Out of the 'Boat', And Into the Frying Pan

FRESH OFF THE BOAT - Pilot (Gilles Mingasson/ABC via Getty Images)
FRESH OFF THE BOAT - Pilot (Gilles Mingasson/ABC via Getty Images)

When I was young, friends would always excitedly tell me that I look just like Lucy Liu. Though absolutely complimentary, these occurrences were mildly confusing as I eventually came to realize that I share nearly no physical similarities with the Charlie's Angels star, besides the fact that we are both thin Asian females with freckles. Her squared jaw and almond shaped eyes are distinctly different than my own less angular, heart shaped, wide-eyed face.

Despite that, one other similarity I share with Lucy is that we both come from Chinese families. It has never occurred to me that using chopsticks isn't like second nature to some people. I've had many a friend genuinely ask if I really eat orange chicken for dinner all the time. (The answer is no. Never.) Besides when checking a box on standardized testing forms, being Asian has rarely ever been a conscious label I carry with me as an American citizen. Sure, around the dinner table with my family or during summer visits to China, I've come to realizations of how incredible it is to share my food, language, and history -- our culture -- with my grandparents and cousins. But I have never felt outstandingly foreign to my fellow peers.

That is, until recently.

In a span of just a few months, Asian people have suddenly been thrust into the Hollywood spotlight. Like a juicing fad, Oriental racial diversity is now the new hot topic that the entertainment industry has decided to contend with. Seth Rogen and James Franco brashly tackled the North Korean enigma of Kim Jong-Un by attempting to poke fun at the ludicrousness of the situation in The Interview. John Cho was casted as the first ever Asian American romantic lead in U.S. television history for his role on Selfie, which was unfortunately cancelled before its initial 13 episodes even finished airing. Tyra Banks almost moved a girl of Asian descent to the Top 4 of the 21st cycle of America's Next Top Model, marking the farthest a female Asian contestant has achieved since its 2nd season. Now, ABC is ready to jump into the pool with its newest family-friendly primetime comedy, Fresh Off the Boat.

The series, loosely based off of Eddie Huang's autobiographical memoir of the same title, follows a transplanted Taiwanese family of five during their first months of adjustment in the "Wild Wild West," more commonly known as Orlando, Florida. Fresh's protagonist is young Eddie, the "black sheep" of the family who finds solace in hip-hop legends, trying his best to balance his strong Asian background while attempting to find his own identity in the predominantly white school cafeteria.

In all honesty, I was dubious. The title itself was enough to spark hesitancy: "fresh off the boat" has been historically used as a derogatory phrase to describe immigrants from foreign, usually Eastern Oriental countries. Though I've been lucky enough to avoid ever being called a 'chink,' I've dealt with what I like to refer to as "racial confusion" all my life. Jokes about getting all A's, commentary about my eye size, and shock that I'm not a bad driver -- it's just a dose of the daily for any Asian American with friends of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

To me, these stereotypes have been harmless, but it isn't always the case. At my own relatively liberal hometown high school, a Vietnamese American student once was stabbed to death while coming to the defense of his fellow Vietnamese friend who was bullied by a Caucasian student. In 2011, a study discovered that teen Asian students were the most bullied in U.S. schools over any other ethnic group, with 54 percent reporting having experienced bullying in the classroom and 62 percent that had dealt with cyberbullying online.

In effort to keep Fresh within the family-friendly zone, the series only merely touches upon these unsung facts, hinting at discrepancies when Eddie finds himself shunned from a group of white friends upon pulling out strange, pungent Asian noodles for lunch during the series pilot. But more importantly, the ABC network show is giving the American population a brief, but authentic window into the life of an Asian American family -- giving them a chance to further understand this group of people beyond the stereotypes.

The series has already received glowing praise for its revolutionary new perspective: The Los Angeles Times calls it a "satire that works" and Slate.com claims that the show is "the latest reason to be grateful."

As many other fellow ABCs (American Born Chinese) have confirmed via Twitter which exploded with positive, approving Tweets during the two-episode premiere of Fresh on Wednesday, we are grateful. The appreciation is in the details -- from the all too familiar red and gold plastic Chinese bowls that the Huang's pass around the dinner table to the CLC (Chinese Learning Center), it's the first time I've felt a striking sense of familiarity on my television screen. It may come as a surprise to some that my family has never gathered to eat pancakes for breakfast while my father sits at the head of the table, flapping through a newspaper with his briefcase on hand -- my mother has always reserved the pristine dining room table strictly for formal occasions, a tradition many other Asian families also emulate. Instead, breakfast involved my father sitting with me at our circular, less formal kitchen table, laughing while I tried to grip a baozi (a steamed bun with meat or vegetables inside) with my child-size chopsticks. My mother and I converse in what many have dubbed "Chinglish," or sentences with both Chinese and English mashed together. We take our shoes off when we enter a home, we exchange hongbao (red envelopes filled with cash) during special holidays and yes -- I've eaten chicken feet. And it's pretty good.

TIME has hailed the Eddie Huang creation with "the makings of an American original." And that's exactly what we are -- American originals.

It's been 20 years since the end of Margret Cho's All-American Girl, the last all-Asian comedy series that graced the U.S. television network. Fresh Off the Boat, with its refreshing open-door policy to Chinese culture and just the right dosage of family -- friendly humor, may have just what it takes to break that spell of silence -- hopefully for good.

Deep down, I have always hoped that future young Asian Americans of all appearances -- Koreans, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese -- will have more than just Lucy Liu or Bruce Lee to consider as their celebrity Doppelgänger because more than likely, like me, they are unique and come in all different shapes and sizes. Just like everyone else. To the many strangers who have asked me, "So, where are you from? No like, what are you?," perhaps someday "American" will be a sufficient answer. The conversation has been sparked, and I rest a little easier knowing that it begins today with the Huangs and their journey on Fresh Off the Boat.

What ABC has begun to uncover can open the door to a world of rich, diverse culture, with so much to offer and share to curious friends, neighbors, and strangers who have never had the opportunity to join us at our dinner table. When they're ready, my mom will roll out the formal dinner plates, unleash endless plates of colorful Chinese dishes, and without a doubt, won't let them leave hungry.

Starting today, Eddie is making it okay to bring noodles to the table. Perhaps he, or his late mentor Notorious B.I.G. said it best: "If you don't know, now you know."

New episodes of Fresh Off the Boat air on ABC Tuesday 8/7C.