Notes: For this four-hour assignment, I watched episodes 3 and 4 of the new sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat, with 3 other Asian-American friends and afterwards debated whether or not the show was realistic, racist, or any good at all. Then, I went home and wrote a review.
Stale off the Boat with Eddie Huang
By episode four of the “groundbreaking” Asian-American sitcom, I’m starting to see what Eddie’s angry about.
image from Hollywood Reporter
Fresh Off the Boat, a new ABC sitcom based off the adolescence of Eddie Huang, big restaurateur (he owns the popular Baohaus in the East Village) and even bigger personality (he’s a regular on VICE and prone to dropping four-letter-words along with extended Frankenstein ones of his own creation left and right in every interview), drew some controversy for using the racial slur “chink” in the pilot episode. The scene goes like this: in white-washed Orlando, Florida, where young Eddie is an outcast newcomer, the only other kid of color, a black boy, pushes him out of the way in the lunch line and onto the bottom of the middle school totem pole– a place he used to inhabit de-facto.
In isolation, it’s a simple act of pre-teen territorial marking, some standard name calling pushing the biggest button an 11-year old can think of, the race card. But here’s the thing. It’s more complicated than that– what little Eddie, whose idols are all black rappers with big swagger, living the FBGM life– wants most is to be accepted by his white schoolmates. To be a Lunchable, pizza flavor. Walter, the offending name-caller, says it best, after Eddie chooses the shaggy haired popular crowd over him, with a roll of his eyes: “What kind of country is this, where a white kid and an asian kid bond over a black guy?”.
I find myself asking the same thing about the show. Despite all the racially colored, exaggerated antics of the Huangs, there is very little substance addressing the so many obvious racial questions we’re left wanting to ask. Why is the show called Fresh Off the Boat, a racialized slur that in my experiences is far more common and loaded than the above offense, when Eddie’s family is fresh off the boat at all, but fresh off a car drive from another major U.S. city? Did little Eddie have black friends in DC, where his family recently moved from and which is significantly less white-washed than Orlando?
Hip hop is so clearly an inspiration to Huang, but we only ever see it repurposed in the hands of white or asian kids. What young Eddie aspires to the most is the image he’s formed in his head of black masculinity. He wants honeys (literal Honeys, in Episode Four, where he tries to win over his sexy new (married adult) neighbor– was that a nod to Biggie’s lyrics?) playing him close and a soundtrack to go with his swagger (albeit currently played on a boombox by his grandmother).
It makes great sitcom fodder, because to the viewer, there’s nothing further away from a black rapper than the fat little asian kid, eating tofu and being told to do his math exercises by his Dragon-lady mother and his contentedly obedient younger siblings. Hilarity and entertainment ensues, but doesn’t the fact that we the viewer find it comedic at all, affirm, on some level, that the struggle is real?
For Huang, the real life one, the struggle is exactly that: what he calls “breaking the bamboo ceiling”, or the stereotype of model minority. The show, although at times endearing and “aww”-inspiring in an overstated way (parents making up after a fight, cute child actors being cute) fails to do that. At most, it puts a more human face to a heavily-stereotyped, fantasy Asian-American family. Which isn’t to call it a trivial feat: after all, this is the first Asian family on TV ever.
Eddie, as expected, had harsher words: “The network tried to turn my memoir into a cornstarch sitcom and me into a mascot for America. I hated that”. As for me, I’m left wondering what all this means to the little Asian kids out who grew up listening to Biggie and Nas and Tupac (if we must include the West Coast) to fuel their swagger. What about girls, who have two ceilings to break: bamboo and glass (that’s another thing; aside from the mother figure, this show is a Boy’s world). Are we all just material for laugh tracks?
Still, any depiction of Asian-Americans that brings at least more than one-dimension to the unexplored arena can be a welcome one. Despite all the unanswered questions and the heavy-handed reliance on tropes, it’s a step in, if not the right direction, at least some sort of movement. As for the opinion of this little “Chinkstronaut”? I go home, pull out my laptop, and blast some Notorious B.I.G.
In the words of Biggie Smalls: It’s all good, baby baby.