Season two of the break-out hit Fresh Off the Boat is fast approaching. Thus far, the show has exceeded expectations, and it’s easy to forget that it’s the second Asian-American Family sitcom in TV history. Even Eddie Huang’s superstar idol, Shaquille O’Neal, is rumoured to make a guest appearance in the second season.
Unlike it’s predecessor American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat has succeeded in striking a chord with American audiences, effortlessly balancing entertainment and valuable cultural substance.
Real-life Eddie Huang, however, has recently been singing a different tune.
Despite having sold the rights to his memoir, the professional cook and successful Vice TV personality has been quoted in interviews and on twitter for his distaste about how his autobiography is being depicted on ABC.
In interviews, Huang referred to the show as performing “reverse yellowface,” alluding that the show opted to whitewash aspects of his autobiography to suit dominant culture instead of maintaining the nuanced cultural complexities.
Stated bluntly, Huang thought ABC missed out on an opportunity to accurately demonstrate his Asian-American experience.
One of Huang’s major concerns revolved around the theme of familial abuse in his memoirs. As a first generation American, Huang was disciplined in ways that were culturally acceptable to his parents but weren’t tolerable in North America. In Huang’s own words:
“This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America… Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy.”
Many people have cried out in opposition to Huang, citing that he shouldn’t have sold his memoir to a major network without expecting a certain level of inaccuracy. In his Vulture article, Alex Jung states, “This is not a problem of content so much as a problem of the medium: If you have a show on ABC, it’s going to be an ABC show.”
However, Eddie Huang has a point.
Voicing his concerns of a one-dimensional portrayal of his childhood is commendable. The basis of identity is experience, and by diluting his biography until it’s palatable to the masses, Fresh Off the Boat muzzles and misrepresents the real Eddie Huang.
Though his complicated experience as an Asian-American is by no means universal, it is still important to explore it. Huang isn’t wrong that the network lost a valuable chance to tackle the complexity of a first-generation upbringing.
Despite this though, Fresh Off the Boat does reflect some Asian-American experiences and is nonetheless important.
This doesn’t justify the misrepresentation and glossing over of controversial subjects. In an ideal world, the show would address the complicated nature of Huang’s childhood. Realistically, this is difficult to do.
With extremely sensitive subjects, it’s almost impossible for a network television show to do justice to the generational and cultural gap between Huang and his parents. A slow introduction is key for mainstream America to truly grasp the Asian-American experience.
Fresh Off the Boat is still relatable and important to so many Asian Americans. Its very success indicates that there is an untapped market for Asian content.
In many ways, Fresh Off the Boat owes a degree of its existence to American Girl. It builds off the faults of that show, and, in the future, other shows will use Fresh Off the Boat in the same way. Prime-time show Dr. Ken attributes its very existence to the success of Fresh Off the Boat.
The fact that Fresh Off the Boat is progressing into its second season is a promising sign for the future of Asian content in American mainstream media.