“No matter what, we were never gonna leave our heritage behind,” says Voiceover Eddie as his family drives off to a country club, leaving Grandma behind.
And so ended Season 1 of the groundbreaking ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, the first major network television show to feature an Asian American family in twenty years.
I’m glad that it ended with a tongue-in-cheek joke. To me, it indicates that the show’s creators didn’t want to take themselves too seriously, even as they took a serious U-turn with this final episode in terms of bringing the show back to its original conceit of addressing race and class with a mix of satire and sincerity.
You see, we started out in the pilot watching Jessica stand in awe of a big-box grocery store and struggle to be understood by the neighborhood ladies. Eddie couldn’t eat his home-cooked lunches in front of his derisive peers. Louis’ restaurant was floundering, and nobody would equate his Chinese face with a good ol’ American steak.
Now, Jessica watches Melrose Place with her gossip white friends, Eddie’s gang includes white kids and the school’s token black kid, and Louis is enjoying the benefits of booming business at Cattleman’s, including the family’s climb up the social ladder and a subsequent invitation to the local country club.
In between that, we had a handful of episodes that echoed the pilot’s great maneuvering of racial tensions and stereotypes, but honestly, the majority of them seemed content to turn tropes into jokes and blandly whitewash the entire Huang family until they became the nothing more than an empty vehicle for typical sitcom fodder, only imported from Asia.
I guess that façade came crashing down as soon as Marvin and Honey remarked to Louis and Jessica over pre-dinner martinis, “Sometimes, I forget you guys are Chinese! You’re just like regular old Americans to us!” How well-meaning of them. But Jessica takes it personally.
The definition of fine acting is the way Constance Wu portrays Jessica’s life-shattering moments (upon moments upon moments) of realization that her family has assimilated far too much for her liking. (One season ago: “Why do you want to fit inside a box? Why are you so American?”) It starts off with that look of consternation, then a concerned dialogue with her husband, then incredulity at Evan wanting to learn enough Mandarin to ask Grandma to speak in English, and at Eddie’s sudden obsession with Jamaican culture. Finally, it culminates in her realization that she has made macaroni and cheese1 for dinner. Mac ‘n cheese. From a box. Just add water. (Why do you want to use a box? Why are you so American?)
But it devolves into slapstick and stereotype from that point forward. The morning after her epiphany, Jessica dons a qipao and yellow hair ribbons and serves youtiao and steamed buns for breakfast (yum!). She has enrolled all three sons in the nearest Chinese school, which is two hours away, in Tampa. Eddie wants to represent Jamaica at the world cultures fair (better than Iceland or the “country” of Africa?), but she forces him to research China instead. And she goes on tirade after tirade about how her family has lost all its connections to their roots.
All of it was bizarre. I mean, the premise is fine, but Jessica, seriously, why are you dressed as Chun Li? What’s with the tired clichés about the Great Wall and gunpowder? Why did you serve chicken feet as an afternoon snack? We already know you cook great stir-fried noodles! Why resort to Weird Things? The outrageous exaggerations were meant to illustrate Jessica’s identity crisis and her projection of it onto everyone else, but I’m chagrined that the only way the writers thought to do this was to scrape the bottom of the barrel for stereotypes that haven’t been used yet.
What I would rather have seen, instead of this spontaneous outburst of cultural hyper-performativity, is a gradual build-up of the tension between generations over several episodes, climaxing at a point where the whole family can talk together about the problem of assimilation, instead of leaving all the moralizing to the parents and using the kids only to demonstrate their cute but stupid insensitivity. I’m sure there’s a way to do this and still be funny. Making the various highlighted aspects of Chinese culture into one long punch line might draw laughs, but I soberly realize that it does this at two great costs: 1) white audiences unfamiliar with Asian cultures learn about our idiosyncrasies in the context of ridicule, and 2) Asian audiences have the message reinforced that our clothes, food, language, and history are a joke.
In the end, the family compromised. Well, maybe it’s not as simple as that, but as it is, Louis got to join the country club, Jessica got to keep watching TV, and Eddie made them both proud by defending China in front of his unintentionally offensive classmates. He got an ‘F’ on his project, but Jessica was still proud of him and put the ‘F’ on the refrigerator as proof.
I wonder if other people think that this was a nice way to wrap things up, because I really didn’t. Exactly how was “we were never gonna leave our heritage behind” actually demonstrated? Sure, Eddie listened to his mother and regurgitated those same clichés about China’s greatness. Very good, especially for an eleven-year-old. But he only did it because he felt personally insulted. In so many other ways, he and his brothers are truly losing touch with Chinese culture; the episode takes care to point all of these things out but does not resolve them. I keep thinking about how Evan and Emery learn how to do outstanding calligraphy, but only to impress their mother. I keep thinking about how Grandma did absolutely nothing in this episode! Why? Why waste so much time showing us the objects that symbolize (exotified) Chinese culture and neglect to give a voice to the people who live it?
Speaking of which… This episode got me thinking about my parents’ experience raising three sons in California, an ocean away from Taiwan. They came to the US for better opportunity, as my dad has told me many times. Raising their family in Taipei would not have been impossible, but the allure of America was just too strong. And they were quite aware that there would be sacrifice involved. I mean, my brothers and I cannot really speak Mandarin, and I, at least, can’t cook anything authentically Taiwanese. I’d say our connection to our heritage is fair-to-middling. At least we’re not completely whitewashed (or, as we second-gens like to say, we’re not “bananas” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside). And at least my parents have never (seriously) judged our worth based on our Taiwanese-ness, our obedience, or even on our financial success.
But my mom and dad have had no problem retaining their ties to Taiwan, in part because of the huge numbers of other Taiwanese immigrants who came with them. They’ve been rolling with this community their entire lives, connected through churches and alumni networks; there’ve always been weddings, funerals, and reunions to attend. I can’t think of any way in which my parents have unwillingly or unintentionally lost their culture… but I should probably ask them.
Anyway, this is part of what makes my family so radically different from the TV Huangs. Some Asian American families I know were more similar to them, though, so I’m curious to hear what their assimilation-or-isolation experiences have been like. I’ll be happy if they have found it more relatable. Perhaps a part of me is slightly disappointed that FOTB came across as more silly than sincere in its treatment of the Asian American experience, but I must remind myself that there is no one single Asian American experience, even if only one TV show is allowed to represent it.
So that’s it, then. Over the past few months, I’ve written about fifteen thousand words about a syndicated television show’s pilot season. I never thought that would happen. But there are firsts for everything! And I can’t help but hope that in this case, we’ll also get seconds, and maybe even more.
Voiceover Eddie: I became my school’s first black president.
Jessica: We need to reconnect with our culture, not surround ourselves with white people doing white things.
Louis: You know what’s a white thing? Hanging up a Buddha picture.
Jessica: [Mac ‘n cheese] is so easy to make. You just add water. It’s cheese from water.
Marvin: And this is our tennis court, Louis. The net is always taut, we have an endless supply of tennis balls… [hits one over the fence] Haha, see? Who cares where that went?
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1 Mac ‘n cheese! I took this as a clever allusion to discussion of ethnic food in Eddie Huang’s memoir. There was a short story about going to a friend’s house for dinner and being disgusted at the smelly casserole dish of melted cheese on the table. Yes, mac ‘n cheese is as American as it gets, but to many Asians, it seems revolting. I myself couldn’t stomach mac ‘n cheese for years after a bad experience at Disney World…
P.S. Here’s a nice review of the show by Jeff Yang (father to actor Hudson Yang, who plays Young Eddie) and how the milestones it set outweigh its drama (or lack thereof!).
P.P.S. Here’s an even nicer thing: part of a show produced by the real Eddie Huang called Huang’s World, which is… well, whatever it is, in this segment, he bonds with his father in Taipei by going to Din Tai Fung, playing basketball, and paying respects to his grandfather. It’s sweet, and I really like seeing the real father-son dynamic here, in stark contrast to the comedic one on screen.