“Fresh Off the Boat” Preserves Culture

A few weekends ago, I felt a sudden burst of ambition to learn Chinese again. I say again
because I spent 8 years of my childhood learning Mandarin, but have lost all my ability to read
or write it. I logged onto Netflix to get used to hearing conversational Mandarin, but it turns out
that 95% of Chinese movies on Netflix are about kung-fu, and I couldn’t care less. I wanted
depth and culture and someone who wasn’t Jackie Chan to help me dust off my Chinese.
Soon, I lost my determination to practice Chinese, but realized the solution to keeping
my culture alive lies in American television. ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, which returned on
October 11, chronicles the immigrant experience of Eddie Huang. Based off of a memoir by the
restaurateur, the show chronicles a Chinese-American family after a recent move to Florida. It’s
the 1990’s, he’s an 11-year- old obsessed with rap music and Shaquille O’Neal, yet I couldn’t
relate to a character any more.

The allure of the show is that it strays from stereotypes and goes straight to the
common experiences of being Chinese-American. Sure, it addresses the pigeonholing that the
Huangs experience, but it does so with humor and grit. When the wine moms of the
neighborhood try to connect everything back to “the motherland”, Eddie and his family keep it
real. The culture shock of moving from the D.C. Chinatown to a Florida suburb is bad, but not as
bad as being the new kid. The show emphasizes how much Eddie wants to be accepted, how
he’ll give up the traditional Chinese lunches he loves for Lunchables so the kids won’t call him
names. I empathize this on a deep level—I remember growing up and worrying about the food I
would bring for lunch, so much so that I would just deal with the subpar cafeteria food or pre-
made Smuckers sandwiches (in retrospect this is probably the biggest financial sin I’ve ever
committed) when all I really wanted was some dumplings.

Eddie is Chinese, but he is much more than that. He’s an oldest brother, a new kid trying
to fit in and a hip-hop loving middle schooler. And FOTB lets these identities shine. One thing
that has always frustrated me about the media is that it rarely lets minorities be round,
complex characters. So when someone is written to be more than just their race or religion, it’s
such a rare occurrence that it is widely praised. That’s part of the reason Tom Haverford of
Parks and Rec is so iconic: he lets his heritage be an integral part of him without letting a focus
on his ethnicity take away from his actual personality.

The name of the show has garnered some backlash (from mostly non-Asian people, to
be honest), but I think it was a conscious and ballsy decision to name a family friendly show like
FOTB. Huang was born in Washington, but moving from the Chinatown area where he was
raised to a suburb in Florida is comparable to an entirely new culture. Even after living in the
States for over 10 years, his parents still deal with the same issues as recent immigrants. Louis is
disillusioned by the American Dream when his business isn’t successful, while Jessica struggles
to keep her family connected with their culture. In a particularly spot-on episode, Louis is
invited onto a local talk show and entertains the hosts with impressions and jokes. Though this
is how he normally is, Jessica makes him realize that because of a lack of Asians on television,
everyone will assume all are like him. When he returns to the show to set things straight, he
comes across humorless and cold, which doesn’t fix the problem. Finally, he admits the truth
about diversity, that no one person can be everything. This is especially meta because the
original reason behind the hype of FOTB is that it was supposed to finally represent Chinese-

My enthusiasm about FOTB is not an opinion that everyone shares. Though my parents
find it hilarious, my sister thinks the show is cheesy and not worth watching. The real Eddie
Huang has parted ways with the show because he became frustrated that the producers had
compromised the authenticity of the show for better ratings. He doesn’t believe that a happy-
go-lucky sitcom could truly house the truth about his upbringing, especially since the show
markets a one-size fits-all experience for every Asian. In a world of orange chicken and egg rolls,
he is the unapologetic baozi and scallion pancakes. Having written an impressive memoir just to
have it reduced to a family-friendly comedy doesn’t do his background justice, but it’s still
opened some doors for diversity. It’s added a way to talk about race in a humorous way, to be
more than the stereotypes of kung fu and noodles for a more complex generation. It’s true that
because we have so few shows like Fresh Off the Boat, people might see the show as a
representation of Asians everywhere, but at least it’s more up to date than the Crouching
Dragons and whatnot. Even if Huang doesn’t think his upbringing was universal enough to make
a show about, I see parts of myself and my family in all the characters. It’s a small step, but a
step nonetheless.

The third season of Fresh Off the Boat returned to ABC on October 11.