practice not listening to people telling her to shut up, Summers finally gets it, and she’s using all the things that set her apart in the (mostly male, mostly white) world of stand-up to her advantage. “I’m making a living with my command of the English language, and I’m not a native speaker. You have to be funnier than the person going onstage before you and after you,” says Summers. “ If I don’t have my voice…I’ll be poor if I have to. But I know I’m going to make it because I work hard, and I’m going to live forever.”

Published on October 24, 2023

Words by Clara Wang

Clara Wang is a freelance writer spending the year in Nashville who mostly muses about food, culture, sex, and the unbearable lightness of being a 5’0” Yellow girl quicker on her feet than Borat’s lawyers. Her work has been featured in publications such as Eater Austin, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Daily Dot, and Giddy.