ReThink Review: Fresh Off the Boat (eps. 1-4) - Thanks, Asian America Needed That

When I hear white Republicans rail and lament the fact that "real" (meaning "white") America is being devoured by Obama's new, scary, diverse, multi-cultural America where whites are now the discriminated-against minority, I have a few questions I want to ask them:

  1. If you hear about a new TV show that has a white main character, do you feel like you're supposed to watch it in order to support white people in entertainment?
  2. When you see a white person on TV or in movies whom you relate to because their upbringing and background seem similar to yours, can you not believe your fucking eyes?
  3. Do you inwardly cringe, attempt to stifle a sense of dread, and emotionally brace yourself whenever a white actor appears on a screen?
  4. When you see a white actor appear on screen, can you take your eyes off them?
  5. Do you need more than one hand to count the number of American TV shows or movies in your lifetime whose casts are more than 50% white?
  6. Now that you're the minority, do you think you'll ever again see a white person cast as a romantic lead in the next decade or three?
  7. Is the most important thing about the majority of white characters you've ever seen is that they're white?

You probably see what I'm getting at. And that should explain why, as a Korean/Chinese-American raised in California, ABC's new comedy Fresh Off the Boat, about an Asian American family adjusting to life in Orlando, is such a big deal to me -- and made even bigger by the fact that, right from its first episodes, FOTB is uncharacteristically terrific. Watch the trailer for Fresh Off the Boat -- which airs Tuesdays (tonight!) at 8pm on ABC -- below.

Set in 1995, Fresh Off the Boat is loosely based on the memoir of the same name by outspoken celebrity chef Eddie Huang. It follows the hip-hop loving, rebellious 12-year-old Eddie (played by Hudson Yang) as he and his family relocate to mostly white suburban Orlando from Washington D.C.'s Chinatown. Eddie's Taiwanese-born dad Louis (The Interview's Randall Park) is following his American Dream by taking over a struggling Western-themed steakhouse. Louis' Taiwanese-born wife Jessica (an excellent Constance Wu) reluctantly supports the move, though she's convinced that her vigilance, high expectations, and discipline are the only things keeping the restaurant and her family from ruin. Eddie's younger brothers Emery and Evan (Forrest Wheeler and Evan Chan) are surprisingly well-adjusted goodie-two-shoes, while Eddie's Chinese-speaking grandmother (Lucille Soong) occasionally rolls in on her wheelchair for moral and comedic support.

A fish-out-of-water story about a family trying to fit in and run a successful business hardly sounds like anything new. But the fact that the family in question is Asian American in a show where race and cultural differences are unapologetically (and hilariously) omnipresent makes FOTB a true gamechanger and the touchstone that Asian Americans like myself have been waiting for their whole lives.

For those who haven't experienced being the minority in the country you were born in, it may be impossible to describe how strange, frustrating, and disheartening it is to spend your whole life without ever seeing your experience accurately reflected in the powerful, validating mirror of popular culture. I was born in North Carolina and was raised in a largely white suburb of the Berkeley/Oakland area. I never learned Korean or Chinese, and my parents never went out of their way to surround my brother and I with Asian people, especially since we didn't go to church and didn't have many relatives nearby. They made a decision early on that my brother and I would simply be raised as regular American kids, and in most ways, I saw no difference between myself and the mostly white or Jewish kids I hung out with. After all, we went to the same school, watched the same cartoons, played with the same toys and video games, and followed the same sports teams.

But when I watched TV or went to a movie, I saw no evidence that any Asian Americans lived in America. It was the strangest thing -- I knew that my family and I existed, and while we were clearly in the minority, I knew that there had to be a lot of other Asian Americans similar to us. But on big and small screens, we were nowhere to be found. And even worse, when Asians did make an appearance, it was to portray Asian stereotypes that would fill me with embarrassment and confusion. Asians were tourists, businessmen, exchange students, martial artists, Yakuza, perverts, domineering chauvinists, nerds, and owners of certain businesses (restaurant, Laundromat, corner store). But their thick accents and broken English (provided they could speak English at all) never left any doubt that these Asians were foreigners, or at the very least were less than fully American. They were almost always used as comic relief, usually because of their poor English skills or unfamiliarity with American culture. Whenever an Asian appeared onscreen, even for mere seconds in a commercial, I would gird myself for the insult and indignation that would surely follow, like a beaten dog who instinctively cringes in anticipation of being hit.

After a while, I became almost resigned to these racist depictions. It was always a bummer, and of course I wanted things to change, but I sort of accepted it as the price I had to pay for being a minority in America. I knew that I was as American as anyone, and those stereotypes were nothing like me, so what did it matter if a character like me or a family like mine was on TV or not?

As I got older, I learned that it mattered a lot -- especially when I realized that most non-Asian Americans had no Asian friends and mostly had contact with Asians who fit those stereotypes, like the staff at their local Chinese restaurant. This meant that tens of millions of non-Asian Americans were getting nearly all of their information about Asians and what they're like from the Asian stereotypes I was seeing in movies and on TV. I began noticing the influence of those stereotypes on the interactions I'd have with people -- a white man asking me what country I was born in despite a brief exchange in my accent-lacking voice; some drunk assholes shouting a karate "hi-ya!" at me from across a parking lot; being called "Mr. Miyagi" at my Boy Scout camp's Nickname Night; a boss saying I looked "like a ninja" when I was wearing a black turtleneck; etc.

And this is harder to prove, but I feel that anti-Asian stereotypes affected my dating life. People I've told this to (including women I've dated) have scoffed at this notion, but it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that women who had never once seen an Asian American man portrayed as a romantic lead might be less likely to consider an Asian American man for romance in their own lives, especially if you add the additional stereotypes that Asian men have small dicks and expect women to adhere to antiquated patriarchal gender roles. It's akin to how there were probably a lot of people who believed the stereotype that black people are mostly poor until seeing an upper-middle class black family on The Cosby Show, or couldn't imagine a black surgeon until seeing Dr. Benton on ER, or thought that all gay men were sex-crazed drag queens until seeing Will Truman on Will & Grace. And if that still doesn't convince you, what about the fact that few question the existence of "yellow fever", where non-Asian men are obsessed with dating Asian women due in part to the stereotype that Asian women will be submissive and subservient?

Even as our attention is becoming more fragmented across a growing number of screens, websites, and channels, primetime network television still has a power to validate that other forms of media haven't matched. Maybe it's a vestige of when the main networks were the only options available, the fact that TV shows are viewed in the intimacy of your own home, or that it only takes an antenna to get network shows into your home for free. But there remains a sense that being on network primetime means that you've finally made it, that the powers that be have decided that your story could be appealing to millions of Americans of varying demographics across the country. It's been twenty years(!) since a network felt that a show with an Asian-American cast was ready for primetime with Margaret Cho's All-American Girl, but the show's producers clearly didn't believe in it enough to avoid stale Asian stereotypes or even stick with the show's basic premise, constantly changing and abandoning storylines until the show was rightly derided as an inconsistent, unfunny, insulting mess. Despite my excitement about finally getting to see Asian Americans on primetime, I don't think I even got to the end of All-American Girl's first episode before ditching it in anger.

In contrast, after four episodes, it seems clear that FOTB is doing nearly everything right. The reviews for the first episodes have been overwhelmingly positive (earning an 89% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), and the response from Asian Americans on Twitter has been downright giddy. It's fascinating to see, in real time, the reactions of a minority for the first time seeing themselves and their experience smartly and hilariously portrayed for a wide audience with a semblance of respect, accuracy, insight, and dignity as they revel and relate to the show's treatment of culturally specific details. FOTB also appears to be blessed with valuable intangibles. Constance Wu's beauty and comedic abilities in the first two episodes easily distinguished her as the show's breakout star in a role that could've easily been written off as just another achievement-obsessed "tiger mom". Yet in the third episode, many viewers felt that Evan and Emery were the standouts in a show that is looking more like a well-rounded ensemble than one about Eddie being the black sheep in a family of outsiders.

But what is perhaps most fascinating, distinct, and potentially controversial about FOTB is its take on race and its view of white America from an Asian American perspective. Instead of dodging or underplaying an issue others might feel is too thorny to touch, the makers of FOTB correctly understood what every non-white American does -- that race and misperceptions of you based on your race will most likely be a constant, inescapable presence in your life. But instead of viewing that as evidence of America's sad inability to overcome racial prejudice, FOTB shows how ridiculous those prejudices can seem from the perspective of non-white people who know that it's not unusual for an American-born Asian kid like Eddie to speak perfect English, or that Asians like Jessica don't always have "exotic" names.

When it comes to cultural differences, it is white people and their ways that are identified as being unusual and foreign on FOTB, as they would for any group observing the dominant culture from the outside. When Louis and Jessica admit that they don't understand the Daytona 500, the joke isn't that the Taiwanese couple doesn't know about America's most prestigious NASCAR race, but that the Daytona 500 would seem baffling to anyone not raised to see it as normal. Carrying a bag of dog poop while rollerblading, a progressive school's nonsensical sticker-based grading system, the exuberance of grocery store advertising, the conformity of white suburban housewives, and an acceptance of average/low academic achievement are seen by the Huangs as the customs of a strange, untamed land where they happen to be citizens.

However, FOTB is not a one-note show whose only source of humor is poking fun at white people. Asian-American culture also gets a lot of ribbing, but from the opposite direction -- by portraying it as totally normal. That's what had so many Asian-American viewers rolling with laughter and relishing the familiarity of moments like Jessica's nostalgia for the relative chaos of a Chinese market, "success perms", a straight-A report card seen as proof of an underperforming school, and the shock and suspicion raised by overt displays of affection in a family that displays love through "criticism and micromanagement".

In this sense, FOTB is a rare gift to Asians and non-Asians alike. People who know little about Asian-Americans will get to follow an Asian-American family -- with all of their flaws and idiosyncrasies -- in a way that both celebrates and laughs at Asian-American culture, while also providing commentary on American culture from an Asian-American perspective. For Asian Americans like myself, FOTB's gifts are numerous, not least of which is finally having a more accurate portrayal of ourselves that Asians and others can relate to, laugh at, and use to skewer decades of harmful, ignorant stereotypes. It's something that, to my knowledge, has never been seen on TV in my lifetime, and certainly not before that.

Strangely, it's these unique gifts that have caused some viewers to claim that FOTB is a racist show -- and, more accurately, that it's racist against white people. It's a claim that I imagine comes from three places: 1.) The belief that talking about any cultural differences between races amounts to racism; 2.) An inability to imagine that any group could see white people differently from the way white people see themselves; and 3.) An inability to accept that any minority group might prefer aspects of their own culture to white American culture. They're viewpoints that probably come easily to someone who is so used to the dominance of their race/culture that anything perceived as complimentary of another race/culture or less than deferential to the dominant race/culture is seen as an irrational, hate-filled attack at the way things are "supposed" to be.

This criticism misses one of the central premises of FOTB, which is that what the Huangs want most is to fit in, make friends, and prosper as respected members of their new community. Knowing that they will be perceived as foreign by most of the white families around them doesn't make the Huangs hate those families -- it makes them work harder to prove to them that they are good American neighbors worthy of friendship and support, especially since that's the only way Louis' will be able to fulfill his American dream of a successful business. Jessica laments that Eddie is "so American" for wanting to eat packaged, processed "white people food" for his school lunches instead of the home-cooked Taiwanese food that earn Eddie jeers in the dining hall, and she later takes pride in the fact that Evan's lactose-intolerant reaction to string cheese is like "His body is rejecting white culture". But is this an expression of Jessica's hatred for the white American culture she is trying to be a part of? Or does it reflect an heartfelt fear that choosing mass-produced Lunchables over Jessica's delicious Taiwanese noodles might presage her young sons eventually rejecting their Taiwanese heritage altogether? There's nothing racist about being proud of your own heritage, especially as you attempt to embrace parts of another culture as your own.

The hardest thing for me going into FOTB's fifth episode tonight is trying to shake the worried knot in my stomach. The knot was largest right before the first episode premiered but shrank considerably during the first two episodes when I saw that not only was FOTB not terrible and embarrassing, but was funnier, sharper, and more affirming than I could've ever imagined given the lifetime of anti-Asian stereotypes I've grown up with. But with the third and fourth episodes, the knot grew somewhat as I noticed tweaks to the show's pace and comedic tone. I started to wonder if the first two episodes were a fluke and FOTB was destined to lose its edge until it had been diluted to another silly, unrealistic family comedy, though one that happened to star Asians.

But before I could enter an all-is-lost spiral, my girlfriend (who isn't Asian) pulled me back from the brink. She told me she thought the third and fourth episodes were plenty funny, and besides, the show was only four episodes in! When I calmed down, I rewatched the episodes and found that they were actually very funny, and that my overreaction was mostly based on a single silly gag in episode four where Jessica and her sister change into multiple outfits while at a restaurant to show their mom who got the best bargains.

Why was I so quick to proclaim the doom of a show that had so impressed and delighted me just a week earlier? Maybe it was pessimism brought on by decades of disappointment telling me that even though FOTB had started well, it couldn't possibly last. Maybe it was fear that ABC executives didn't appreciate what a unique show they had and were defaulting to the more outlandish, quick-talking style found in some of their other successful family comedies. Maybe it was fear that FOTB would fizzle out and that I may never live to see another Asian-American family on primetime.

Or maybe it was because I truly love Fresh Off the Boat and only want the best for it. And criticizing it, micromanaging it, and demanding that an already great, overachieving show be even better is just the way I show it.

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