From Socially Isolated Nerd to Jeopardy! Bad Boy: A Thank You Note
Well, let’s start with the obvious. I’m thankful that I won $400,000 for about four days of work.
Even if you count the time I spent prepping for my original Jeopardy! run and for the Tournament of Champions as “work,” that’s still $400,000 for a couple months’ worth of work, which is a better hourly rate than I’ve ever had before in my life or will probably ever have in the future.
I’m thankful—how could I not be?—for the existence of things like TV game shows that give out huge cash prizes for knowing your Beyoncé lyrics, your U.S. state nicknames and your opera characters. I’m thankful for the ways I personally benefit from how capitalism does not make sense.
I’m thankful for other stuff, too. I’m thankful that the year I happened to be on Jeopardy! happened to be the year Jeopardy! was celebrating their 30th anniversary. Which not only meant that Sony Pictures Entertainment was spending more on marketing than in a normal year, but also meant that they were having the Battle of the Decades reunion matchup.
I’m thankful that thanks to sheer random happenstance—and it is random happenstance, I can confirm the airing schedule was set long before anyone knew how many games I would win—my 12-game run on Jeopardy! was broken up by the College Championship and the Battle of the Decades.
That meant that instead of America seeing and hearing about me for only a couple of weeks, I was the “reigning champion” on regular-season Jeopardy! all the way from late January to mid-March. That meant that there was plenty of time for the “controversy” about me to grow, for the media cycle to not just put me in the news but push out think pieces reacting to the news stories and think pieces commenting on the think pieces.
I’m thankful for the vast swathes of Middle America who are apparently driven to furious rage by an awkward, disheveled Asian nerd who takes the categories out of order and cuts off Alex Trebek. How could I not be? I honestly can’t think of another way for a game show contestant to become a quasi-celebrity, not without somehow stirring “controversy.” Even Ken Jennings didn’t get where he is without confronting the “controversy” of people who wanted him off the show.
I’m thankful, despite all the many, many lengthily catalogued downsides, for the world of social media. I’m thankful for a world where I can gain a reputation as being “hated” and “oppressed” and “under siege” for simply retweeting mean tweets, and for being “witty” and “clever” and “in control” for taking the time to make up smarmy responses to said mean tweets.
I’m thankful that I can see my “social reach” grow from a couple hundred people to over fifteen thousand in a matter of months, because of a world where deciding you like someone and want to connect with them can happen with the click of a mouse.
I’m thankful for whatever gifts I have and whatever luck I’ve had that people ended up liking my writing. I’m thankful that Marah Eakin of The AV Club surprised me by taking my entire rambling half-hour phone conversation with her and transcribing the whole thing, unedited, leading to a ten-page feature article. I’m thankful that people liked that enough that the Cleveland Plain Dealer reprinted that article in full, in print such that I opened up the Sunday paper one day and there was my rambling taking up half the page.
I’m thankful that Sujay Kumar, of The Daily Beast, invited me over for coffee when I was doing silly media stuff in New York after my Jeopardy! run, and that he saw enough potential in me to offer a writing gig.
I’m thankful that the age of social media means I can meet editors from Salon, The Guardian, NPR and elsewhere and pitch myself to them in a matter of seconds without having to leave the house or put on clothes.
What I’m not thankful for? I’m not thankful that Isla Vista happened, or Ferguson. I’m not thankful for racism or misogynistic violence against women or the pathological anger inherent in the Internet geek community I call home.
I wish none of those things had happened. I wish the world were calm and peaceful and prosperous and nice. I wish there were nothing for me to do but to take my Jeopardy! money and spend it on video games and Doritos and spend the rest of my life on my couch tweeting memes at people.
But if I’m going to live in a world filled with horrible, awful, shitty things then I’m going to bitch about them, like I always have. And I’m thankful that now my bitching gets a byline, compensation, and most importantly an audience.
I’m thankful for the many messages, both public and private, I’ve gotten letting me know my writing mattered to somebody. I’m thankful for the feeling, however illusory and fleeting, that in the face of all the horrors the world has to bear my raised voice might make some difference.
There’s many different paths successful game show demi-celebs have taken after their initial limelight fades. Looking at the shining stars of Jeopardy!, Ken Jennings continues to work the trivia beat and do it well. Brad Rutter is trying to turn his trivia fame into entertainment.
Perhaps the best way to deal with a sudden windfall is to donate all the money to charity and go back to a life of anonymity, like Canadian lottery winner Tom Crist. The worst is probably to avoid paying taxes on the money and go to prison, like Survivor season one winner Richard Hatch.
My rival this year, Julia Collins, struck probably the best compromise, taking the money and running off to her dream city, Paris, secluding herself and just letting herself enjoy her good fortune.
Me? I’ve never had as balanced or sanguine a personality as Julia, as I’ve noted before.
My Jeopardy! idol was always Bob Harris, who, once he had the nation’s attention, took the opportunity to let them know he wasn’t just an amazing trivia-spewing machine but a funny, thoughtful guy who was worth getting to know. Yes, he wrote a Jeopardy! book—probably the seminal Jeopardy! book, Prisoner of Trebekistan—but then went on to write about history, politics, travel and, ultimately, to become a megaphone for the positive impact of microlending on the developing world.
Ever since I realized that I, too, could put Jeopardy! Champion on my résumé I’ve wanted to follow in Bob’s footsteps, at least try to do as much good with my voice as he has.
The facile response I’ve given before for why I do what I do is resentment, frustration, indignant rage. Being mad about growing up an embittered, socially isolated nerd. Being mad about graduating into the middle of a devastating recession caused by white-collar criminals who have mostly gone unpunished, mad about the trauma years of unemployment caused me and the rest of my generation.
Being mad about the casual racism Asian-Americans like me still face, about the constant spew of nastiness I faced for not belonging on camera, for my success somehow being illegitimate because of how I look.
But that’s not an entirely accurate interpretation. More importantly it’s not the healthy interpretation that I’d like to hold in my mind going forward.
Because it’s really that I have so much to be thankful for. Thankful to live in the First World, where basic human comforts are taken for granted, where even struggling unemployed nerds have all the information in the world at their fingertips for the cost of DSL service. For a family that fed me and housed me and gave me the best education my family could buy despite how hard raising an emotionally unbalanced nerd can be.
Thankful that in my life as a nerd my intelligence has been taken seriously, thanks to my race and my sex—that I’ve never had to somehow defend my geek cred or argue that I actually “deserve” my place as a Jeopardy! champion despite my long winning streak.
Thankful that I made it this far without fearing dying of a treatable illness because I had no insurance. That even with all the negativity from my rise to fame I haven’t had to face the constant threats of violence and rape that characterize “Internetting while female.” That I got through my adolescence—a frequently angry, troubled adolescence—without being shot dead in the street for looking like a “thug.”
Thankful that even before the ridiculous good fortune of getting tons of money for answering some trivia questions I was already in possession of a mountain of unearned privilege. That there’s certainly someone out there this year who got The Call from Culver City smarter, savvier, and more deserving than me who couldn’t go because they didn’t have the advantages I had of money in the bank and a stable job willing to give time off.
I can’t think about the events of this year and how everything has come together to give me everything I ever wanted—the money, the validation, the fifteen minutes of fame—and think about how in the abundance of that gratitude I can’t be silent about how unfair it is people like me have so much and others have so little.
I don’t know if I’m going about giving back in the best way. I catch myself handling things in self-serving, spiteful, or just plain stupid ways all the time.
But I am trying. And underneath my chronic prickliness and assholishness I am always, always thankful.