This country hasn’t seen a primetime network comedy series with a predominately Asian-American cast in more than 20 years. The world wasn’t ready for the first and last one, All-American Girl, featuring Margaret Cho, which was cancelled after the first season in 1994. That brief history of Asian-American network comedy told us never to try again.
Thank goodness we will be able to write the next chapter of that history with ABC’s Fresh of the Boat—a new sitcom based on restaurateur Eddie Huang’s bestselling autobiography.
And this time around, we have Huang to thank for making sure mainstream comedy more realistically reflects Asian America’s quirks, inter-family squabbles, and all the bullying in school that made us so damn resilient.
Set in the ’90s, Fresh Off the Boat is a coming-of-age story about growing up Taiwanese Chinese American in the white suburbs of Orlando, Florida. Eddie’s the new Chinese kid with the Notorious BIG shirt, arriving by way of a much more diverse, urban Washington, DC.
Since ABC first announced it was airing the show, Huang has been admirably unapologetic, starting first with the show’s title, reclaimed as a badge of honor for Asian immigrant families. And Huang, as a show producer and narrator, seems to be keeping ABC in check to ensure Fresh Off the Boat is truer to its source material, although it appears he might have backed off a little.
One of ABC’s inappropriate promotional tweets of Fresh Off the Boat shook up the Twitterverse on January 30 with Eddie Huang and Jeff Yang on deck to defend the show’s integrity. (Yang is a Wall Street Journal cultural commentator and father of the young actor who plays Eddie in the show). The tweet was taken down, but in its brief visibility, illustrated the profound discrepancy between the show’s intentions and its just wrong marketing:
— NBC Asian America (@NBCAsianAmerica) January 31, 2015
Despite these pre-airing tremors, this historic sitcom is cause for some Asian pride, and some general Seattle pride, too, with Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton representing as director of the pilot episode.
In Seattle’s Chinatown-International District in February, I invited a dozen mostly Asian Americans to a friend’s living room to preview screeners of the first three episodes of Fresh Off the Boat.
There were some laughs from the beginning of the pilot. Into the second and third episodes there were more laughs, followed by agreeing snaps and “Mmmm”s (progressive Seattle, you know what I’m talking about).
After the screening I asked the viewers how much they could relate to the show on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the most relatable. I got four sevens, a five, a six, an eight and an eight-point-five.
Unsurprisingly the two viewers of Chinese descent in the room—Huang’s family are Taiwanese Chinese Americans—gave the “eights.”
For community videographer Tuyen Than, who is Vietnamese American, the connection was a “seven.” She empathized the most with the lunch scene in the first episode, where young Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang) takes out his Chinese noodles, and his white peers are repulsed.
This is universal to the Asian-American and immigrant experience, says Than, with much of the room agreeing.
In Eddie Huang’s “Bamboo Ceiling TV” commentary published in New York Times Magazine, he feared the sitcom would be too much about the American dream, which assumes assimilation into white culture is necessary to fulfill any immigrant family’s pursuits in America.
But after the first three episodes, “it’s more about discovering what the Asian-American dream is and creating that idea,” says Than.
One disconnect for Sonny Nguyen, an educator in Seattle focused on social justice issues, was that “[Eddie Huang’s] parents seem like they are very well assimilated,” he said.
“In that respect, it was … not really that reflective of the whole idea of ‘fresh off the boat.’”
“Fresh off the boat” or not, the Huangs are fish out of water in white suburbia. Though the whole storyline relies on this contrast, Emilio Garza, a political organizer in Seattle who is part Japanese, Mexican, and white, wanted to see the family in their own cultural element.
“I would have kind of liked to see the show, also the family, within an Asian community,” he said.
Spencer Urena,who is Mexican American, was one of the “fives,” but by the end of the screening, he was more invested.
“I felt like I needed this show to exist,” he said.
But no one is getting their hopes up about seeing a second season.
“I try to imagine this show having the same popularity as Modern Family, and like, I don’t even see it coming close to that,” said Carson Ngo, a Chinese-American student who rated the show most relatable out of everyone in the room.
In the meantime, we’ll keep watching because they’re our stories, more or less. As Eddie Huang concludes in his call to keep it real:
“Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word. We are culturally destitute in America, and this is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.”
Fresh Off the Boat, airs Tuesdays at 8|7c on ABC.