Arts, Television, Column

A ‘Fresh’ Take On Asian-Americans In Television

The months leading up to the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat, ABC’s newest sitcom series, were defined by ambivalence. I feared another cringe-inducing slew of Asian-American stereotypes, from Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Sixteen Candles’ racially insensitive Long Duk Dong. And while the 2014 fall network schedule celebrated a more diverse year in television—from The Mindy Project, starring and created by Mindy Kaling, to ABC’s Black-ish, to the CW’s Jane the Virgin—the diversity gap on the small screen was far from bridged.

The first comedy series to feature an all-Asian central cast since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl aired for one season in 1994, Fresh Off the Boat follows 12-year-old Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) and his Taiwanese family’s move from Washington D.C. to a prosperous all-white suburb in Orlando, Fla. in search of the elusive “American Dream.” Based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of growing up in Orlando with Asian immigrant parents who ran a steakhouse, Fresh Off the Boat is unafraid to take on issues of race and assimilation.

The central protagonist, Eddie, is depicted as a misfit in many ways. More interested in the Wu-Tang Clan and his other hip-hop idols than earning straight As, Eddie finds himself alienated from his family and struggles to fit in at an all-white school. Assimilation is a pivotal theme for the series—from Eddie’s father, Louis Huang (Randall Park) who seems to embrace American culture to Eddie’s brothers, Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), who receive immediate social acceptance from their peers. The first few episodes focus on Eddie’s difficulties with assimilation, from his “smelly” Asian food to being called a derogatory racial term during a lunchroom confrontation. While Fresh Off the Boat uses humor to bring common racial stereotypes to light, the series examines racism through the lens of an all-Asian cast for the first time in 20 years—a feat in itself to be celebrated.

The character of Jessica Huang (Constance Wu), Eddie’s overbearing mother who resents the relocation from D.C.’s Chinatown, has been subject to both critical praise and scrutiny. Wu has been commended in her break-out role for her fleshed-out depiction of a traditional Asian immigrant parent and critiqued for her perpetuation of the “Tiger mom” trope. While Jessica may cater to common Asian stereotypes—such as her frugality, her inability to tell her children “I love you,” and her inclination to push Eddie to excel in academics—she also teaches her son about consent and date rape in tandem with the traditional “sex talk,” something we rarely see on network television. Wu portrays a mother figure whose parenting style is a product of her cultural background. The important distinction is that while Asian mothers like Jessica Huang do exist, she is not meant to represent every woman of a similar ethnic background.

Fresh Off the Boat has faced pressure to both represent and give nuance to the experience of growing up Asian in America. While the show’s first few episodes rely heavily on making fun of white people for humor, the series’ depiction of how people of color were treated during the 1990s raises social commentary on race relations in America. In one poignant scene, we watch as Eddie gains temporary social acceptance from his white peers for wearing a Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt. His black classmate then remarks on the hypocrisy of his non-black peers forming a bond with one another over a black artist while he remains friendless and sits alone at lunch. The show’s title itself, “Fresh Off the Boat,” is that appropriation of a term that has commonly been used to demean Asian immigrants who fail to assimilate into mainstream American culture, and reclaims the phrase as its own.

Real-life Eddie Huang has lamented the show’s forfeit of genuine lived-in experiences for mainstream accessibility and “telling white American stories with Chinese faces.” Fresh Off the Boat is still fresh, with gimmicky themes and jokes that sometimes fall flat, and the characters should not be regarded as universal representation for all Asian-Americans, but as narrative of one specific family. However, Fresh has been embraced by wide audiences and features an strong Asian cast—an impressive claim considering people of color have grown accustomed to being misrepresented on television (either through invisibility or hyper-visible stereotypes.) The show is taking a step in the right direction, albeit not without a few stumbles.

Featured Image Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television

March 22, 2015