Mo’ Diversity, Mo’ Problems

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.

An aside: my thoughts on the accuracy of “FOB” come with a caveat, since Eddie Huang’s experience wasn’t quite my own. I can identify with some of the experiences portrayed in the show, but coming from a part of the US where Asian Americans are pretty dominant (the SF Bay Area), I certainly do not fully understand being the token Asian in a white community. So I leave some wiggle room in my judgement for those whose experiences might have more fully mirrored that of Eddie’s.

As referenced above, “FOB” is based off Eddie Huang’s memoir, reflective of his life as a first generation Taiwanese American, growing up in Florida with parents who struggled to keep their restaurant afloat. Since the show is clearly representing his situation, it is interesting to see what he thinks of it. His first reaction is that it is horribly inaccurate as well:

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?

However, his opinion evolves:
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…

Reviewers of the show have expressed concern about the seemingly stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayals, but like Eddie Huang came to realize, I am in agreement that it is fantastic start to putting Asian-Americans on the screen. “FOB” had a rocky start, in my opinion, but it also addresses parts of the Asian-American experience that have never been depicted in American television. Already from the second episode, I see great potential for these characters to grow into personalities with many shades of grey, or to at least portray the subtleties of the clash between American and Asian culture (at least, Taiwanese/Chinese), and the soul searching that results in the Asian-American child.

I am of the optimistic opinion that portrayal of Asian-Americans will certainly develop beyond their stereotypes. To demonstrate why I think this evolution will happen, Eddie poses the pertinent question of “Who is “FOB”s target audience?” One answer, if we’re putting on the thinking caps of ABC corporate heads, is that the audience is the growing Asian population and to a rapidly diversifying American. While everybody still love the big blockbusters and new iterations of “Friends” (read “How I Met Your Mother”) with white leads, I bet Asian-Americans like myself perk up when American media puts an Asian in the lead position. As such, there is huge earning potential in the Asian-American market for media producers. However, and it makes sense from a corporate perspective, it is also for white Americans who still comprise the vast majority of the US. Therefore, at this iteration, this time in the depiction of Asian-Americans, it is necessary to still have a foot in the arena of good ole American humor, while tentatively testing the waters of Asian viewership. Plus, in order to introduce a culture that many in America still find extremely exotic and foreign to the American public, it is perhaps necessary to ease people in with at least a sense of humor they can relate to and to start off with stereotypes that are familiar. Eddie says it more eloquently than me:

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 …”

“Success!”

“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.”

However, as the trend is turning towards a less “white America”, with predictions that by 2060 the percentage of white Americans will be down to 43% from 85% in 1960, I hope that more and more, in order to engage and not offend the precise populations they portray, future predominately “ethnic” shows will become more nuanced and reflective of true culture. Perhaps so much so that a future iteration of “Friends” will be a diverse cast without each “ethnic” character reduced to their racial stereotype.

“FOB” is a starting point, and Eddie Huang understands this.
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