Fresh Off The Boat Is Not The Asian-American Comedy We Need

Photo: ABC/Bob D'Amico.

When I first heard, in the spring of 2014, that Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, was being made into a television show for ABC, I was elated. The raw, excellently written autobiography reminded me of my own Asian-American suburban upbringing. Huang’s memoir is true to the Asian-American experience. It perfectly described the struggle to understand your parents and their foreign ways; the extreme prejudice found with peers at school; the difficulty of discovering yourself while balancing two polarized cultures; and the problem of finding zero Asian-American heroes to relate to in pop culture.

It's not surprising that ABC would green-light the series now, with the growing number of programs starring minority families — their own Black-ish, Fox's Empire, and the CW’s Jane the Virgin — finding success on network television. A TV show about an Asian-American family seemed fresh and new, especially considering there hasn’t been one on TV since Margaret Cho's ill-fated 1994 sitcom, All-American Girl. It was encouraging that a network seemed to finally care about Asian-Americans.

But, then I saw the trailer for the show, and I cringed. Why was this family so — as Huang would describe it — chinkified? Why do two Asian-American actors — Randall Park and Constance Wu — have such contrived Taiwanese accents? Was this how America perceived me and my family, as ching-chong caricatures whose foreign ways aren't only funny, but pitifully endearing? 
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The show (which premiered last night, but moves to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. next week) centers around the Huang family, who were uprooted from their Washington, D.C. Chinatown home to move to a primarily white neighborhood in Orlando, FL, where Louis, the father (played by Park), opens a steakhouse. Wu plays Tiger Mom Jessica, who is as protective of her family as she is suspicious of the American world. Hudson Yang is Eddie, a misunderstood 11-year-old who wears Notorious B.I.G. shirts and relates to hip-hop culture. Together, they attempt to navigate their new reality and survive the ignorant white people that surround them.

The show has been mired in controversy, almost from the beginning. First, came Eddie Huang’s 15-page essay in New York magazine that chronicled the ups and downs of having your memoir adapted into a TV series. He didn’t mince words when he lambasted the show's writers for neutering the Asian-American experience.

"This show isn't about me, nor is it about Asian-America," he wrote. "The network won't take that gamble right now... The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of American cyclope. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network's approach to pacifying them is to say we're all the same."

Huang goes on to lament that the show’s head writer is Persian-American, and calls out Hollywood for its lack of diversity. In the end, though, he acknowledges that the show is a historical achievement, even if it’s far from perfect.
Photo: ABC/Gilles Mingasson.
Then there was the marketing nightmare, when ABC’s Twitter account shared a graphic of five different ethnicities wearing five different hats: cowboy hat, turban, bamboo hat, sombrero, and kufi. The tweet read:

"The world is full of different hats. Watch the 2 Episode Premiere of #FreshOffTheBoat."

Huang, never the one to shy away from his truth, wasn't having it. He tweeted back at ABC: "You have to be a mouth breathing psycho to make that graphic."

ABC immediately took down the tweet.

With all of this brewing, it was with some trepidation that I finally sat down and watched the show. The first episode did have a few somewhat amusing moments, like when a white neighbor — surrounded by her posse of housewives — is disappointed with Mrs. Huang’s first name. "I was expecting something more exotic," she says. "But, I love Jessica."

Or, a flashback scene of Eddie facing two tourists who slowly but loudly tell him that his "English is very good."

And, I empathized with Eddie when his fellow classmates saw him as this foreigner, his teacher mispronouncing his Taiwanese name. In the lunchroom, he’s chastised for bringing noodles to school for lunch.

"Ugh, what’s that? Ying Ming is eating worms! Dude that smells nasty!" a blond kid complains.

When someone calls Eddie the "C-word" — chink  — it brought back memories of when kids in my Colorado neighborhood called me that, and how they referred to my parents' liquor store as the "local chink store." It certainly resonated with me, but I wondered if most of America would understand how the "C-word" is as derogatory to Asians as the "N-word" is for Black Americans.
Those scenes were all pretty accurate portrayals of the Asian-American experience, I'll give them that. But, then there were jokes that felt forced. In the second episode, Jessica goes to a party and perfectly slices equal-sized pieces of cake. A woman comments that it must be her communist background that gives her those skills.

In another scene, Jessica takes Eddie to an American market to find him "white people" food. She's completely perplexed by the neon signs and how pristine it is. "If we get separated, go find a white family," she tells her son. "You will be safe there until I find you." This scene only makes sense if Jessica just crawled out from under a rock. Did D.C. not have a single American store around? That seems unlikely.

What's worse are the stereotypes that both Park and Wu perpetuate. Park's Louis is emasculated, goofy, dresses like an uncool used-car salesman. And, his Chinese accent isn't even an accent — it's like he's talking with a marble forever lodged in his mouth. Wu's Jessica is insufferable as the Tiger Mom who isn’t satisfied with straight As — so much so that she asks Eddie’s principal why his school is too easy. She’s a penny pincher, chastising one of the managers at her restaurant for eating a crouton. She’s also the Minister of Destroying Fun. In one scene, she unplugs a jukebox, calculating just how much energy per second it cost her.
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The writing is poor, the jokes are unfunny, and when episode three finally ended, I turned off my computer and felt completely disappointed, if not enraged. After 20 years, this is the best that network television could do? Fresh Off The Boat is completely white-washed and neutered. There are critics who are calling this show revolutionary, arguing that it will do so much to further the country’s perceptions of Asian-Americans. I couldn’t disagree more. The show could be funny if you can laugh at the stereotypes, but it is my fear that the majority of the audience will take these jokes at face value. And, that could dangerously perpetuate misconceptions.

To be truly revolutionary, a show starring an Asian-American cast would need great scripts and good plots (think something along the lines of Modern FamilySex and the City, or Friends), where the actors just happen to be Asian-American. American first, and Asian as an afterthought. It’s not revolutionary to cast an Asian-American male lead if he’s just there taking up space for the sake of diversity. It's revolutionary to have a sexy, smart, savvy character who just happens to be of Asian descent.

That was what was so great about MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew, a show that unexpectedly furthered perceptions of Asian-Americans. Most of the dance crew winners were cool, they could dance, they were talented — and they just happened to be of Asian descent.

When I think about progress, I go back to the great '90s shows like Martin, Moesha, and the Wayans Bros., which marked a renaissance in television for Black Americans. These series' showed the Black experience through a Black lens — produced, written, and directed by Black Americans. They didn’t make caricatures out of these actors or poke fun at them. Rather, they were funny because they were the ones who were in on the jokes — they owned them. With Fresh Off the Boat, I can't help but to feel that instead of being in on the joke, I am somehow made into the joke.

And, that's why Fresh Off the Boat feels so wrong: It's a joke that makes me the outsider. It feels as if the audience is laughing at my differences at my own expense. Fresh Off The Boat might be a historic moment, but it’s not the one we were looking for.
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