So I have a confession to make: I’ve been a big fan of celebrity chef Eddie Huang ever since a roommate convinced me to split on an order of BaoHaus chicken baos. Huang has an impressive vision when it comes to food, with bold flavors that sing and blend together to create a harmonious culinary treat—literally heaven on a bun with fried chicken and tender bao. In addition, Huang’s gifts extend beyond the kitchen, though: he’s a writer with a brash, unapologetic voice and a knack for storytelling, especially that tried and true tale of the “underdog”.
Which leads us to today’s story about ABC’s newest “Asian-American” sitcom, Fresh off the Boat. Loosely based off of Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, this show is the first Asian-American lead sitcom in over 20 years—so there’s a lot of expectations, and fears, riding on this show. Will it fall to stereotypes? Will it boost interest in Asian-American leads? What does it mean for the community at large? Etc.
Thankfully, Fresh off the Boat does a pretty good job in towing the lines between safe, nostalgic, and fresh to make a rather memorable—and poignant—show.
ABC’s Fresh off the Boat follows the misadventures of a Taiwanese-American family, the Huangs, in the early 90s. The Huangs move away from the familiarity of a thriving Asian-American community in DC to start anew in a predominantly white subdivision in Orlando, Florida. Culture clash hijinks abound as young Eddie, a first-gen immigrant kid, his brothers, and his enterprising parents navigate a whole new community and find their own place in “real” American culture.
The family is sweet in a dysfunctional way—though isn’t that the way of most sitcoms? Randall Park plays a very loveable businessman-type as the family patriarch, Louis. His genuine belief in the goodness of other people and his faith in his (sort of failing) restaurant is tempered by show-stealer, Constance Wu. Wu plays Jessica, the family matriarch, and leading anti-Tiger Mom, who plays the voice of reason to Louis’ romanticized vision of a America, and sends her kids off with good food and the “tough love” treatment when her family whines. Her streak for practicality is balanced by strong loyalty and love to her family. She also has some of my most favorite, memorable lines and a sarcastic streak that makes her a joy to watch on screen. Even the kids—Eddie, Emery, and Evan—are all played by talented young actors who bring their characters to life with such sincerity that their antics are far from staged.
Of particular note is Eddie, played by the very talented Hudson Yang. He is an interesting main character—especially within the context of the American film narrative that likes to pigeon-hole Asians into the realms of “nerd” or a straight-up Asian caricature. Instead, Eddie is a rebellious sort, but also someone who is keenly aware of his “outsider” status within American culture. The episodes, narrated from Eddie’s POV, illustrate a world in which an Asian-American kid views his world operating within hierarchies and rules—extremely grave stuff for an elementary school student to mull over within the first few minutes of the pilot.
In fact, one of the most poignant scenes—that hit home for a lot of first-gen Asian-Americans like me—was during Eddie’s first lunch at his new school. Wanting to fit in, he plays up his knowledge of popular rappers to get a seat with a table of white kids. (The irony is not lost on the only African-American student at the school) While the other students prescribe to a diet of Lunchables, Eddie whips out a Tupperware of noodles—only to be met with scorn and the public humiliation of rejection as his classmates tell him to take away his “gross” and “smelly” food elsewhere.
It’s funny, it’s thoughtful, it brings up those wry memories of being told the same thing in elementary school (“Ew that’s so gross; what the heck are you eating?”), but the emotional punch of this exchange is of course, livened up by a well-placed gag and then we move on.
But it’s moments like this that makes Fresh Off the Boat such an entertaining sitcom.
The theme of “outsiders” carries in most of the family arcs (Emery and Evan seem to have an easier time getting used to their new surroundings for throw-away gags). For instance, Jessica has lost the support of her friends in DC and most navigate the (weird) social structures of middle-class, white suburbia; in a very impressive gag, Louis suggests that he needs to specifically hire white staff so that his customers can feel more comfortable by seeing them instead of him. Meanwhile, Eddie battles with the constant tension between wanting to assimilate into American culture, while also repping his own identity—whatever that may ultimately be as he grows during this season.
Of course, the show isn’t without its problems. There has been some concern over the use of “Asian accents,” though Constance Wu has defended her reasoning for giving Jessica her accent. There is also controversy concerning Eddie Huang and his belief that his characters have been caricatured, that his creative processes were stymied and undermined so that the show is, essentially, not at all what he envisioned or even wanted.
However, I do believe that there is still something important about having Fresh Off the Boat on television screens–especially with its tension between humor and heart, making it perhaps has one of the most entertaining depiction of the immigrant experience I’ve seen in recent years. It certainly does not define every Asian-American experience; but it does find common ground for many of us first-gen kids who see ourselves (and our parents) in the antics of the Huang family.
Overall, Fresh Off the Boat is something to look out for, and something that I hope opens up dialogue—not only amongst other Asian-American kids as we reminisce about lunch debacles and summer Kumon classes—but also for the average viewer to consider the “outsider” perspective, with a careful touch of humor.