What “Fresh off the Boat” Means in Vancouver

Posted by Alex Florian & filed under Diversity, Identity.

Hudson Yang who will play Eddie Huang in the ABC comedy this fall
Hudson Yang who will play Eddie Huang in the ABC comedy this fall

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As I wrote last week, ABC has confirmed to run the new series, Fresh off the Boat, which is based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir. As the faces on television today largely lack diversity, a show following the immigrant experience and an Asian American family is being welcomed with open arms. The name, however, has had some less than warm reactions, which raises the question of what “fresh off the boat” means today.

In Vancouver, this question is particularly interesting since it has the largest Asian population outside of Asia. 43 percent of Metro Vancouver residents are of Asian heritage. In comparison to neighbouring cities, Seattle at just 13 percent and Victoria at 11 percent, the Vancouver proportion is significant.  Even around the globe, Vancouver stands apart from the leading racially diverse cities: Metro Toronto with 35 percent Asian residents, San Francisco with 33 percent, and London, England with 21 percent.

The large Asian population in Vancouver has some potential problems such as language differences, enclave development and signage; some issues having already reared their ugly head. But it also raises the potential for a richness of culture as Vancouver develops a dynamic and Asian-infused culture. With thirty percent of migrants to BC not speaking English, cultural differences can be strong and the integration process is important for cohesive communities.

So what does “fresh off the boat” mean?

I understand why some people are offended with the show’s title, but I don’t think the term has to be derogatory. Depending on the context and the way it continues to be used by pop culture and the media, it can eventually simply indicate the degree of a person’s connection to another culture. I hope the show using it in a humorous way will continue to rework the phrase and change the negative connotation associated with it.

UBC student, Chris Kim, had heard the term used in a joking way, but he pointed out that it does still work to marginalize minorities in a lot of ways. Jokes have a way of reinventing themselves within people’s subconscious.

If you don’t go along with the joke you’re uncool, but if you do then you’re perpetuating stereotypes and taking power away from your own people. Myself, since I grew up here, I think I used a lot of race-related humour to dodge racism, but it’s bad when Asian people make fun of themselves because it makes it okay for other people to use those kinds of jokes.”

When I asked Vancouver writer and communications specialist Vinnie Yuen about the phrase, she admitted that she hadn’t heard much use of it, but did note that a difference existed between immigrants who had just moved, and those like herself who migrated to Vancouver almost fifteen years ago. Though she also notes that somebody who seems that they’re “fresh off the boat” may not be a new settler at all. The term is very based on very external experiences.

What about Vancouver?

I asked Vinnie about what “fresh off the boat” means in Vancouver, specifically.

What I like about Vancouver is you don’t have to choose. You don’t have to choose between being Chinese or being Western, you can be both. And that can go for anybody, not just Chinese people. Western people can choose to participate in cultures of Chinese people. I think it’s more socially acceptable to participate in other people’s cultures, and that’s what makes Vancouver different. It’s not bad to hold on to your traditions and it’s not just Chinese people that eat at Chinese restaurants.”

However, as diverse as Vancouver is, UBC grad Sherry Xu, who since immigrating to Canada in 2005 has lived in both Calgary and Vancouver, doesn’t notice an obvious difference in cultural acceptance between the two cities.

Cultural acceptance to me is based on self choice.”

She further explained that if you don’t like a certain type of Western food, or choose to cook a certain type of Chinese food, it doesn’t matter what city you’re living in. The same goes for the people you surround yourself with.

I don’t think “fresh off the boat” is a negative term. In fact, I don’t feel the term represents holding on to one’s cultural traditions either. I think it just tells me that someone is new to something. This happens all the time in our life, like your freshman year of university you’re going to hold different traditions and have to adapt the same as someone who’s new to a country.”

Kitty Ku, one of our writers here at Schema, has mostly heard the phrase used in a derogatory way, and explained the difference between new and past immigrants as often indicated by how they dress, hairstyles, and choice of social media mediums, but also by their lack of Canadian customs.

People who have lived here for years still hold many Asian traditions and roots, but are often seen as “bananas” because they’ve assimilated into Western traditions as well. On the other hand, immigrants who are [newer] to Canada try to almost “act” like they’re still in Asia, as in sometimes not acknowledging the fact that the traditions are different here and they just continue doing what they’d do in Asia.”

Over the last few years, I feel like Asian culture and traditions are “taking over” Vancouver—Don’t get me wrong, I love my Asian roots and my family’s traditions. However, I think it’s important for Vancouver to keep its own identity of having its Canadian/Western culture as a dominant aspect of the city.”

When I asked Vinnie about the same subjects of geographic divisions in Vancouver and the binary between cultural traditions, she felt that Vancouver does have its own identity that uses Asian culture but transforms into something else entirely.

 I think it should be a two way street. When people say assimilation it’s hard to say yes or no. I think it evolves into something else; like Vancouver took on sushi as part of its identity and that’s not a Western thing, but we have a California roll which is not Japanese at all. I think it becomes something else and what I’d like to see is more of that happening and participating in each others’ cultures.”

Chris also saw trends as indicators of how recently one had moved to Canada because people will naturally represent the styles they know until they integrate to some degree into Canadian society.

I have a lot of Canadian friends so I tend to dress like them. But if you come here, can’t really speak the language and start hanging out with a lot of Koreans, then you’re just going to be Korean here. I think your culture is really heavily influenced by your family but also by who you’re with all the time. The more isolated people are, the more you can tell that they are recent immigrants.

But I just think in general if you are Asian and you’re just proud of that fact, people are going to like that because you’re happy with who you are.

Which direction is Vancouver headed?

An article in the Vancouver Sun predicts that by 2031, only two out of five Vancouver residents will be white. The scale of demographic change over the next period is expected to be bigger and faster than anything we’ve seen before. I think that the term “fresh off the boat” will necessarily evolve along the way. As we see the embracing of different cultures in Vancouver, to be “fresh off the boat” could mean that you’re edgy, or as Eddie in the ABC series says in the show’s opening lines, “fresh as hell.”

In a city with such a huge proportion of immigrants, whether first generation or third; from Asia, Europe, or anywhere around the globe, the experience of migrating and having to adapt to a new culture is something Vancouverites know well. When my grandparents moved to Canada, there was a pressure to become more “Canadian” in order to succeed financially. Jobs and social acceptance depended on it, and there was a hope that their children would not face the same discrimination that they faced. Today, I feel like the pressure is moving in the opposite direction. A lot of Vancouver residents are like me in that they haven’t experienced the tensions of immigration first hand, but have two cultures to draw on and feel at ease doing so. There is not the same social penalty today to practicing your family’s non-Western traditions as there was in the 1960’s. To be able to cook the recipes of your family’s culture is actually trendy.

In an interview with VOX, Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and father of Hudson Yang, who will play 11-year-old Eddie Huang on the show, spoke on this subject and the “reclamation” of the term.

America’s shifting demographic has changed the way Asian-Americans view themselves, and that the term has undergone a reclamation of sorts, with people starting sites like My Mom is a FOB/My Dad is a FOB. And there’s been a growing sense that this “FOBiness” was part of a unique, at times funny, Asian-American experience.  When my generation used FOB, it used to be to distance ourselves (we who were born here) from those who weren’t. When more recent nerds use the term “fob,” it seems to be more to create or reinforce a connection with the person marked with the term, e.g., to actively embrace the fact that our community is not “just” American.”

ABC’s step in the right direction

I’m looking forward to the show. It is refreshing to see a different culture on camera, but will be even more so when it’s not a newsworthy issue. At the moment, people of colour in leading roles tend to play characters that are designated for people of colour, based on stereotypes. It is promising to see actors like Maggie Q in “Nikita” or John Cho in the new series, Selfie whose roles could be played by actors of any race.  However, the overwhelming majority of roles are more like Gloria in “Modern Family,” or Koothrapali in “The Big Bang Theory,” where their race is what defines their character.

Vinnie put it well in our conversation.

What I’d like to see in 20 years is for an Asian person to play a major role in a television series that doesn’t make them “white” but also not super “Asian” either. In the meantime, I think it’s great to see the immigrant experience because I think that’s something that so many people can relate to.  Whether it’s themselves or their parents or their grandparents, we’re a very young country, no matter what culture.”

We are a young country, and a diverse city.  Much like our highways at the moment, how that diversity will shape Vancouver’s identity and culture is still currently under construction.

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