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 culture writer and Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang, coincidentally also the father of Hudson Yang, who plays Eddie on the show.
Lai: It seems like the Huangs have finally achieved the American dream: Cattleman’s Ranch is doing incredibly well, Jessica’s landed a successful job and even holds regular Melrose Place dates with the neighborhood ladies, and Eddie, despite his rocky start as “that Chinese kid,” has now been elected class president. And then there’s the ultimate indicator of success: Jessica and Louis have been invited to join Orlando’s very swanky country club. (You know you’ve made it when you have a white valet!)
But all it takes is just one passing, admittedly-racist comment from Honey’s husband—“Sometimes I forget you guys are Chinese. You guys are just like regular old Americans to us”—for Jessica to suddenly question everything they’ve gained since moving to Orlando. Have the Huangs paid the ultimate price to become successful? Have they lost their heritage and, therefore, themselves in the process?
Yu: “Regular old American.” That hurts.
Yang: Yeah, the “regular” part is kind of the twist to the blade. This episode is basically the culmination of the two main arcs of the first season. Jessica, who is at first resistant to assimilating into “American” culture, finds herself assimilating too readily. Eddie, meanwhile, has from the beginning been trying to carve out an identity for himself that’s not locked into his family’s Chinese ways.
Lai: Right. It was incredibly fitting that the central question of Fresh Off The Boat’s finale was “Are the Huangs Chinese enough?” After all, that’s the very question that we, as viewers, have been struggling with for the entire season: whether or not Fresh Off The Boat has been Chinese or “authentic” enough. Pretty meta.
Yang: Yes, I feel on some level like this episode asks the question that we should be asking ourselves: Do the politics of authenticity even make sense, in an era of fluid identities and nuanced and idiosyncratic perspectives? Yes, the finale ends on a typical sitcom gag beat, but this episode takes some pretty subversive and provocative paths to get there.
Lai: It begs the question, “Was it ever possible for the Huangs to be ‘Chinese’ enough?” Or, ha, was it ever possible for Fresh Off The Boat to be “Asian” enough?
Yu: We’ve spent the whole season getting to know this family when Jessica suddenly questions their own “Chineseness” and overcompensates by going way overboard. She looks ridiculous in that cheongsam, because that’s not her. It’s funny, because this episode almost goes into the territory of “chopsticks.” And clearly, that’s ridiculous.
Yang: Yes. We actually see that Jessica’s idea of “Chineseness” is in some ways as fantastical as her neighbor Deirdre’s.
Lai: But for Jessica to judge her family for “not being Chinese enough,” she first has to define what being Chinese is. Is it not wearing shoes in the house? Is it going to Chinese school? Is it eating chicken feet and thousand-year-old eggs (which are delicious, by the way?) Or is it shunning “American” things?
Yu: I love how they finally addressed the shoe thing—it’s been a BURNING QUESTION ALL SEASON.
Yang: Seriously. People kept tweeting me about that, enraged.
Yu: The frothing masses will finally get their answer.
Yang: But the shoe thing is actually a meaningful hint. Jessica and Louis are far from “fresh off the boat”; they went to college in the U.S., they have accents but their vocabularies are not like most recent immigrants’ at all. Chineseness represents resistance to Jessica, just like hip-hop represents resistance to Eddie. And in both cases, it’s in a somewhat idealized, simplistic sense.
In this episode, we see both of these ideas—Chineseness as resistance, hip-hop (and blackness) as resistance—being challenged.
Lai: Jessica equates liking American culture (in her case, Melrose Place and mac & cheese) with being “weak.” That deep shame she feels about her Chineseness is very real, and, I’d also argue, very much related to her generation. You don’t see Grandma Huang worrying about her Chineseness even though she watches NASCAR, eats Combos, and loves OJ Simpson.
Yu: Weirdly enough, this episode actually felt a bit like an episode of Black-ish—especially in the early Black-ish eps I watched, a lot of the show revolved around the father’s anxious efforts to uphold a certain standard of black identity within his family.
Yang: This is Jessica’s “Chinese-ish” episode. The bottom line for the episode was that Chineseness isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. Not a bad moral for a cultural identity story.
There are some people who will surely ask if the show is essentializing blackness. Like, when real-life Eddie Huang’s voiceover says, “I became my school’s first black president.” Or Eddie’s desire to be Jamaican instead of China in the culture festival. Eddie is reacting to being seen as alien (and not even a part of the American conversation) by choosing to embrace what he sees as a position on the American spectrum of race that is, in his view, nonwhite and nevertheless strong, outspoken and culturally relevant in a way that he doesn’t believe being Chinese ever could be.
But of course his sense of what hip-hop is all about is undeveloped. Of course his understanding of black culture and identity is naive. People forget that four months before this season began, he was rocking a Rugrats shirt and had never even heard of hip hop before. This is the season of his awakening.
Lai: In the end, he’s still just a boy.
Do you guys have any thoughts, reflections, or hopes for future seasons of Fresh Off The Boat?
Yang: I think the logical extension of the finale is for the show to add more Asians (who are not Chinese) and more black Americans into the narrative. We need to meet Walter’s 40-year-old best friend.*
Yu: I see a Season 5 trip to Taiwan. The Chinese school scene was also ripe for more exploration—I echo the desire to see the Huangs interact with more Asians.
Lai: Jeff, at one of the first community viewing parties of the show, MSNBC anchor Richard Lui asked your son: “What does it mean to be Asian American?” Silence from Hudson. From what I remember, it was Eddie Huang himself who jumped on the mic at that point and said something along the lines of “He’s just a little kid, man.” I was relieved; it’s a tough question to ask an adult, let alone an 11-year-old! How have you talked to Hudson about what it means to be Asian American?
Yang: This is what is kind of remarkable with Hudson and his Asian American age-peers, at least the ones at his school. They don’t really think about what it “means” to be Asian American because it just comes naturally to them.
Hudson understands that what he’s doing is hugely meaningful for Asian Americans of my age (and your ages), but for him, he doesn’t particularly feel like an outsider because of his race or ethnicity. I mean, his school is 30 percent Asian. And yes, the whole school is kind of nerdy, but he and other Asian kids are among the cooler nerds in the nerdarchy.
For him, it’s not like he’s at the bottom of the dogpile, walking in the door, you know? And everything Asian is cool in his set. Everything. Food, music, games, whatever.
Lai: What have you two discussed in terms of your own experiences as an Asian American?
Yang: I’ve tried to explain to him that I’d bring weird stuff to school like dumplings and sushi and kids would mock me. And he’ll just be sitting there, his eyes glazed and his mouth watering. Suuuushi…
Yu: The kid seems to take it all with a shrug.
Lai: He seems aware of all of this stuff, but it’s still not his experience growing up.
Yang: He’s conscious, but not self-conscious.
Lai: I know that you’ve said it was incredibly important for you to let Hudson read Fresh Off The Boat, even though a lot of the topics in the book might be deemed inappropriate for an 11-year-old. How did you navigate all the sex, drugs, and hip-hop?
Yang: I actually told him to stop reading at a certain chapter, a chapter before a certain set of adolescent sexual explorations took place. Naturally, he ignored me and read the whole book. I’m still answering questions to this day.
Lai: Did you feel like it was important for him to understand who real-life-Eddie was, and not just ABC’s TV-version of Eddie?
Yang: Yeah. I have to admit, though, it has been confusing and a little painful for Hudson to see Eddie move away from the show. He actually asked me if it was because he didn’t do a good job, which was a gut punch.
I assured him that no, that wasn’t the case, that sometimes these things happen. But seriously…as much as I’ve tried to keep him away from Twitter and stories that are out there, people do ask him what he thinks about it. And I don’t think he quite knows what to think.
Lai: And how do you feel about it?
Yang: I respect Huang’s opinion and talent greatly and think he has been a critical voice pushing the show to be better and sharper. I wish he were able to see the show as more of a parallel world / brand extension as opposed to an overwriting of his necessary and still-ongoing story. But I understand his reaction—it’s a visceral one, given his personal background and his strong artistic sensibilities.
Eddie once said that he saw this show as “for the kids,” and that really resonated with me. That’s what it is for me, too. Not just a particular kid — that is to say, my son—but for all the kids out there who have never seen something like this. It’s important. It certainly has been important for the kid inside me.
Correction, April 22, 2015: This post originally misidentified who said that they’d like to see more Asians and black Americans added into the narrative. It was Jeff Yang, not Phil Yu.