My name is Christine Lee, I am Korean-American, and I watched Fresh Off the Boat — the new ABC sitcom about an Asian-American family that moves to Orlando in 1995, inspired by chef Eddie Huang’s memoir — with my white boyfriend, Orion.
Orion had never watched an Asian-American sitcom. Because there has, in the last 20 years, only been one Asian-American sitcom on television — Margaret Cho’s All American Girl in 1994 — and he missed that one. Meanwhile, I remember watching All American Girl when I was in college, and feeling so sad when it wasn’t funny.
I watched the first 10 minutes of the Fresh Off the Boat pilot by myself, just in case it sucked, like putting on lingerie before showing it off. If it wasn’t good, I was just going to stuff it way back in the closet.
No go. Orion found me giggling on the sofa watching the pilot, mid-try-on.
“What is going on?”
“You—" I gasped, “have to watch this.” Thank goodness Fresh Off the Boat was funny. But now I wondered if it would be funny to white people. I wondered what it would be like to share this moment together with Orion. What would our reactions be? Would we share any understanding? Would there be any point at which we laughed together?
Orion sat beside me as I started it over, for him.
There is a scene in the pilot in which Eddie's mother Jessica (Constance Wu) Rollerblades around with the very blonde, spandex-clad women neighbors. One of them is carrying a bag of dog poop — at Jessica’s eye level. Later, when Eddie (Hudson Yang) tells his mom that the kids made fun of his lunch at school, Jessica says through gritted teeth, “We have to make the best of it. Like I am doing with these neighborhood women. You think I like pretending Samantha isn’t carrying a baggie of dog poops in her hand? No! I don’t like this! We all see the poops there — it’s rolling around! But I am trying — you have to try too!”
She’s not the butt of the joke. Woo! She wasn’t being Long Duk Dong. She wasn’t laughed at for her accent. She didn’t have a funny bowl haircut. She didn’t smell like mothballs. Jessica was the normal one. She was the one making fun of white people.
I laughed with relief. And because Constance Wu’s comedic timing is brilliant. And because the women were ridiculous.
Also: My boyfriend laughed. Because the women were ridiculous.
But the one off-note for me — and for Orion, who brings it up first — are the accents that the Asian adults speak in. Why do they have accents? It seems like an unnecessary flourish to satisfy the masses. That I can even have this conversation with Orion is something I couldn’t have imagined as a child growing up in 1980s America. So much of what Orion and I can say to each other now are things we Asians had to keep to ourselves 30, 20 years ago. Maybe still a little bit today. But Fresh Off the Boat is representative of the conversations we can now have. And maybe being funny about it first is the way to go.
Even so, the faux accents bother me most about the show. I’m not sure they’re necessary. I don’t understand how it is that all the actors in the movie 300 can speak plain-old English (or British English, because in olden-times Greece, they spoke…British English?) but Asians in America have to always be portrayed speaking Ching-Chong-ese.
That said, the show doesn’t shy away from race in real terms. For a comedy, it’s deep. There’s one other student of color at the school, and he's African-American. Eddie finds his way to that one kid, Walter (played by Prophet Bolden), at lunch. And Walter does not bond with him — Walter knows he and Eddie are the odd boys out, and that doesn’t mean instant friendship. Walter is wary. Walter knows there is a social hierarchy in place.
Later, the one person who calls Eddie a Chink is…Walter. They are fighting over crumbs. It is the Model Minority Myth in a microcosm, the two minorities pitted against each other. It is one of many ways people of color are traditionally disempowered. In the 1960s, to quash the civil rights movement’s platform, the Model Minority Myth was created as a response — “if these new immigrants from Asia can succeed in America, why can’t you?” And many Asian-Americans bought into that myth — because it’s superficially a flattering one. But this divide-and-conquer tactic has left a wound wherein minority groups often battle one another. Fresh Off the Boat doesn’t ignore this dynamic.
At school, there is a table of white boys, the “in-crowd,” or at least, a crowd more “in” than Eddie sitting one table over. The implicit leader of that group is named Brock. Eddie braces himself for ridicule. But when Brock asks Eddie about his Notorious B.I.G. T-shirt and invites Eddie to sit with his friends, Eddie eagerly saunters over. A rejected Walter rolls his eyes and says, “A white dude, and an Asian dude, bonding over a black dude. This cafeteria is ridiculous.”
But life is ridiculous, Walter. I’m laughing hard. So is Orion.
And then Eddie opens his lunch to reveal Chinese noodles. He gets kicked out of the table, because the food smells different and weird, and goes back to Walter, who responds, “Oh? It didn’t go well? The white people didn’t welcome you with open arms? Wuuut? Sit elsewhere, B.I.G.”
“Ohhhh!” said Orion. He is a child of hippies. His family did not eat sugar and he did not bring Twinkies to school as a child. He also was not allowed to watch television. He gets not fitting in.
Outside of its social responsibility and outside of representation, Fresh Off the Boat’s responsibility is to itself. To keep it real. To tell its own story. To be specific to itself. And in its specificity lies universality. When we eavesdrop on someone’s story that contains no generalities or stereotypes, a crystal clear picture emerges. It isn’t just about “lots of Asian-Americans own restaurants” but more about “Eddie Huang’s father owns a steakhouse called Cattlemen’s Ranch — he doesn’t serve chop suey and all his employees are white and he has a very positive relationship with each of them. And that restaurant is failing.” My white, third generation, three-eighths British, one-eighth Swedish, and half Italian-American boyfriend and I both are able to relate to being a fish out of water, to a failing business, and to good work relationships.
In Home Sweet Home-School, Eddie gets straight A's and his (white) friend gets straight C's. Both pump the air with victory. And then later, a (white) family assembles at Cattlemen’s Ranch and you can overhear them launch their meals with, “Cheers to our son for getting straight C’s!”
“That was never my experience,” said Orion. “C’s were never OK.”
“Really?” I asked. “It felt like white kids could get C’s and not get beat with a belt when I was growing up!” Now I’m learning.
In The Shunning episode, Eddie's father Louis (Randall Park) greets his next-door neighbor Marvin’s much younger wife, Honey. They have been out of town on vacation until this episode. Louis says to Marvin, “You took your daughter on such a nice vacation?” And then has to backpedal. “Of course she’s your wife — she doesn’t look like you.” Heh. Heh. Ahem.
The neighborhood shuns Honey — but the women are suddenly super-inclusive with Jessica. But Honey eats Jessica’s stinky tofu when everyone else in the neighborhood won’t touch it. That fact doesn’t escape Jessica, who crosses lines and befriends Honey.
My mom always told me that if people like your food, then it’s because they like you. I said this aloud to Orion. He says, “Food is a litmus test — if you can eat other people’s food you’ve never seen before, it’s a willingness to understand.”
I grew up eating fermented miso stews and kimchi in the 1970s and 1980s. My mom could not cook a pot of spaghetti sauce to save her life — once, someone told her that their secret ingredient in sauce was celery. So my mom chopped up some celery and sprinkled it over tomatoes she’d boiled for five minutes. And then served it. Boom. We happily ate Prego after that.
But my mom was expert at Korean food. And yet — it was the thing I couldn’t share with the world, save for a few items like fried mandu or vermicelli noodles. Everything else got ridiculed. Everything else was too weird and smelly. Everything else no one touched. And anyone who tried kimchi and didn’t make a face afterward? Who went for seconds? Instant inner circle.
At the end of the pilot, Louis says he brought the family to Orlando to toughen up. “I’m sorry for what happened to Eddie, but it’s going to make him stronger … I came down here and I opened a Wild West restaurant, because this is the Wild West! A lawless land for only the bravest of families!”
He says this, dead serious, while waving his hands in a near-quiet suburban school playground. I chuckled. My parents moved us from New York City to the California suburbs when we were young. It was a rough move.
But Orion asked, “I don’t get it — why did he take them to the suburbs to toughen up?”
I had to explain that the upper-middle-class suburbs — mainstream white America — is the Wild West for Asian-Americans. So for as much as the show may cater to a white audience (i.e., those horrible faux accents), there is something for “us.” And for many Asian-Americans — whether here by adoption, immigration, or born here — so much of life here as Americans is the desire to be accepted, and the rubrics for acceptance. In that sense, Fresh Off the Boat is universal in its theme. Aren’t we all trying to figure out how to fit in?
Orion and I are learning things, together. It feels good.