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Meditation, Massage, and Marijuana | Margaret Zhao is a self-healing comedy survivor—and funny.

Most comedians have to overcome some sort of hardship in life before they make it to the stage. Call it an unavoidable occupational hazard. But even for the toughest cookie, the challenge Margaret Zhao faced, China's Cultural Revolution of 1966, seemed overwhelming. Because her family had been business owners during the communist takeover of China after WWII, they lost everything and were forced to work as farmers. But when the Cultural Revolution hit, Zhao and her five siblings, identified as "enemies of the state," weren't allowed to go to school. Despite this, she eventually studied on her own and became a teacher. After moving to Orange County in 1989 and working as a teacher of tai chi and other healing arts, Zhao discovered she had a knack for stand-up comedy. She also co-wrote a memoir about her difficult childhood in China called Really Enough. Now living in Pleasanton, Zhao does comedy gigs and also holds a free weekly class on self-healing at the Life Renewing Center in Pleasanton. I tracked her down to see if she could tickle my funny bone.

Paul Kilduff: In China your family was subjected to a lot of abuse—can you give me some examples?

Margaret Zhao: I was officially discriminated against by the schools, by the teachers, and by the society as an outcast.

PK: Your family lost its business, right?

MZ: They lost the business, and then they were sent to the countryside. They had no skill of farming, and so the family was always on the edge of starvation. I grew up in poverty. The other families—they would put a scarecrow in their yard to scare away the birds that came to eat the vegetables, right? But for our family, we couldn't even flag down the birds, because there was nothing for them to eat. They could not even invite them over.

PK: When did you go to college?

MZ: I went in 1979. After the elimination of classification, my family became equal. China has a national entrance examination. All the high schoolers had to take it, but me, with a third-grade education, how could I compete with the high schoolers? I had to, because I had this dream; I had this hope in my heart. I had to go to college. And then I made such an effort competing with the high schoolers. I was called a social youth because I wasn't a student anymore.

PK: You got in despite not being allowed to go to high school?

MZ: I was able to succeed. Only 6 percent of the students could be accepted that year because China was just beginning to be equal.

PK: What brought you to America?

MZ: That's a very good question. I came here for love and freedom.

PK: You fell in love with whom?

MZ: An American, white, young man. I met him in a university when I was taking advanced education. He was teaching English. At that time, China wasn't open to the world as now; really rare to even see a foreigner. Very few people, even family members, knew that I was marrying a foreigner. Then the love didn't work out. We divorced. And then moving up from Orange County to Northern California was for two things, too: business and love.

PK: Business and love? Did you meet somebody else?

MZ: I came to help a family member with a business in San Jose. I met somebody who lives in Pleasanton, and then married. So then ended up staying here. He had to learn all my habits, and my ways, and my culture. Very challenging, but seems he's handling very well. Making progress. Now he's even repeating my jokes.

PK: How did you get into stand-up?

MZ: I was teaching people tai chi and massage. I'd say things; people laugh. And then I repeated it to another group; they laugh again. I said, 'Wow, I'm very funny at what I say. They like it.' So then people start to realize I was really funny. They referred me to go to try stand-up comedy. I had no idea what is stand-up comedy. I did see people perform on the TV, but I didn't know what it was really like. So I called Irvine Improv, and then they said that you call the manager. They give me the number. I called. I said, 'I'm told I'm really funny; I would like to see if I can do stand-up comedy.' He says, 'OK, you come on Tuesday night, open-mic night.' I didn't know what was open mic. I didn't know the culture. I was thinking I would go there to just speak to the manager and tell him jokes. I didn't know that you come to the open mic, you're going to perform. I was put in line with a long line of comedians, and then you go on the stage. I had nothing prepared. I was under the spotlight. I was blinded. And then the audience disappeared, and my mind went blank. I immediately recovered, and then I start to tell them what was funny. And I killed.

PK: How would you describe your comedy?

MZ: I like the humor in daily life. It's not about just me; it's about America. And it's a person from a different culture with a lot of misunderstandings that can create drama and humor.

PK: There's this clip of you on YouTube where you say your name, and then you say, 'I'm from China, that means I'm Chinese.' Why is that funny? I laughed, but I don't really know why.

MZ: This is a statement of truth. I don't need to tell the audience I'm from China so I'm Chinese. It makes it funny.

PK: Got any others?

MZ: A lot of people ask me about Asian women walking behind a men to show respect? I say, 'Who said that? Not me. I walk behind a man to enjoy the view.'

PK: What about the healing arts—has that provided you with any material?

MZ: Now I'm using this one. I'm a teacher of healing art, and it's really powerful, and also it's very simple. Anybody can learn it. Very fast and easy to practice. I will give you three letters that you will remember, to get rid of severe pain. There's M, M, M. This is three words, and then you will remember. OK, the first M is that when you have pain, you do meditation, right? Meditation, that's easy to remember. Second M is to get massage.

PK: Got it.

MZ: If the meditation and the massage does not work, the third M will definitely work. That's marijuana.


For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.

Photo courtesy Margaret Zhao.

Margaret Zhao Vital Stats

Age: 62

Astrological Sign: Gemini


"The intention to benefit others is good; the intention to benefit self is evil."

Book on nightstand:
The Infinite Life Sutra