[5/8/15 update: I wrote this blog post before the Eddie Huang Twitter debacle occurred. As of now I am no longer a fan of Eddie Huang. Any expression of admiration and awe displayed below was during a brief, blissfully unaware time.]
The long awaited ABC sitcom starring the first Asian American family in 20 years has finally arrived, and it’s so cool yeah, it’s totally awesome~! I will admit, I had my doubts when I first heard about it via social media. The name itself made me wary: Fresh Off The Boat. F.O.B. This particular racial slur has been somewhat triggering for me. It never meant anything good as I was growing up–just a harsh reminder that in other people’s eyes, I was just a chinky-eyed outsider who talked funny. At some point it became my personal goal to put some distance between me and the F.O.B. label, so much so that the possibility of reclaiming it is personally unfathomable to me. I projected that shame onto those in my family who spoke accented English: my mother, my cousin, my aunt. They were the ones who talked funny, not me, I thought rather defensively. I was an American born citizen, and knew how to speak proper English, goddamnit. This anxiety around being perceived as a F.O.B. is still something I struggle with today. So learning that this show would be named after a word I associate with my childhood trauma didn’t exactly leave me brimming with enthusiasm and hope.
But watching the promo did. It was a bit cheesy, but showed a lot of promise–in large part because of the mom, Jessica, played by the talented and gorgeous Constance Wu. More than once, a joke that had been perfectly delivered made me laugh out loud. At last! I was finally, finally, finally going to see a show starring Asian people on mainstream television. (Yeah yeah, there was All American Girl, but I was 3 years old when it aired and it looked pretty mediocre anyway from what I watched of it on Youtube–I blame white supremacy.) But would the white gaze fuck this shit up too?
According to Eddie Huang, author of the memoir from which the TV show was adapted, it was all sorts of fucked up. My friend Laura wasn’t particularly enthused by the upcoming premiere of the show, either, given Huang’s criticisms. But the complexity of Huang’s article intrigued me further. He refused to say “America is great,” swore a lot, and used phrases like “reverse-yellowface” and “monoculture.” His article conveyed someone who was way more fucking awesome than I had initially imagined. Clearly Huang is too awesome for network TV, but instead of making me cynical it made me optimistic for the show. In my eyes, even a diluted version of his radical racial politics would make for great, conciousness-raising TV.
Seven episodes into the season, and I’m already a huge fan. In the first episode alone, white people/white supremacy are the butt of at least five different jokes. I loved it! While I can’t relate to every single instance of the Huang family’s shenanigans (which is fine), a lot resonated with me: being raised by a mother who is the epitome of frugality, expressing love through actions and not words, being perceived as an outsider, navigating white culture with caution and confusion. Through the specificity of Eddie Huang’s experiences on the show, I connected to something universal that isn’t coded as white. And it’s not just me: I’ve seen people of all races, ages, and genders commenting online that they love the show, think it’s hilarious, and could relate to it in all sorts of ways–proof that whiteness doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be our sociocultural default, our only reference point in American culture.
There are questions raised around authenticity–for example, that Eddie’s parents speak in accents that don’t sound quite right. While I understand those critiques, I would say poorly done Taiwanese accents don’t detract from the overall quality of the show. (I, personally, haven’t noticed anything wrong with the accents, but that’s because I grew up Cambodian American. We don’t all talk the same or know the particular nuances of other Asians’ fobbiness, okay.) I actually think the show is pretty subversive for a family sitcom on network television. What I especially enjoy about the show is how it challenges the Model Minority Myth: the idea that Asians have it just as good as (if not better than) white people. That is not true to my lived experience as an Asian American, and I know it’s not true for many other fellow Asian Americans. If it really needs to be racialized within the black-white binary, I would say that, just like Eddie’s, my childhood can be more readily associated with black culture than white culture. “If you were an outsider, hip hop was your anthem,” the real Eddie Huang narrates in the pilot. I grew up with the sounds of (admittedly mainstream) rap, hip hop, and R&B, never became close friends with anyone white until after college, and developed a no BS attitude and potty mouth that white people are generally uncomfortable with. So I appreciate that Fresh Off The Boat explores one Asian boy’s family and their exploration within this racial binary in America, and how it’s not as simple as, “Oh, Asian people and white people are one and the same.” When you’re not white and you’re not black, how do you fit into America’s cultural landscape? This is a question that I wrestle with all the time, and it’s refreshing to see it being reflected in mainstream media for once.
Eddie’s father, Louis, believes in the American Dream (TM), yet his race and class become obstacles in his path to fulfill it. In the very first episode, he comes to the tragically funny conclusion that his business isn’t doing well because there isn’t a white host to greet customers, leading him to propose to a skeptical Jessica that they hire one: “Instead of people coming in and seeing a Chinese face and saying, ‘Huh? I thought this was an Old West steakhouse,’ they see a white face and say, ‘Oh! Hello white friend, I am comfortable.'” Louis ends up hiring a predominantly white staff. The business starts generating a lot of buzz and income. Then in the most recent episode (Episode 7, “Showdown at the Golden Saddle”), we see a flashback to how Eddie’s father comes up with the idea of the restaurant in the first place: he stole the manual for the Golden Saddle franchise to create a similarly-themed steakhouse of his own. The most pivotal moment as I see it is when Louis is told by the owner that he must pay $50,000 up front in order to buy a Golden Saddle.
The look on his face is heartbreaking, especially as the others (notably, two white men) come up and fork up the cash they have, and he doesn’t. Louis’s struggles with running a successful business is a great example of how there are many minorities in America whose dreams are hindered by racial and class barriers (both of which are not mutually exclusive, of course).
Eddie, our protagonist, has his own battle with white America. He is one of only two kids of color at his new school. In the pilot episode and on his first day at school, the white kids make fun of him for his “nasty-smelling” noodles, which propels him to beg his mom for “white people lunch.” Here, we see that the desire to fit in is rooted in a desire to not be ostracized, which complicates the idea that Asians want to be like white people: Eddie isn’t so much embracing whiteness as he is trying to use it as a cover to hide his otherness. The flawless Jessica tells her son, “Well those kids, they just don’t know, that’s all. It just takes time to get used to something different,” but he refuses to listen. He ends up getting his socially acceptable Lunchable, but butts heads with the only other kid of color, Edgar, who is black. Edgar shoves him aside in line for the microwave, telling Eddie, “Get used to it! You’re the one at the bottom now!”
“No, I’m not!” cries Eddie.
“Yeah, you are! My turn, chink!”
This is a moment that makes me cringe, but also one I can appreciate: a heated exchange between two kids that is complicated by their races. We often center our discussions of racism on white people vs. one minority, which is incredibly important, but racial prejudices exist between minorities as well, and this scene is a perfect example of that. A black kid and an Asian kid, duking it out in front of staring white kids: the perfect allegorical Hallmark card for American racism.
The minorities can senselessly hate each other all they want, but in the end, it’s white people and white supremacy who benefit from the clash between them. This all just goes to show that racial prejudice transcends race. Black people can be prejudiced against Asians, and vice versa. Black people can be prejudiced against themselves, and so can Asian people–otherwise known as internalized racism. As depicted in this moment–Edgar’s argument that Eddie is “at the bottom now” presupposes he was already at the bottom, a deeply sad and implicit admission of being inferior on the basis of race.
Here’s the one thing about the show I’ve been disappointed by: way before the fight occurs between Eddie and Edgar, Eddie asks if he can sit with him at lunch, only to turn around and jump at the chance to sit with the white kids (another fine allegory for American racism). This is precisely where I am concerned: Eddie idolizes all of these black male rappers, yet he’s going to diss the one black boy in favor of the honkies who made fun of his mom’s food? Oh hell no. It seems the irony is not lost on the show, however. “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude?” Edgar says aloud to himself before scoffing. “This cafeteria is ridiculous!” While I appreciate some level of awareness on part of the show of the racial politics at play, I’m hoping that Eddie and Edgar will ultimately become best friends and fellow underdogs at a school that’s blindingly white. But several episodes have gone by and it seems Eddie’s social circle has only gotten whiter and more male, so I’m feeling cynical about the prospects. Damn. I can’t deny this dynamic parallels the reality of racism however. It’s true that many non-black people parodoxically have a love for black culture, yet a total disregard for black people. It’s true that anti-blackness/colorism is a thing in many Asian cultures. And it’s true that white people see Asians as more ethnically palatable than black people (which is NOT the same thing as saying whites see us as equals–to use a racial hierarchy/gross metaphor, whites see us as the lapdogs and blacks as the yard dogs). Although I can appreciate the realistic portrayal, I still would prefer the happy ending.
Focusing on the brighter side: what definitely makes the show is the one and only Jessica, the mother of the family, who is an all-around badass and breakout star. She praises her son for physiologically rejecting white culture, takes all the free samples at the overly excited grocery store, blames douchey white teenage boys for hitting her car with their bodies, and knows when a song she’s beautifully singing is NOT a duet. Better yet, the actress who plays her is also pretty kickass. Jessica is fearless, fierce, funny, and shamelessly herself. She was made even more perfect in Episode 5, “Persistent Romeo,” in which she teaches Eddie about consent and date rape by attacking him with a plush bunny.
YAAAAASSS. Not only is her character inherently feminist, but so is the dynamic she has with her family: they may fear and resent her at times, but through that is a deep respect for her as the matriarch. In Episode 6, “Shaq Fu,” Louis tells his family, “My father, your Ye-Ye [sp?], made me work hard for every penny. And that work ethic is how I’m able to keep the lights on.”
“But not the AC!” retorts Evan.
“That’s your mother’s thing, she runs the house, don’t pull me into that,” Louis quickly responds before returning to his lecture on work ethic–a one-liner that says a lot about the power and influence of Jessica as a stay-at-home mother and wife, power that everyone else in the household recognizes and acknowledges (okay, not too sure about the grandmother, but it’s significant that in a house primarily full of males, Jessica is the goddamn boss). Too often, the sitcom mother is portrayed as an uptight, controlling fun-sucker whose domestic labor and role in the house is often exploited, scorned, or taken for granted. Jessica subverts that trope through everyone’s deference to her, and of course, through unapologetically being herself. “That woman was tough. She could handle anything,” narrates Huang over the scene in Episode 6 where little Eddie ceases and desists with “phantom-flickering” Evan when Jessica threatens him by saying, “I could get by with only two sons. Think about that.” Through Jessica’s toughness, her dismissal of white culture, and her deep love for her family (and karaoke!), we are gifted with the opportunity to embrace an Asian American female character in all of her glorious complexity.
Fresh Off The Boat isn’t perfect. Huang’s concerns of course are completely valid. As the show progresses, there is the danger of reinforcing the status quo, of promoting white supremacy through assimilation, of giving up authenticity in favor of universality (white people love their binaries). I sincerely hope the show doesn’t go in that direction, even as the Huang family become upwardly mobile. The show will probably never reach the level of radicalness Huang envisioned, but I would be incredibly happy if it continues the way it has: questioning white culture, making jokes at the expense of white people, exploring race relations and API identity in America, challenging notions of gender within an API context, deepening and complicating its cast of well-rounded Asian American characters. The show is the first of its kind in two decades, which explains the pressure of it to be well received and successful, by both white and Asian audiences alike. That pressure is the age-old burden of representation that befalls all marginalized groups who can’t afford to be mediocre the way privileged groups can be. While this is unfair, the cast of Fresh Off The Boat is game. As Randall Park, who plays Louis, puts it perfectly in an interview with DisneyExaminer: “The hope is that, you know, the success of our show can lead to more doors being opened for Asian Americans to tell their stories.”