If you haven’t heard by now, ABC released a new sitcom called Fresh Off the Boat on February 4th. Based on chef and food personality Eddie Huang’s autobiography of the same name, we are already halfway through the show’s scheduled eight episodes for the first season. It’s the first Asian-American family on mainstream television in twenty years (the last one was Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl).
The Story: The year is 1995 and eleven-year-old Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) and his family are relocating from Washington D.C. to Orlando, Florida, where his father Louis Huang (Randall Park) is opening a steak restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch. Moving to Orlando means leaving behind Chinatown in D.C., all their family and friends, and like the mother Jessica Huang (Constance Wu) says, “everything [they] know to come to a place where [they] know nothing.” And this means unmistakable culture clashes at school and in their predominantly white neighbourhood.
The trailer appeared nearly a year ago, and people have been talking about Fresh Off the Boat ever since. Why is this a big deal? As mentioned earlier, twenty years have passed since an Asian-American family appeared on television. The term “Asian” refers to people with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. Over 18 million people in the United States (that’s 5.3% of the population) and over 5 million people in Canada (15.3% of the population) identify as Asian. In Canada, those with Asian ancestry are the largest visible minority, and yet there is some serious underrepresentation in mainstream media. Check out this video from the Fung Brothers examining Asians in Hollywood—basically Asians are missing from “pretty much anything except the tech industry and YouTube.” The release of Fresh Off the Boat will hopefully open more doors for Asian-American actors.
So how is Fresh Off the Boat now that half the season has already aired? It’s gotten positive reviews thus far; Rotten Tomatoes gave it 89% fresh approval. But is it a good show because of good writing, directing, and acting; or are we just ecstatic because finally there is an Asian-American family on television?
Episode one (Pilot) is what the trailer would it be like if it had been twenty minutes instead of three. We meet the entire family—Mom, Dad, Eddie, and the two little brothers Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen)—and realize that although this family carries Asian stereotypes (quite often dramatized for comedic effect and marketable television), they are more progressive than I thought. The father Louis Huang is striving for the all-American dream. He is, as Dan and Mike Chen say, “a white dad trapped in an Asian body.”
The family balances between American and Taiwanese culture; Louis and Jessica are surprisingly supportive of their son when Eddie gets into a confrontation with another student at school in episode one. He unleashes a “stream of obscenities” that even the principal has never heard of (and he’s from Boston), and instead of harshly berating Eddie, the parents threaten to sue the entire school. “It’s the American way, right?” says Louis.
The comedy in the show is great; Jessica believes that discipline and extremely high expectations will keep the restaurant successful and make her children excel in school. She does her best to fit in with the neighbours, but ultimately misses the Taiwanese markets back in D.C. They make her feel calm—then flashback to what looks like a hectic and chaotic shopping experience. She misses the nice talks with her friends—flashback to yelling matches during mahjong. In episode two (Home Sweet Home-School) the juxtaposition of Eddie and his neighbour simultaneously revealing their report cards is admittedly stereotypical but relatable; Eddie receives straight A’s while his neighbour gets straight C’s (it’s a victory for both of them).
FOtB is essentially about a family trying to fit in, and it has two main storylines: the parents’ and Eddie’s. I personally find the parents’ struggle to make the restaurant succeed and to make friends in the neighbourhood more interesting than Eddie’s attempts to fit in at school, even though I do relate to him quite a lot (yes, I have been told that my lunches smell and look funny). These struggles are especially evident in episode three (The Shunning) when there is a neighbourhood block party and Louis tries to promote the restaurant. Jessica needs to make the right friends despite cultural differences so that they can promote the restaurant, and Eddie tries to prove that he’s cool enough to the kids at school when really he is supposed to be handing out coupons so that they can promote the restaurant.
Episode four (Success Perm) shows more family dynamics when Jessica’s sister’s family drives down to Orlando to visit. The episode showcases the “cheap Asian parents” stereotype with the hilarious competitions between Jessica and her sister Connie (Susan Park), and Louis and his brother-in-law Steve (C.S. Lee). Who got the best deals on luggage, silk pillows, and clothes? Who is Ma’s favourite now? Which family/couple is more successful? Of course, both families got success perms to showcase just how successful they are. The episode was also nostalgic, bringing back memories of the dial-up Internet and fax machines.
Some things work and some don’t with FOtB. Asian-American and Asian-Canadian communities are holding the show under heavy scrutiny. There are stereotypes and of course the question of whether some of them are funny or necessary. A couple things I have noticed in reviews are the title and the accents.
The phrase “fresh off the boat” carries a kind of negative or derogatory connotation. It describes immigrants from a foreign place who “have not yet assimilated into the host nation’s culture, language, and behaviour.” The Huang family hasn’t completely assimilated into American culture, but at this point of their time in the States, they are not “fresh off the boat.” In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Eddie Huang says that he identifies more with his parents’ generation. “Fresh off the boat—this term, I’m using it; I’m reclaiming this, and I’m owning this term along with my parents and their generation.” He also says that he refuses “to let dominant culture limit the words [he] use[s].”
The accent Constance Wu uses in her portrayal has also received much criticism. Many people have called it out for being too obviously fake. So is the accent even necessary?
Keeping in mind that although the show is based on the memoir of a real person, life is not a sitcom, and liberties have been taken. It’s a comedy and will not reflect every Asian-American or Taiwanese-American family out there. If you are hesitant to watch FOtB because of any concerns that it will not properly represent an Asian-American family, Constance Wu said in an interview, “That would be a reason to watch it. Watch it so somebody else invests in your project. And then if you have a different voice to say, then make your project.” After all, we’ve seen practically every shade of a white family on television. Ultimately, I think the show works. Fresh Off the Boat is a breath of fresh air. Is it perfect? Far from it, but it’s giving room for discussion and dialogue around cultural representation in mainstream media, and getting people talking about something like this is not a bad thing.
Watch Fresh Off the Boat on ABC on Tuesdays at 8/7c.