“Fresh off the Boat” Taps into the Asian American Assimilation Story

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Fresh off the Boat follows the Huang family as they settle down in the enigmatic land of Orlando, Florida, open up a steakhouse called Cattleman’s Ranch, and acclimate to the American lifestyle. Some have claimed that the show’s title is “racist,” citing F.O.B. as a colloquial epithet that historically alienated Asian immigrants from joining American society. The show’s name is taken directly from Chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, which tackles head on the issue of an Asian immigrant’s struggle with assimilation. Because the book is far less flippant than the show, Eddie Huang has openly lambasted Hollywood’s bastardization of his excruciatingly tough learning experiences throughout his adolescence. Huang initially claimed that the show would reduce his personal experiences into a cheap, 22 minute, feel-good comedy — but after watching the show’s two-episode premiere this past Wednesday, he proudly exclaimed, “Today, we’ve arrived.”

Yes, we have arrived. As ABC collects more racially diverse shows (Black-ish, Cristela) for its ever-expanding repertoire, I profusely thank our gatekeepers for allowing such a fresh show featuring Asian Americans to debut on American television. As all-encompassing as the term “Asian American” may be, this show is a step in the right direction to combat typecasting of Asians and, by extension, America’s deep-rooted affinity for racism. But the political effect of a show will have little to no support if it sucks. Safe to say, the show is pretty awesome. Warning, there are spoilers ahead!

The pilot episode starts off by laying down the basic narrative: Louis (Randall Park) brings the family from DC to Orlando to start a new life, but adjusting to suburbia proves to be hard for Jessica (Constance Wu), mother of three sons. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is 11, identifies with NAS and Biggie Smalls, and hates his new home. The classic cafeteria scene is where Eddie first understands his position in the social hierarchy at school. He quickly learns that the only way to get respect is to be on top of that hierarchy, which means: one, fending off anyone who looks down on him and two, getting Lunchables. For Eddie, beating up and cussing out Walter after he calls him a “chink” was his first way to receive societal acceptance. Having Lunchables, as opposed to his home-packed Chinese noodles, bridged a cultural gap that allowed the students to “other” Eddie. Of course, this scene opens up possibilities for discussion on race relations in America. As Walter points out, “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude… Man, this cafeteria is ridiculous!”

Moving on to the other main characters, Eddie’s parents are charming and delightful — yet flawed and grounded. Louis is the amicable, sweet, and naïve husband who seems disconnected from the rest of the family as he spends most of his time dedicated to making his restaurant perfect. As owner of Cattleman’s Ranch, he faces constant micromanaging by his wife Jessica, a frugal law-enforcer with a quick wit. Once again, provocative questions of race come up when Louis reasons that having a white greeter will attract more customers. Overall, Louis is loveable and a complete 180 from Park’s last role as Kim Jong-un in The Interview.

Without a doubt, my favorite character is Eddie’s mother because she is my mother. Before watching the show, I was anxious that she would be stuffed into the typical Tiger Mom trope dishing the occasional sassy punchline to spite her children. Relax guys, she’s always sassy. Jessica’s ever-so Chinese slippery slope fallacies, habit of eating apple slices straight off the knife, and domineering control over a submissive husband hits close to home for many Chinese-Americans; her unabashed behavior contrasts greatly with Louis’ headfirst attempts to assimilate into American culture. At one point, she even applauds Evan’s inability to digest string cheese: “Apparently he’s lactose intolerant–his body is rejecting white culture, which makes me kind of proud.” Jessica clearly embodies the resistance to change in culture, but ultimately sacrifices her comfort to allow Louis to pursue his dreams and have the Huangs to “toughen up.”

The archetypal husband-wife dynamic between Louis and Jessica, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Right now, the writers can either choose to recycle story arcs used for Modern Family’s Phil and Claire Dunphy or bring to light serious issues that Huang talks about in his memoir, like domestic abuse. As a victim of abuse, Huang wanted to emphasize, “It’s not about throwing parents in jail and legislating, it’s about understanding the relationship between parent and child in the 21st century.” Due to the family-friendly tone set by these two debut episodes, the chances for such a serious segment to be featured is slim. Huang himself does promise that after season one the characters will become much more developed and less sitcom-y.

Despite its flaws, I will be patiently waiting every week for a new episode. Asian Americans may be the fastest growing minority group in America, but we are sorely underrepresented in both media and politics. I hope that this show sparks conversations about race and progress, while also inspiring Asian Americans interested in pursuing a career in entertainment to boldly chase after their dreams. In conclusion, I want to thank Eddie Huang for his willingness to share a watered-down version of his own narrative so that Asian-Americans across the nation could feel represented.

Featured image courtesy of www.thewrap.com.

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