FEBRUARY 24, 2016
IF YOU SUBSCRIBE to the idea of representational politics, the belief that the “visibility” of various types of minorities in mainstream media is a positive end in and of itself, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat offers an exhilarating breakthrough for Asian Americans in the televisual landscape. If racial politics isn’t for you, you’re still free to enjoy the formulaic foibles of a regular sitcom family refracted through the prism of the East Asian immigrant family experience. To many, this is the show that has something for everyone.
Everyone, that is, except chef Eddie Huang, the culinary entrepreneur and TV personality behind the 2013 memoir upon which the show is based. In this polarizing, brash, and crass memoir, Huang details his experiences growing up Asian in suburban Florida, the troubles he faced as a Taiwanese child in a predominantly white school, his anguished search for racial identity, and finally his success as an entrepreneur first in streetwear and then as a chef. In the book, Huang articulates explicitly and with much anger the longstanding divide in the Asian American community between those considered “good subjects” and “bad subjects”: the former, he calls “Uncle Chans” (his spin on the accommodationist Uncle Tom trope) and “model minorities”; the latter, “Rotten Bananas” (that is, black on the outside and yellow on the inside), characterized by aggressive anti-assimilationism and the struggle to retain one’s ethnicity at all costs. The slur that gives Huang’s memoir its title — Fresh Off the Boat — is related to this divide. The immigrants of Huang’s generation didn’t come to America in a boat, but many of his forebears who built the first Asian communities of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did, and the pioneer immigrants who refused, or were simply unable, to assimilate were labeled as being “fresh off the boat.” Huang’s memoir, irreverent as it may be, fits neatly within a long tradition of immigrant literature centered on the methods of escape from the shame and guilt of “fresh off the boat” stigma, whether it be by striving to succeed in a white society or the complete repudiation of that imperative.
Though many Asians of the diaspora agree with and even find solace within the clear contours of these “good” and “bad” categorizations, not all do. As Viet Thanh Nguyen states in Race and Resistance, the “idealization of the ‘bad subject’ discourse prevents recognition of ideologically contradictory Asian American subjects,” essentially widening and reifying the fractures in the Asian diaspora. This lack of recognition, combined with Huang’s masculinist bombast in refusing to conform to Asian standards of success and his compulsion to denounce anyone who does not share his idealized “bad subjecthood,” ironically causes him to become the very oppressive dictator of ethnic authenticity that he so despises. It also explains his rancorous relationship with ABC, and explains why he was so intent on sending volleys of vituperative tweets about the TV adaptation before it even aired one year ago this week. Huang’s memoir is intended to act as “Rotten Banana” ideology writ large — abrasive, uncompromising, vulgar — while the ABC show embodies everything that to him defines the “Uncle Chan” trope — likable, assimilationist, eager to please. (Making this connection explicit, Huang has called friend and show producer Melvin Mar an “Uncle Chan” for persuading him to sell the rights to his memoir to ABC in the first place.)
But rather than going any further with Huang the public persona (and it certainly is tempting to do so), let’s look at the show on its own, rather successful terms. Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, of Don’t Trust the B fame, imports many of the events of Huang’s memoir but also adds and subtracts elements in order to ensure it fits ABC’s family-friendly roster. Added are the happy-go-lucky white neighbors who act as foil to breakout star Constance Wu’s uptight Huang matriarch, Jessica. Subtracted are the harrowing scenes of child abuse that the real-life Eddie and his younger brother Emery insist were integral parts of their childhood. It is through this mainstreaming of Huang’s rough-around-the-edges memoir that the sitcom has reached historic heights for a show centered on Asian American subjects. (The oft-repeated statistic is that Fresh is the first all-Asian American show on mainstream television since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl was cancelled 20 years ago after one dismal, executive-driven season.) So, setting aside the monumental accomplishment of an Asian American show being renewed for a second season, let alone a full slate, we can also appreciate that the show is, perhaps somewhat miraculously after the laugh vacuum of All American Girl, funny. This is no small feat for a show that regularly dabbles in hot button issues of race and ethnicity, which in clumsier hands would spell stereotyped disaster.
The recently aired midseason premiere “Year of the Rat” sees the Huangs celebrate “Chinese” New Year for the first time in America. As someone whose family also celebrated the holiday in a strange and foreign context after emigrating from Asia, I can’t suppress an excited and uncanny feeling when I see a thoroughly un-Western holiday as a central plot point on mainstream television, used in the same way that other sitcoms (such as Friends) aired Thanksgiving episodes. In fact, the episode begins with this very observation. Patriarch Louis, played by Randall Park, tells the staff at his restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch, that he’ll be returning to D.C. to spend time with his family for “the holidays.” The staff proceed to speculate on what holiday is being celebrated, starting with Valentine’s Day to the I-didn’t-know-people-celebrated-that President’s Day. When Louis reveals that it’s “Chinese New Year,” good-natured employee Nancy responds incredulously, “You guys have your own New Year?” This reaction, common enough during the show’s ’90s setting and still today, which points to the basic “consciousness raising” function of the show. As popular as it is now to believe a fully globalized America has reached peak intercultural awareness, the generalizing impulse of episode writer Sheng Wang’s color-by-numbers guide to the holiday is undoubtedly there for a pedagogical reason. Huang’s accusations that Khan and ABC executives turned his memoir into “corn starch,” a “reverse-yellowface” televisual parody of his life ring hollow in this respect.
Even so, it would be nice to see Khan and her writers bring another type of specificity to the show — not because they owe something to Huang’s narcissistic desire for perfect adaptational accordance, but because the show can be used to teach both the Nancys of America and those within the Asian diaspora as well. Many non-Chinese Asian Americans (rightly) bristle when uninformed well-wishers greet them with a “Happy Chinese New Year,” and thus the episode runs into the paradox of specific-generalization: by centering on the minutiae of the Chinese holiday tradition and generalizing it, the writers also elide all non-Chinese, ethnic specificity that would situate the Huang family’s Taiwanese-Chinese-American experience among a wider constellation of Asian cultures that celebrate the Lunar New Year (the day that marks the beginning of a new year in the lunar calendar, once used widely in many parts of Asia). Worse, it cavalierly ignores the history of Chinese imperialism in Asia that instituted the holiday as “Chinese” in the first place. It would be refreshing to see such historical and cultural complexity represented in the nuance-free landscape of Western mainstream media.
Indeed, “Year of the Rat” concludes with yet more generalization in the form of a fluffy paean to multiculturalism, now common to modern sitcoms. Louis makes up for a ruined trip home to D.C. by bringing together the restaurant staff to orchestrate a patchwork but meaningful celebration complete with lion dancers, fast-food style Chinese dishes, and underwhelming red envelope exchanges for the kids. Still, and this is what elevates the show, Khan and her crew consistently find sardonic ways to undercut what could easily be straight-faced schmaltz. As the group tuck in to their feast, Jessica enthusiastically explains the traditions of Chinese New Year that she cherishes so greatly to the restaurant staff. Predictably, this moment of intercultural exchange turns into a series of increasingly inane questions from the staff, provoking Jessica’s annoyed retort: “You know what, enough for today! Great questions! No more! Thank you!” For Khan, herself a child of immigrants, what sets the interculturalism in Fresh Off the Boat apart from other similar fare is that these exchanges are never one-dimensionally positive, and hardly straightforward in their didacticism. Instead, these moments of ambivalence do the important work of reflecting both the brittle and sardonic Jessicas and the optimistic and joyful Louises of the diaspora, not proffering either as the “correct” way to be an immigrant, but recapturing the human complexity that is often washed away by simplistic liberal notions of togetherness and tolerance.
The show’s writers did not wait for audience approval or the network to order a second season before taking up these controversial issues of uncertainty and struggle familiar to many immigrants and racialized people — it is clear that this was always part of the mission of the show from the beginning. In the episode “Good Morning, Orlando,” which addresses themes of racial respectability and Asian representation in the media, an obvious nod to the real-life critiques that many of the actors had to face in the press, especially Constance Wu for her adoption of what some saw as a “stereotypical” Chinese accent in playing the Huang matriarch. In this episode, Jessica berates Louis for displaying his naturally affable, goofy character on a local morning talk show because she sees it as undignified, as a complaisant jester working for the approval of a white audience. He reluctantly recalibrates and returns to the show as the hair-trigger-tempered, scowling killjoy, unable to take or make a joke. Like “Year of the Rat,” the storyline wraps up neatly with Jessica realizing her mistake and apologizing for forcing Louis to be untrue to himself; and, again, Khan and the writers complicate the easy moral of the story by showing that racial performativity doesn’t manifest simply as assimilation but also (and this is crucial in light of the real-life Huang’s critiques of the show) as angry, uncompromising “bad subjecthood.”
Fresh Off the Boat is important. Not only for representational reasons or the fact that it manages to do new things with the tired sitcom formula. Huang’s real-life battle with ABC over their adaptation of his life embodies the same conflicts he identifies in the Asian American community: good versus bad subjects, assimilation, resistance, anger, and representation. These are the same fissures and fault lines that have been troubling diasporic communities in America for decades, ones that many Asian Americans have both desired and dreaded, since Cho’s pathbreaking attempt long ago, to see enacted once again on the small screen. It seems to me that those concerned with Asian American politics should see Fresh Off the Boat and Huang’s denunciation of it as an opportunity for conversation about precisely these issues. After all, Fresh Off the Boat the memoir, in its brash and uncompromising way, has been instrumental in bringing issues of diaspora to the fore, (re)introducing terms like the titular slur, and bringing unassimilable immigrants, the model minority, and the pervasive, if misguided, struggle for authenticity back to visibility. Fresh Off the Boat the television show, in its widely relatable, wildly energetic, and uniquely subversive way, strives to achieve the same.
Chris Chien is a PhD student in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California working variously in the areas of sound, diaspora, and transpacific studies, all with a distinctly queer bent.