Thoughts on "Fresh Off the Boat"

ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat premiered yesterday. When I initially saw the trailer, I had mixed feelings. I was pleasantly surprised that there was going to be a show about a Chinese family on American television. I found some of the scenes relatable and hilarious (the lunchroom necessity for white people food), but I was also worried that the show would just end up being extremely racist (FOB accents, kung fu, Tiger Moms and whatnot).

When I read some of Eddie Huang’s thoughts on the television adaptation of his memoir, I thought he was going to confirm my suspicions: “The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-American resembling moo goo gai pan.” He goes on to detail the problems he had with the writing and production in a lengthy 4000 word article. But at the end, he notes that despite the network’s changes and compromises, Fresh Off the Boat is worth it just to get an Asian family on television:

Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.

I watched the first two episodes last night and understood what Jeff Yang in The Atlantic said about the show being an “authentic Asian American expression of a more universal experience.” I wouldn’t say I was particularly invested in the characters or the story as much as I am with other shows (Leslie Knope until I die), but it just hit so close to home. The Huangs are living out a different experience than my family has (my sister listens to an absurd amount of rap but as far as I know, she has never worn a Notorious B.I.G. shirt), but what they portray as comedy reminds me of larger issues and sacrifices that, to some degree, every Asian American family has experienced but never seen discussed openly in the media.

My parents did not start a restaurant in Florida. They washed dishes in the cafeteria to put themselves through graduate school. When Jessica (Eddie’s mother) got stingy about napkins and croutons in episode two, I didn’t find it funny. I thought about how my parents came to the United States with $50 between them and used overturned cardboard boxes as a dining table and thought that a Big Mac was expensive. When Eddie’s lunch was taunted for being “smelly” and looking like worms, I could only see myself as that kid who brought Chinese food to lunch in a small Illinois town where we later moved to. I also wanted Lunchables (my mom never bought us the pizza kind). Two girls told my sister that she shouldn’t bring her purple American Girl lunchbox because she wasn’t American.

fresh off the boat

What was amazing about Fresh Off the Boat was that when Eddie was called a chink, he beat the shit out of that kid who made fun of him. Then his parents threatened to sue the school (the American way!). His mom told him that they would never get angry at him for standing up for himself. I’ve never been called a chink, but kids used to pull their eyes to the side to mimic my Asian eyes while they chanted “ching chong bing bong.” Once I was talking with my mom in Chinese at school and after she left, kids started making donkey noises in reference to how I said “hello” in Chinese (ni hao).

But I never fought back. I never beat up those kids and I certainly never told my parents. I just accepted it as the price of being Chinese in a white community. I’m not saying Fresh Off the Boat is or will be a perfect show, but it’s doing something really radical. Most news focuses on Asian quotas in Ivy Leagues or Tiger Mom tactics, problems that result from being a so-called “model minority” whose voices aren’t really heard because “we are seen as so diligent that we will overcome everything on our own.” For a population that has learned to keep their heads down, earn good grades, climb the educational or professional ladder, and trust in the American Dream, it’s about time we had our experiences shown and discussed. Even if Fresh Off the Boat ends up being the Panda Express of sitcoms.

Written on February 5, 2015