“Fresh Off The Boat” Does Right By The Asian-American Experience
When I heard that chef/restauranteur Eddie Huang wrote a memoir, I bought that shit hardcover and read it in a weekend. When I heard a few years later that this man was going to make his memoir into a TV show, I was psyched. Finally, my people, on TV! When I sat down to actually watch the show, I laughed. I almost cried. Mostly, I was proud to see some Asians on my television. The show, it seems, is actually fantastic. Eddie Huang gets it right.
The first thing to understand is that this show is breaking as much ground as it can while existing on ABC. Keep in mind that this is the network that produces the neutered, deeply-unfunny “Modern Family,” a show about rich white people and Sofia Vergara’s boobs. So it’s a big fucking deal for this show and “Black-ish” to lead the charge in diversity representation on a major network, especially during primetime. For that, I give it credit.
If you’ve been following this at all, you know that Eddie Huang himself is kinda salty that the network somewhat whitewashed his story. Having read the book, I tend to agree with him, but I also understand why the network would want to ease into the edgier material. You can’t open with stinky tofu and chicken feet and jade bracelets and yelling. You have to build up to that.
When I saw the pilot, I laughed, both because it was funny and because it was awesome that there’s a family on TV that eats egg and tomato out of those bowls you buy at Ranch 99. I hope to see rou song make an appearance soon, so that I no longer have to explain the concept of “pork floss” to people wondering what the hell that is in my rice. I love that the mother, Jessica, eats what I hope to god is an apple pear with a paring knife and no plate, watching her kids do Chinese school homework. I love that Eddie throws his Chinese food lunch into the trash on his way to school, and gets reamed by his parents for wasting food, as he lifts the bowl to his mouth and shovels food into it. I love that not a single character eats food off a plate. I love seeing a mom that acts like my mom on TV, because even though she’s kind of a nightmare, she’s my nightmare and I know there are other Taiwanese and half-Taiwanese kids, raised by shout-y moms and a legion of a-yis, for whom “Fresh Off The Boat” will really, really resonate.
The show gets so much right about the Asian-American experience. When Jessica and Eddie walk up to the American grocery store, and flash back to the Chinese supermarket in D.C., all flying elbows and people brandishing bags of greens and haggling at the meat counter, I sat up straight. When Huang as narrator says, “We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement,” I yelped and typed furiously in my notes, “THIS IS THE REALEST SHIT I EVER HEARD.”
The whitewashing, however, becomes apparent, but not in the way you might think. There’s the tiny matter of the accents, which are present but almost distractingly subtle; they sound Taiwanese, but not too Taiwanese. To have the American-born actors speak English in an exaggerated, over-the-top Taiwanese accent would be too much to handle, and potentially come off as farcical, regardless of how accurate it is. My mom’s accent doesn’t sound like an accent, because she is my mother, but if I heard someone talking like her on national television, I think that I would be upset. A happy medium might have been to do like “Jane The Virgin” and alternate between Mandarin and English, just as that show switches between Spanish and English. That would feel more authentic to me. My mother speaks English for the most part, but when she wants to yell at us in public or ask how much the bill is at a non-Chinese restaurant, she does so in whispered Chinese, with a smile on her face like she’s saying something nice in case white people notice.
Regardless, these are small quibbles. Overall, “Fresh Off The Boat” is the pop culture representation that Asian-Americans, specifically Taiwanese Americans, have needed. I’m psyched as hell to see what the rest of the season has to offer.