TV Review: Fresh off the Boat
Premiered February 4, 2015 on ABC
I watched the pilot of “Fresh off the Boat” with apprehension, and it was disappointing. Sure, there were some poignant scenes like the bully teasing Eddie about his chow mien lunch, and how his parents stood up for him before the principal of the school when Eddie was called a “chink,” but Eddie Huang’s on-screen family bore numerous other frustrating inaccuracies.The polished look of the mother with impeccable makeup and outfits, along with her not-quite-right Chinese accent, and the lack of any accent at all on the father’s end didn’t quite click in my mind. Scenes like the juxtaposition between the mother and her rollerskating suburban plastics made me cringe, and my suspension of disbelief wasn’t strong enough to overrule the casual, conversational references made to American personalities (sure, a kid who adores Biggie might make constant allusions to the rapper, but his immigrant parents from another culture certainly wouldn’t drop something like “that’s so like a sluttier Madonna”). Not to mention the terribly spoken Mandarin on the show. However, thankfully, the show grew on me and the second episode was much better than the first. I was especially won over by the contrast between the tiger mother and the father wearing rose-colored lenses, where Constance Wu’s character’s stereotypical Asian stinginess and strict parenting clash with Randall Park’s character’s romanticism, rooted in his faith in the American dream and the goodness of people.
I didn’t understand how network television, the one-size fits-all antithesis to Fresh Off the Boat, was going to house the voice of a futuristic chinkstronaut. I began to regret ever selling the book, because Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific narrative about SPECIFIC moments in my life, such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time. The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane. But who is that show written for?
After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience. I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble right now. You can’t flash an ad during THE GAME with some chubby Chinese kid running across the screen talking shit about spaceships and Uncle Chans in 2014 because America has no reference….… It doesn’t sound like much, but it is. Those three minutes are the holy trinity Melvin, Randall, Constance, Hudson, Forrest, Ian, and I sacrificed everything for. Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad…
A few weeks after we taped, Melvin kept blowing up my phone.
“We tested the show, and there may or may not be a handful of butt-hurt white people …”
“Maybe. But listen, white people keep you on the air. They have to feel included. If people understand our perspective, they won’t be offended. So I pitched them an idea. We gotta hold the viewer’s hand through this because they’ve never been inside an Asian-American home before.”