If there’s one comedian whose future I’m watching out for, it’s Leenda Dong. The viral Internet star has amassed 16.9 million followers on TikTok for homemade videos featuring hilarious one-liners and butchered viral trends. On camera, Leenda’s hair is often disheveled and she perpetually looks like she woke up seconds ago, which is part of what makes her comedy feel effortless. Her biggest shtick, though, is a thick, cartoonish Vietnamese accent — one that she puts on because she was raised in Canada and her English, actually, is as Canadian as Justin Trudeau’s.
“Hello my frand!” She begins in many of her early videos. The line, by now, has become iconic.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve laughed long and hard at many of Leenda’s videos. Her Asian accents are hilarious mostly because they are spot-on, a fact that anyone who grew up around them can attest to. But as comedians like Dave Chapelle have taught us, jokes do not happen in a vacuum; they are told in the context of existing power dynamics. Without other forms of representation to offset them, jokes become the sole lens through which an underrepresented group is known — a curse that has followed Asian diasporas in the West for decades.
I, for one, grew up in a world where Asian jokes were the only way non-Asians seemed to know how to interact with me. At my Texas Middle School, people pulled their eyes back to mock me and called me things like “rice krispies.” I hated being made fun of for how I looked, but I didn’t yet have the vernacular to talk back. Instead, like many other Asian-Americans, I laughed along awkwardly.
Fast forward to today, and the popularization of K-Pop and shows like Squid Games are slowly changing how the rest of the world sees us. We are no longer just perpetual foreigner nerds, but now we also get to be singers and dancers and actors. Still, as ongoing anti-Asian violence has shown, our belonging is often conditional — and often limited to the entertainment industry and the already privileged.
I wish we lived in a world where comedians like Leenda Dong could just exist and be funny without thinking about the implications of their comedy. However, studies have shown that Americans equate foreign accents with a lack of intelligence. Statistics like this make me think about my parents, whose English, to some people, probably sounds like Leenda’s. I remember that in Texas, waiters would constantly ask mom and dad to repeat what they were ordering. One time, someone laughed at the way pa said “caesar salad.” Have Americans always underestimated their intelligence? Is Leenda sending the message that it’s ok to laugh at them?
Because the stakes feel too large and too personal, I can’t talk myself into feeling comfortable with the Asian accent as a comedic tool. And if Leenda Dong is a comedian destined for a long career — which I believe and hope that she is — it’s time for her to retire the trope for good.
At the same time, I don’t think the burden is solely Leenda’s to bear. The possibility that she is a product of what our culture wants to see from Asian creatives is not lost on me. Perhaps as true as the fact that she’s exploiting harmful stereotypes to advance her career is the reality that only an Asian comedian who is comfortable and willing to make fun of her Asianness could have gotten as far as she has.
I wonder if Leenda feels like her career hinges on her accent. (I would ask her myself, but her team did not respond to my request for comment.) If she did decide one day to use her regular voice, she would have to re-define her entire comedic persona. No longer would her Vietnameseness serve as a crutch separating her from all the other aspiring comedians on TikTok; instead she’d have to compete with white comedians — the type who are not required to make fun of their community to succeed.
Before Leenda was on TikTok, she had a blossoming YouTube channel where she posted videos of her everyday life. The last video on that channel was uploaded in April of 2020.
In it, Leenda looks almost unrecognizable from her current hoodie-wearing persona. She’s sitting in front of the camera with a full face of makeup and blonde highlights in her long, wavy hair. As she talks, a sentimental, lyricless song plays in the background. She explains, with no faux Vietnamese accent, that she’s making a brand new channel to post short films. One of her films, she says, deals with falling in love as a Vietnamese millennial.
“I really wanted to express myself and I felt like this channel kind of restricted me just being myself,” she said. “Everyone who is subscribed to that channel really gets to see me for me now, (instead of) who I was ten years ago.”
The last video posted on her new channel, which includes titles like “How to make homemade Vietnamese pho” was in August 2020. In the comment section of each of her YouTube videos, it’s obvious that her fame on TikTok has overshadowed any trace of a real and authentic Leenda Dong.
“Your TikTok and YouTube are two entirely different personalities,” a top comment on a video reads. Obviously, that’s the whole point. Somewhere along her creative journey, Leenda decided to switch from videos that seriously grappled with young Vietnamese people’s place in the West to performing a caricature of a broader definition of Asian culture. I wonder if she’s given up on the mission of her earlier videos and has chosen to accept the place we are expected to inhabit — a place that hasn’t been challenged for much of the past century. If this is the case, then it has certainly paid off (for her). I can only hope, though, that this is not where her story ends.