Fresh Off the Boat, the latest sitcom in ABC’s multicultural line-up of Blackish and Cristela, is based on Eddie Huang's unfiltered and hilarious memoir of the same name. In the book, the familiar American Dream narrative of immigrants building a business and raising a family has none of the glossy veneer. This conflict-laden story of acculturation features intense bouts with racism and identity formation through hip-hop and drugs. Eventually Huang earns a law degree and also becomes a celebrity chef, but maintains a toughness and candor that is not often seen on network television.
It probably goes without saying that ABC chose to focus on more family friendly, yet nonetheless telling aspects of Huang’s acculturation experience growing up.
Authenticity is a term applied from the outside by those imposing their own views on the immigration experience.
Creating a comedic version of his Taiwanese immigrant family’s life through the lens of young Huang (Hudson Yan), the show takes us along on his move from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando, Florida, where he finds his way as the new Asian American kid in a largely white school. Negotiating smelly ethnic lunches in a lunchroom filled with odorless sandwiches, anticipating parental gaffes with school officials, and managing strict immigrant parents are certainly experiences to which I, as a second-generation South Asian American, could easily relate.
Fresh Off the Boat couldn’t come a moment too soon. At just over 18 million, the U.S. Census category of Asian Americans includes a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, including Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Pacific Islanders, South Asian, and Southeast Asian. Their presence has increasingly grown in media, politics, business, and numerous other aspects of society. Yet, when they are not stereotyped as Tiger Mom model minorities, they tend to be one-note side characters. Of course we are amused by Ken Jeong’s clever portrayal of Señor Ben Chang on Community, but his character is about as well developed as The Simpson’s Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu. Notable sitcom exceptions include Margaret Cho’s All American Girl, which was canceled in 1994 after one season, and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project on Fox. The latter, with its ensemble cast and no South Asian American family in sight, leaves the humorous and clever Kaling as the show’s only Asian American character.
By contrast, Fresh Off the Boat does not hold back in delving into experiences common to many immigrant youth. Nonetheless, the show is already being taken to task by numerous parties for not being authentic. Foremost is Huang himself, who recently went public with his discontent about numerous production choices and promotion for the show, suggesting that the network was pandering to American audiences rather than staying true to his experiences.
Media critics and viewer comments alike have questioned whether the show is representing the immigrant experience authentically or simply reproducing stereotypes. In one recent press conference, a reporter asked the cast and producers whether the show would feature chopsticks and Asian culture, or "will it be more Americanized?" The ironic replies of producers promising chopsticks in upcoming episodes seemed lost on this reporter, but cuts to the heart of the matter. What does authenticity look like in media representations of Asian Americans?
If we consider scholarly research on Asian Americans, we may take less issue with the version of Asian American youth culture depicted in Fresh Off the Boat, where Huang’s penchant for American popular culture and favoring space travel over academic tutoring are as much a part of his experience as Taiwanese food and arguing about his immigrant parents’ expectations. Huang’s experiences add to the variance documented in academic studies about post-1965 “new immigration” to the United States.
Ethnographic accounts of Asian American teenagers, like those found in my first book Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley, corroborate the fluidity with which second-generation youth navigate American popular culture alongside their heritage language and culture. Like other ethnographic studies, mine documented significant differences in class and social mobility even within an ethnic group that would lead to a range of experiences and tastes, from rap to South Asian pop music, from American sitcoms to Bollywood. Authenticity, after all, is a term applied from the outside by those imposing their own views on the immigration experience.
Differentiating and representing the diversity of the Asian American experience is critical precisely because it puts a marginalized racial group in the center of mainstream media.
Even so, what are we to make of the stereotypes in the show? Anticipating that the show, like Huang’s memoir, will deliver a more complex version of Asian America, will the cultural and linguistic stereotypes further or hinder mainstream understandings of this racial group?
Take, for instance, the parents’ accented English. In some scenes their accents are intended to comprise the content of the joke, while at other moments they fade to the background as the real joke lies elsewhere. It has been well documented that, for decades, Asian Americans have been derided for speaking "Yellow English"—a halting speech attributed to unassimilated East Asian immigrants. But, unlike media where an Asian American character is a humorous sidekick, the show’s parents (Randall Park and Constance Wu) are based on real, competent people who moved to the U.S. and successfully raised a family. As we get to know these more well-rounded accented English speakers as people, hopefully it will make it harder to see them as one-dimension punch-lines.
Initially, however, Fresh Off the Boat will invite people into the Asian American experience through its attractive cast and relatable premise. Distancing from the "forever foreigner" stereotype that has plagued Asian Americans, this family, like thousands of Asian American entrepreneurs who run motels, restaurants, and businesses, are given names and personalities. Differentiating and representing the diversity of the Asian American experience, as I found to be the case in my study of Asian American advertising is critical precisely because it puts a marginalized racial group in the center of mainstream media.
Fresh Off the Boat, like most sitcoms, will likely take some time to find its stride, but is poised to do some important work. It could drive home the point that not all Asian Americans are model minorities, and that the Asian American experience is rarely about re-living a timeless Asia in American suburbia. Rather, it is full of amusement, marginality, and triumph more than it is about educating mass audiences about Asian cultures.
No one show will ever capture the diversity of Asian American experiences, just as no one looks to a single show like How I Met Your Mother or Two and a Half Men to learn everything about white American culture. Hopefully Fresh Off the Boat will simply be the first of many shows to come about Asian Americans’ diverse experiences. That’s pretty authentic for network television.