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 performance artist, comedian, writer Kristina Wong. Wong is the creator of “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“ and The Wong Street Journal, which premieres worldwide in April 2015 in San Francisco.
Kristina Wong: As I’m watching these episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, I’m thinking a lot about my own family, and how when I was in college, people didn’t understand how my father could be into Elvis, or capable of being charismatic and social.
Jennifer Lai: Did they peg him as a stereotypical Asian dad: stern, quiet, serious? People were always surprised when they discovered my father was this totally absurd, outwardly silly, very charming guy.
Phil Yu: Were Asian kids the ones who were saying that?
Wong: Yes, it was always other Asian kids who were surprised by my parents. I just wonder if people watch the Huangs and think, “That’s not realistic! An Asian dad wouldn’t do that!”
Wong: I’m a performance artist and writer, and when I do Q&As, I always want people to ask questions about the craft of the show or the themes. From Asian audience members it’s always, “What does your mother think?” and “How much money do you make?”
Yu: I’ve run a lot of Q&As, and that is a frequent question from Asian American audiences. They’re the only ones who want to know what the parents think.
Wong: I toured a show called “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for eight years and it’s about the high rates of depression and suicide among Asian American women. And making that show was a trip. What I learned was we don’t talk to each other. Asian Americans are excellent showpeople. A lot of these episodes of Fresh Off the Boat are about the Huangs proving themselves and their success to the community and other family members.
Lai: This episode, specifically, is about Jessica proving her success to the community, her family, and most importantly, herself. For once, she’s faced with what it might mean if she doesn’t hit that high mark of being “the best.”
Wong: It really hit a chord with me. I had all these women approach me during my show and tell me about their depression or suicide attempts. Even though I was working on a show about it, I still buy into this idea that all Asian women are perfectly put together.
Lai: This episode, if anything, made me realize that my own parents probably dealt with a lot of failures and insecurities while I was growing up. But as a kid, I had no clue. It was all behind closed doors.
Wong: Are you guys buying that the Huangs aren’t experiencing more overt racism?
Lai: I’m not buying it. Fresh Off the Boat is a sitcom, yes, but I have a tough time believing that the Huangs would have gained such acceptance from their primarily white, cookie-cutter community in such a short amount of time. The entire show revolves around this group of outsiders struggling to survive, fit in, and find their place in this new, very different environment. Assimilation and acceptance doesn’t happen that quickly for anyone.
Wong: I know it’s a sitcom, but I grew up in San Francisco which is like super Chinese and racism is still real.
Yu: I guess I have a hard time seeing how any of that could be addressed overtly in a prime time family network sitcom at 8:00pm. If this was HBO, they would have been hate-crimed by now.
Wong: But there are a few times I’ve watched some episodes and I have a little knot in my stomach, as I see how something would play out in real life, and then it gets the sitcom treatment. Like when Jessica is selling houses without a license, as I play the narrative out in my head, she’s getting a lot more people criticizing her accent and attributing her sneakiness to being a foreigner. But then she just drives away. It’s refreshing that everything isn’t ending with a hate crime.