Now That’s Reality TV

A Chinese American family dreams of a Family Feud

| September-October 2008

  • Reality TV

    image by Matt Mignanelli

  • Reality TV

My family believes itself to be camera-ready in spite of being Chinese. So much so that when we tried out for the game show Family Feud, we mistakenly believed that it didn’t matter whether you won or lost, it was how you appeared on camera.

The 1970s had just ended. Charlie’s Angels had not yet been integrated. There was no Survivor with a “Team Asian.” No liberal multiculturalism (nor yet its cynical detractors). Growing up, I learned to keep a low profile; the Vietnam War was coming to a messy conclusion, and a Filipina in New York had been pushed in front of a subway train after being mistaken for a member of the Viet Cong. It seemed proof that we all looked alike, a fact that might have great consequence for the criminally insane. Nevertheless, it was reasonable to think that times had changed.

I had never harbored a fixation about being on television, even though lately it seems to have taken hold of the American imagination. My sister Nancy spotted an opportunity for tryouts while she was interning for That’s Incredible!, a real-person talent show hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton, and a spunky Cathy Lee Crosby. (Nancy actually persuaded Tarkenton to sign a rude autograph for our little sister, Melissa, that read “To Melissa, President of the Sissy-Butt Club. Best Wishes, Fran Tarkenton.” This club, invented by me, required you to wear an inverted bucket over your head; I’m not sure why.)

The day of our audition, my sisters and I wore sundresses and heels; we believed that approximating the feminine ideal would increase our chances of getting on the show. Hopes of meeting then-host Richard Dawson, serial kisser, were deflated; tryouts were held in a generic Marriott near our town, far from Hollywood, but crowded with hopefuls who, like us, wanted their 15 minutes of fame. We firmly believed in our collective cuteness and, intuitively, that the time was right for more Asians on TV—after all, Sesame Street was multicultural.

So strong was our faith, our subtle challenge to the concept of meritocracy, that we didn’t realize that we would have to actually play the game. Ushered into an overly air-conditioned conference room, we were confronted with our opponents, a family still standing after roundly defeating a seemingly identical group of wannabes who lingered on the margins, apparently uncertain whether or not they had been dismissed. Our competitors were yellow-haired, corn-fed folks—frightful in their average Americanness—who had driven all the way up from Fresno to be there. They wore T-shirts shouting out various slogans, attire that we found somewhat incomprehensible but now seems entirely appropriate. They didn’t bother to dress up; they had only to be themselves.

It goes without saying that the secret to Family Feud—and its beauty—is that you have to reach for the lowest common denominator. The highest scores accrue to the most common answers in a survey of a mythical 100 people. If you fail to come up with an answer that the majority of middle Americans might come up with, your opponents get the chance to steal the board. Forget eccentricities, regionalisms, or human uniqueness; winning the game depends upon answers everyone else would say.

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