By Miliann Kang
The collective sigh of relief by many Asian Americans after the first few episodes of Fresh Off the Boat contrasts with the anger and anxiety that followed Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But is relief the best we can hope for?
Unless you've been there, it is hard to understand the conflicted feelings that Asian Americans, and other people of color, experience when we see representations of ourselves in mainstream media. Most of our TV and film viewing experiences are of invisibility (we are left out) or of hyper-visibility (we are extreme caricatures -- usually villains, victims or buffoons).
As with most things related to parenting, the stakes are even higher when these images impact our children and families. It is one thing if you disrespect or make fun of me, but if you do anything to hurt my kid, all bets are off.
Like many Asian Americans, I was holding my breath to see the pilot of Fresh Off the Boat, the first sitcom to focus on an Asian American family since Margaret Cho's ill-fated "All American Girl" 20 years before. Fresh Off the Boat premiered February 4 on ABC, and was widely praised as "bold, funny and not afraid to take on race." Based on chef Eddie Huang's memoir of growing up in Orlando with his Taiwanese immigrant parents who ran a steak house, the first episodes covered racial bullying, the struggles of immigrant entrepreneurship, and inter-generational culture clashes.
Much of this is standard fare, but Fresh Off the Boat does take a few notable risks. It insists on seeing things from the point of view of the Asian American protagonists. This includes depicting the white customers and workers at the restaurant - and white culture more broadly - as curiosities, rather than the taken-for-granted norm. Overall, the show deserves credit simply for consistently addressing race. The only two minority children at the school--a black and an Asian American boy--spar over who belongs at the bottom of the rung. The father hires a white maître d' as he believes a white face will attract more business than an Asian face.
In a review by the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger praises Constance Wu, who plays Eddies' mother, Jessica, for "getting the most laughs" in a scene where Eddie receives straight A's on his report card, and she is upset that the school is not challenging enough.
This is where I start to get a little nervous. Is this storyline funny because of Ms. Wu's excellent comic delivery, or because it capitalizes on the now instantly recognizable "tiger mother" stereotype? I think it is a bit of both.
Flashback to 2011. I open my inbox to a flurry of emails. What is going on? Why are so many people forwarding me the same Wall Street Journal article, all with trigger warnings--"Have you read this? If not, brace yourself." I comb through the article, "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," an excerpt from the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale law school professor Amy Chua. Oh my. I start to get what all the fuss is about.
At the time, I was in the midst of researching work and family issues for Asian-American women, and had conducted dozens of interviews with Asian-American mothers. I found the spectacle surrounding Chua's book both intriguing and annoying, and thought it would be an interesting footnote.
However, as the months wore on, references to hard-driving, emotionally manipulative tiger mothers, rather than fizzling out, proliferated. Whenever I found myself explaining my research, the most common response was, "Oh, like the tiger mother!" to which I would growl, "No, like the anti-tiger mother."
Yet if truth be told, I was not completely anti-tiger mother. I disagreed with much of Chua's parenting style and even more with her labeling it as "Chinese," but I respected her for staking her position and I bristled at insinuations that she was "un-American."
While a few Asian-American women were able to pen timely and trenchant critiques many others, including myself, felt paralyzed as to how to respond. We longed to hear the full range of Asian-American women's voices in the debate, but we knew how hard it would be to control our message, and we did not want to get caught up in a public catfight. "When the tiger mom book came out, I just didn't want to touch it," one woman shared. "It's like, 'Here we go again!' We're going to label a certain set of behaviors as belonging to this culture, and a certain set of behaviors not belonging." She added, "It's only going to get us mad at each other."
Fast forward to the present. It is hard to believe that the figure of the tiger mother still has so much traction. When I expressed frustration over this, a white American friend was genuinely perplexed, "Wait, you mean, you think it's bad to be called a tiger mom? I know this one Asian American mom -- she's perfect, her kids are perfect. I call her TM. I thought it was a compliment."
So here's the rub. As members of racial minority groups, do we have to choose between being seen as stereotypes or not being seen at all?
When I was growing up, one of the few Asian women actors on TV was Miyoshi Umeki, the first Asian performer to win an Oscar, but best known for playing Mrs. Livingston, the Japanese caregiver for an eligible widower and his young son in the sitcom, "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." One of the more painful racial taunts I received as a child was being asked if my mother was the housekeeper for "Mr. Eddie's Father."
In some ways, we have come a long way since my childhood in the 1970s, but in others, not so much. It will be a real sign of progress when audiences can see Jessica Huang of Fresh Off the Boat as they see Peg Bundy on Married...With Children -- as a woman whose mothering style reflects her background, but who does not represent every woman of similar background.
So here are my hopes for Fresh off the Boat and the generation of viewers watching it--Asian American and otherwise. That Constance Wu will kill it in her role as Jessica Huang, and open space for other Asian American women actors. That no Asian American child will be teased--or for that matter complimented--because people like or dislike Eddie Huang's fictionalized mother. And that the show will be a huge success because people will figure out--finally--that they can laugh with rather than at an Asian American family.
MotherWoman supports and honors all mothers, inclusive of race, religion, class, and any other label, whether applied by ourselves or others. We want to empower mothers to engage in these conversations about media representations and how they can hurt or empower our children.
Miliann Kang is Associate Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work (University of California Press).