Eddie: Everything fits perfectly inside of a box. Ha. Awesome!
Mom: You want to fit inside a box? That’s so American, why are you so American?
There are times in Fresh Off the Boat when the point is made as obviously as a firecracker, but in most cases those scenes work just fine. I want to say that this is because most of the time they come hand-in-hand with a white people joke delivered perfectly by Constance Wu (Jessica, a.k.a. Moms), but I digress. Fresh Off the Boat is, judging from a quick watch of the first two episodes, a show that works just fine. It’s snappy, funny, and working hard to show that it has a heart behind a lot of its caustic wit.
You know, I’ve never thought very hard about my childhood. I reflect constantly about my immediate past and present, and I do sometimes dwell on my angsty teenage years, perhaps more than I should. But where was I in ’95? About four years old, a precocious kindergartner who really liked Barney, naps, and songs for kids about Jesus. Nothing much else comes to mind. Now, Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang), star of our new show, was entering sixth grade at a new school in Orlando, trying to take the comforts of his urban D.C. — Nas t-shirts, hip-hop, and breakaway pants — with him. Very different.
I don’t want FOB to become the lens through which White America looks at every Taiwanese immigrant family (let alone every east Asian immigrant family), but at the same time I do undeniably harbor the desire for as much of it to resonate with my own experiences as possible. That’s why I’m going to compare Eddie’s TV family with my own family and weigh the similarities and the differences.
So in the first two episodes, “Pilot” and “Home Sweet Home-School”, what resonated with me? First of all: school lunch. Now, I was lucky enough that my mom almost always packed “white people food” — Lunchables, Squeez-its, Costco Chicken Bakes — or gave me checks for the crap served at the cafeteria. Perhaps my elder brothers had already done the convincing for her, or perhaps I was just more vocal when I didn’t get what I wanted. But although my mom allowed us to partake in the junk food diet of the nineties, that didn’t completely safeguard us from the realization that what we ate at home was far different from what white people ate.
(By the way, the number of references in the pilot episode alone to “white people this, white people that” was astounding. Groundbreaking. I loved it.)
What else? Chinese Learning Center, or after-school tutoring. I had actual Chinese school on the weekends and a handful of academies for writing and other subjects. Actually, I suffered through far less than many of my friends. But that look in Jessica’s eye when she pushes a massive textbook into Eddie’s arms just as he’s about to go outside to ball with the neighbor is a look I know all too well.
How about the parts I didn’t get? Well, as I expected, FOB tells a good story, but it’s different in many respects from mine. My family grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (Dad: “Do you know how expensive California is?”) where Asian immigrants abounded in the nineties. We were surrounded by other Asian families at every turn, and my elementary school’s Asian-American population was at least thirty percent (a figure that would rise to seventy-five by the time I reached high school in the same city). This contrasts sharply with Eddie’s pitiful realization that he’s the only Asian kid at his suburban middle school, and that even his only fellow minority, the black kid, wants nothing to do with him.
This is the kid who calls him ‘chink.’ Ouch. But let me be honest: I only know that that word is a racial slur because I read about it somewhere. I’ve never been called that in my life, never even heard it used to any of my friends. And I’ve never been forced to change anything about myself, what I eat or wear or say, in order to fit in with a predominantly white peer group. That being the case, I can hardly identify with Eddie’s situation or his feelings in that crucial cafeteria scene. Regardless, I think that his parents’ reaction is amazing. They rally for him against a clueless principal and point out what is sure to be the first of many double standards stacked against their son, against their family and their culture.
I’m a fan of young Eddie’s earnestness. He’s going to turn out to take after Dad (Randall Park) really well, I think. And it’s great that he is given opportunities in the two episodes to bond with both parents. First, he gets his mom to understand what kinds of assimilation are important to him, and she reveals that she really is on his side. Then, he impresses his dad with his big dreams (“First: get a seat at the table. Second: meet Shaq. Third: change the game.”) and discovers that Louis Huang’s dreams are, in fact, just as big.
I laughed a little when neighbor kid’s mom got him a basketball hoop for his straight C’s, then cried a little when Eddie, Evan, Emery, and Dad played on it a week later while neighbor kid waited in vain for a birthday card from his father. I saw it as a subtle way to emphasize the primacy that family has on this show. It’s about Asian Americans, yes, but it’s a family sitcom in its formula and its message, and the way the show’s directors are going to try to make it succeed is by appealing to this universal theme.
Fortunately, the show does plan to have race as another central theme. But it must tread carefully… and not in the way you might expect. The writers of FOB must certainly recognize on some level that today’s Asian American kids (who probably make up the largest share of the show’s viewership), are much less likely to be completely ethnically isolated in their schools today compared to twenty years ago. Asian American families have more visibility, more connections, and a sliver more cultural capital than they used to. But that doesn’t mean that anti-minority racism has diminished. It’s just that today, racism sounds less like, “Eww, Ying Ming’s eating worms!” and more like whispers of model minorities, exotification, and bureaucratic power structures that subtly work against the yellow peril.
That said, I expect and will tolerate the hilariously blunt culture clash that FOB offers for our entertainment for a season. I want Jessica to give Deirdre and the airheaded roller-blading moms more side-eye, and I want to hear grandma tell more taxidermified animals that they were too slow. But in the future, let’s hope for a little more nuance.
Teacher: Give a warm welcome to… Han-ghee… Yai… Ming-
Eddie: Yeah. Call me Eddie!
Teacher: Oh, thank God.
Eddie (showing off his report card): What did Fonzie say?
Voiceover Eddie: We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement, so if you said, “Love you,” you were probably hiding something.
Delinquent: You hit us with your car!
Jessica: You hit my car with your bodies.
Grandma (to stuffed jackalope): 你太慢了!