Fresh Off The Boat: More Yellow-ish than Black-ish
It’s hard not to compare Fresh Off The Boat with Black-ish, ABC’s other “ethnic” sitcom. Both sitcoms start very much in the same way, aggressively setting the stage for what it means to be a racial minority in America. Black-ish’s pilot episode went out of its way to tell the audience that this was a show with a defined perspective. Unlike the ABC mainstays The Middle or Modern Family, Black-ish wants you to understand that this show is about a Black family and the specific anxieties that a black upper-middle class family would have in contemporary America.
So, Black-ish’s pilot episode has the patriarch of the Johnson family, Dre, complain about being promoted to run the “Urban” division at his marketing firm, assuming that his promotion is both a sign of tokenism and also based the assumption that the only thing he is qualified to do is market to an “Urban” community. We also find out that Dre’s son Andre Jr., has joined his school’s field hockey team, much to Dre’s dismay. Dre tries to convince his son to try out for the basketball team because it’s a sport that is, and perhaps this is the point the show is trying to make, stereotypically black. These anxieties are ones that you won’t find on other family sitcoms on television, which may have a point of view, but don’t have this particular point of view.
Fresh Off The Boat enters prime-time American television swinging for the fences in the same way, with a pilot episode that emphatically tells you that this is a family sitcom very much about what it is like to be Chinese in America. There are many small moments of racial anxiety that are either pulled from Eddie Huang’s memoir or through anecdotes that many Asian-Americans (and really, Asian-Canadians) could identify with.
The show begins by explaining why Eddie identifies so much with Black culture: “If you’re an outsider, hip-hop was your anthem”. For a race that is seen as the “model minority” in North America, assimilation is very much encouraged by the community at large. Eddie’s mother tells him not to make any waves, to try to fit in, and the very first thing he does at school is stop his teacher from butchering his Chinese name and introduces himself as “Eddie”. There is an implicit understanding that assimilation is the best way to avoid persecution, and calling yourself Eddie instead of Yi Ming will make Eddie’s life easier as much as it would make the white teacher’s life easier. But for a child who sees himself as the “black sheep” of the family, hip-hop is a way for him to both assimilate into American culture, but also resist it. Yes, he erases his cultural identity by calling himself Eddie, but he also identifies with Nas and B.I.G., reclaiming some aspect of his Other-ness in a way that everyone in American can understand.
One of the conflicts that Eddie faces is drawn from an experience that many Asian children can probably identify with – being sent to school with an “ethnic lunch”. When Eddie unpacks his mother’s lunch, the other kids in the cafeteria tell him that his food “smells” and ostracize him for eating something different. Eddie, just wanting to assimilate comfortably into the school, chooses to reject the food that he “loves” (as we are told by his mother), and wants his mom to buy him “white people food” or specifically, Lunchables. In a society that asks for conformity and ostracizes difference, embracing the pre-packed lunch is the perfect way for Eddie to try to fit in with the rest of the kids at his school. As his mother quips when she sees that every single Lunchables box is exactly the same, “You want to fit inside a box? That’s so American”.
But life is never that easy, and trying to
fall in line with the rest of society doesn’t mean that you still won’t stand
out. Rejecting his Chinese name and
rejecting Chinese food doesn’t change the one undeniable fact that Eddie cannot
change: he is still Chinese. So in
climax of the episode, we have what the real Eddie Huang described as “two kids
of color forced to battle each other at the bottom of America’s totem pole on
The only Black kid at school and the only Chinese kid at school are pitted against each other by the implicit racism that pervades the culture of the student body, and we get perhaps the most honest moment of the pilot when the Black kid tells Eddie: “You’re the one at the bottom now. It’s my turn, chink”. Literally, the kid tells Eddie that it’s his turn to use the microwave at the cafeteria. Figuratively, he is trying to say that he is tired of being the one to stand out at school and sees himself as more “white” than Eddie ever will be. It’s a sad moment that speaks to the racial politics in North America, where the people at the “bottom of America’s totem pole” fight each other for the scraps of acceptance. You’re not meant to blame the Black kid for calling Eddie a “chink”, you’re meant to blame society for putting both of these vulnerable kids in a position where that has to happen in the first place.
The show’s denouement provides a turn that explains the ethos of the Asian-American family. We learn that Eddie violently responds to being called a chink and retaliates in kind, and when the school tells Eddie’s parents that Eddie might be suspended, they respond using the very mechanisms that produce white privilege. Eddie’s mother tells the principal of the school, “If you try to suspend our son because of this, we will sue everyone in this school” while Eddie’s father adds, “Hey, it’s the American way, right?”. Eddie and his family exist in this liminal space. As much as Eddie wants to identify with hip-hop, his experience with the Black kid reminds him that he is not, and never will be, Black. He also will never be white, as hard as he tries to fit in with the cultural norms. So all he, and his family, can do is try to navigate this tenuous tightrope where they acknowledge the difference that their ethnicity but also try to fit in. If that means using the system against the very people who created the culture of implicit racism at the school, then so be it.
As I said, it’s an episode that wears its heart on its sleeve. This is a show about a Chinese family trying to make a life for themselves in Orlando, and it wants its audience to understand that fact. It doesn’t apologize for what it is trying to say, and has a unique voice when saying it.
Beyond the pilot, Fresh Off The Boat and Black-ish are similar in another way. While both shows establish an identity in their first episodes, they also dial back the racial aspect of the show considerably to allow the broader tropes of the family sitcom to come to the forefront (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that both shows feature goofy husbands that need to be controlled by their understanding but frustrated wives, a trope that is the mainstay of every American family sitcom ever written). Yes, both shows are about specific types of Americans with specific anxieties and concerns. But they are also shows about Americans, featuring the same problems that any American – regardless of race and ethnicity – can identify with. Experience with prejudice, perceived or otherwise, is removed from the picture and instead the focus is on difference and the comedic moments that are born out of that difference.
So the second episode has two fairly simple stories. The A-story is Eddie worrying about his report card and what his mom will do when she sees his grades. The B-story is Eddie’s father trying to deal with his “tiger wife” trying to run his restaurant as efficiently as possible. Both are very much stories that feature anxieties specific to the Chinese-American experience, but they are presented in a way that is accessible to everyone.
It’s a simple joke that illustrates the perceived differences in the academic standards of Asian parents and non-Asian parents.
But most importantly for both shows, regardless of their point of view and the importance being placed on the shows for being on network television, is the fact that they are funny. They are sitcoms with great actors and strong writers who work together to make you laugh. If these shows were just preachy, then they’d just be forgotten one-issue novelties akin to an old after-school special or a “Very Special Episode” or any other sitcom. Instead, these shows use their perspectives to highlight difference in a way that is entertaining and anything but didactic.
I was worried about how the show would turn out when it was first announced. The specter of Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl hung in the air like a poisonous miasma, serving as a reminder that a television show about Asians is anathema to mainstream America. Cho herself has chosen to represent a queer audience, moving away from the ethnic comedy that allowed her to secure her own show two decades ago. But this is a show that lives up to the promise of representation, of giving Chinese and Asian Americans a voice in the cultural landscape in a way that celebrates their difference.
Or, in Eddie Huang’s words: “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.”
I can only hope that the show survives its move to Tuesday nights next week. For me, it’s an important show. But even beyond that, it’s a good show. It doesn’t deserve an ignominious death because America would rather watch NCIS and The Voice. Here’s hoping that ABC understands what it has and keeps the show going regardless of what happens next Tuesday.
Incidentally, I just discovered that, probably for reasons of avoiding brand confusion, Eddie’s Vice show has since been renamed from Fresh Off The Boat to Huang’s World. I suppose you don’t want to confuse people who don’t even know that the show is based on a memoir.