Brow Beat

Asian Fetishes and the “Immigrant Hustle” in Fresh Off the Boat 

Randall Park.

Courtesy ABC

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 Bao Phi, performance poet and social activist. He is a program director of Loft Literary Center and is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and National Poetry Slam finalist. He has appeared on HBO’s Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, and in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology.

Jennifer Lai:  Something about this episode really bothered me. When Louis Huang’s restaurant billboard was vandalized with the word “thief,” Jessica was immediately convinced that it was a hate crime. Of course, we later find out that it’s not really racially motivated at all—Louis did actually steal the Golden Saddle’s steakhouse concept, franchise manual and all.

Was this Fresh off the Boat’s way of demonstrating that “people shouldn’t make everything about race”?

Bao Phi: That made me really uncomfortable too. To play devil’s advocate, you could argue that the episode was saying that because non-white people encounter racism so much on the daily, it can’t help but to inform our lens, and maybe sometimes what we go through isn’t racism. But that’s dangerous fire to play with on network television. Most people seeing that will think, “See, racism against Asians doesn’t exist and it’s all in their head. And really, they brought it upon themselves.”

Phil Yu: Here’s the thing though. Do Asians have a widespread reputation for crying out about racism? Bao, you and I know that we’re the first in line to start shit when we see anti-Asian racism. But I’m not sure that’s a common perception—and definitely not on network television.

Lai: What I found particularly illuminating was that though Jessica doesn’t know a lot about the Daytona 500 or what to pack Eddie for “American lunch,” she IS very aware of how Asians are treated and perceived in America. She is quick to call it.

Yu: She watches a lot of Nightly News.

Phi:  I have to temper my expectations because on the real, I watch tons of TV shows that try to be ambitious regarding race and gender, etc. that often fail: The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Lost, and, well, pretty much everything.

Lai: I found myself wondering how many non-Asian viewers were legitimately scratching their heads at Jessica’s thought process, asking themselves, “how in the world did she mistake it for a hate crime?”

[At least] Louis didn’t shame her for assuming it was a hate crime. And none of the white characters questioned Jessica, either—they all took her seriously. In fact, Honey even encouraged Jessica to talk to their local councilman.

Phi: And then the white dude had an Asian fetish, which I thought was a hilarious touch.

I’ve been pondering whether the show is good at portraying racial stereotypes between people, and not so successful dealing with systemic racism.

Yu: I think it’s rare to have a show so boldly address these issues of interpersonal racism and microagressions, especially with Asian Americans at the center—and in a funny way. But systemic racism? I think that comes when the viewer steps back and looks at the sum total of the show and its impact. It’s a tall order.

The show is very good at depicting the immigrant hustle. It hasn’t been very good about showing how hard that can be.