Brow Beat

The Art of Saving Face in Fresh Off the Boat

Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, and Randall Park in Fresh Off The Boat.


It’s been a full two decades since prime-time television has seen an Asian American family sitcom. But ABC’s new show Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, is changing that. Though the very first Asian American family sitcom, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, was canceled due to poor ratings and lack of interest back in 1995, Fresh Off the Boat has already stirred up considerable buzz. It’s also a significant moment for many Asian Americans, who have largely been excluded or misrepresented when it comes to the mainstream.

But testing the waters won’t be easy for Fresh Off the Boat. Will the show resonate with a non-Asian audience? Will it manage to undermine stereotypes or end up reinforcing them? Will its jokes be lame?

So we wanted to discuss the series from an Asian American point of view. This week, Slate’s Jennifer Lai will be joined by Phil Yu, creator of the blog Angry Asian Man, along with Philip Wang, one of the creators of Wong Fu Productions.

Jennifer Lai:  This show really wants us to know how cheap Jessica is. It’s kind of like a very long riff on ”cheap immigrant” stereotype.

Philip Wang: You know, I felt like this many episodes in, they could have dialed back the cheapness. Some might disagree, but at this point, we get it.

Lai: Come on. No one would haggle with a grocery store clerk for a Popsicle. Not even immigrant Asian mothers.

Wang: It is a character. No one ever got on Dwight for being too annoying, or Joey for being too dumb.

Lai: What about Eddie? He seems to be hanging out with the white kids at lunch, without any major issues. Has he finally made it?

Phil Yu: I think he’s gradually fitting in. The crew assembled here is kind of motley group of regular kids. I certainly wouldn’t characterize these as the “cool” kids.

Lai: But I laughed so hard at that kid asking Eddie, “Aren’t you Japanese though?”

Yu: MY FAVORITE LINE.  “You shut your damn mouth.”

Yu: There had to be at least one joke addressing the fact that America often has a problem seeing us as one big Asian monolith. Eddie spoke for me right there.

Yu: Frankly, I get annoyed that people feel the need to know. I was at the liquor store and the clerk asked me, “What are you?” I caved and said I was Korean. The guy was like, “Cool. My friends are Filipino.”

Wang: I can see your point. But at the same time, if they’re genuinely curious, and want to know, I’d rather have them ask rather than assume I’m something else. I want that identity.

Lai: This episode’s whole “Parent Lectures Child On The Meaning of Hard Work” narrative was pretty universal—that is, it wasn’t necessarily limited to the Asian American experience. But Louis Huang’s troubled relationship with his own father (which Grandma Huang briefly mentioned at the end) felt very Asian to me.  

Wang: Yes. The father’s relationship to the grandfather and how that was portrayed on screen felt very close to me—my own dad has that faded black and white portrait of his father in the house too, and he, like Louis, always talks about how much he did for the family. Plus, that strained father-son dynamic is huge in so many Asian families.  

Lai: But in contrast, there’s Louis’ relationship with little Eddie. The fact that they have such an open relationship is honestly pretty aspirational for Asian Americans.

Wang: I think that generation had a lot of communication problems within their families. Our parents came here for a better life, tried to assimilate, and I’m sure wanted to have a different relationship with their children. Culture and society just didn’t allow for it.

The Full House hug moment definitely didn’t happen in my home as a kid.

Lai: But Louis has a tough job here! He’d like to teach Eddie the value of money and hard work (and avoid raising an entitled American brat) by taking a strict, hardass approach like his own father did, but he also knows that route isn’t exactly healthy either.

Yu: Jessica and Louis actually struggle with the fact that their kid wants this coveted video game and has a hard time fitting in. They actually think about getting him some video game about a basketball player doing karate. My mom would have said HELL NO and that would be the end of it.

Wang: My mom definitely tried to help me fit in and make our family more westernized. Like when it was Halloween time, and she knew everyone was dressing up for school, she’d make me costumes. I wanted to be ninja turtle one year, and she wrapped green fabric around a wok and tied it to my back. That’s my go-to immigrant Asian mom story.

Yu: That’s amazing.

Wang: She also found out I was trading my snacks at lunch time and told me not to do that anymore and just ask her… probably a saving face thing there.

Lai: The concept of saving face is huge for Asians. I’m honestly surprised there haven’t been more situations related to saving face on Fresh off the Boat so far. It seems like the only moment so far was the competition between Jessica’s sister’s family and the Huangs.

Yu: But doesn’t it seem like the issue of “saving face” is between Asians and other Asians? It hasn’t come up so much on this show because frankly, the Huangs do not give a fuck about what other white people think of them.

Lai: Good point. It’s not really keeping up with the Joneses. It’s more like keeping up with the Lins.