By Wayne Yang
It’s the week after the ABC premiere of Fresh Off The Boat and there has been a lot of racket—both strongly for and against the program. Those for the sitcom speak about how accurate the story describes their lives or how they can identify with the characters. One in particular is the main character, young Eddie Huang as played by Hudson Yang—base on the life of celebrity chef Eddy Huang. Those arguing against the sitcom speak about the racism and stereotypes it reinforces.
As an Asian American–more specifically, a Southeast Asian American–and anthropologist—more specifically, a Hmong American ethnographer, I would like for us to consider some of the socio-cultural dynamics. I would like to relate how Fresh Off The Boat is not a narrative exclusively for Asian Americans only. Yet, I would also like to differentiate how it is not necessarily the narrative of all Asian Americans.
From an Asian American perspective, the Fresh Off The Boat story is a narrative we can all relate to. Coming from families with strict upbringings, many of us have felt envious of our “American” friends. We struggle with conforming to the cultural norms our parents place on us. We are also struggling to define ourselves in an individualistic and more self-expressive larger culture.
In a sense the Asian American narrative may be something that many can relate to. Some subgroups of Asian Americans include Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Indian Americans, South Asian Americans, and Southeast Asian Americans to name a few. Still, there are others who feel the same frustrations of finding themselves in two cultures—one being their own and the other, that of the predominant majority. These would include those from Native American, Hispanic American, African American and Middle Eastern American cultures. Of course, even European Americans have historically struggled with the same socio- cultural frustrations.
In the first two episodes, we saw how young Eddie struggled with what was considered cool (or uncool) in at school and what he thought was normal at home—ie. Lunchables vs Chinese noodles. What school age immigrants and children of immigrants have not had the same struggle? The question here is, “How does one define him or herself, straddling between a minority or subordinate culture and the dominant culture. The struggle is between trying to please both worlds and yet remaining true to one’s self. So in this perspective, the Fresh Off The Boat story is a story of all Americans—if not that of all internationally or ethnically dispersed people. In the light of globalization then it is a story of humanity.
Some would say, “Wow. My Asian American friends must have gone through this, too.” This would be a generalization, especially because there are various Asian Americans coming from various backgrounds, including those whose ancestors came earlier and are more established, those who are recent migrants as well as those who may be Asian by descent but adopted into families of other ethnicity—mainly white families. As a Hmong American myself, I would fall under the categories of Asian Americans as well as Southeast Asian Americans. And if you want to be specific, I am a 1.5 generation Hmong American who grew up in the central Midwest.
An example is that we did not bring Chinese noodles to school, the more embarrassing dish was the whole chicken—head, feet, and inners intact. We were supposed to tear into the chicken and leave nothing behind except for the bones. Talk about setting oneself up for ridicule. Another example is the culture of CLCs (Chinese Learning Centers). For us as refugees, we had ESL after school and summer programs to help us catch up academically, though we can relate to young Eddie’s envy of his White American friends. From this Multi-Asian American perspective, however, the story being told is not necessarily a story of all Asian Americans. Each Asian American group has their own (sub- or even counter-) narrative, as well.
In terms of the “racism” or stereotyping, it may be offensive that generalizations are being made. Some juxtapose Fresh Off The Boat to Blackish, stating that they are Asian and African American sitcoms based on stereotypes. However, we need to understand the socio-historical developments of stereotypes—that they may not be true for everyone of that sociological group but that it is true for some—if not most. An “educated” (or holistic) interpretation or representation would acknowledge the variety of racial and ethnic experiences. Another socio-historical dynamic to consider is that some stereotypes have been grossly exaggerated and a careful interpretation and representation would acknowledge this as to not to discriminate.
This topic would invite a conversation on the difference between something being rightly depicted versus something being wrongly exaggerated. But that would warrant another conversation on its own. The caution here would be to not overgeneralize a social-economic group base only on what the media presents about that particular group.
Another socio-cultural dynamic to consider is that of the speaker. There is a difference between an Asian American sitcom as shared by an Asian American versus one where the speaker is of another ethnicity. It boils down to the fact that one can call him or herself “stupid”—as an expression and not necessarily putting oneself down—versus someone else calling him or herself “stupid,” especially if one has had bad experiences with others of the same social group. For course, we all know the voice here is that of Eddie Huang. In some sense, the show results in a reflection of oneself and one’s cultural experiences and how it is like or differs from that depicted on the show—rather than someone else’s evaluation.
In terms of racism, some have stated that the stereotypes of “white culture” have been wrongly depicted. It should be granted that we cannot group all European Americans into those characters on the program. We can agree that to “rightly depict” the multiplicity of white cultures (and, thus, a proper representation) in America would take more time and resources than what the twenty minute program can squeeze in. Some questions to explore here would be the ideas of “white privilege” as opposed to the expectations and challenges of many Asian Americans. And in order to squeeze in and drive the point of these scenarios, it would require selecting only certain characters. An “educated” perspective would consider that representing all White Americans would be an almost impossible feat—reserved more for documentaries or other research projects rather than something for the mainstream media.
So should we just outright write off Fresh Off The Boat? Not really. I think it would be beneficial to realize the daily struggles of many Asian Americans and learn to relate to and interact with them. It is also beneficial for those who are Asian American to identify themselves with the characters as well as realize how they don’t identify with other certain Asian American groups. A more “educated” stance on the viewing of the program would acknowledge the socio-cultural dynamics mentioned above and view the program in that light.
So is Fresh Off The Boat for America? Yes! A TV program that reveals part of the Asian American experience that identifies with the struggles of growing up in America has been long overdue. If not anything, at least the show prompts us to probe into the multiplicity of Asian American cultures and subcultures, especially as it relates to those Asian Americans we see and deal with in our daily lives.
Is it for me? This would be a question each of us has to answer, considering the points mentioned above. For some who may not be able to handle the stereotyping then it is their choice if they chose not to. For others who are interested in seeing and learning more of the Asian American experience that many Asian Americans go through, it should be an emphatic, “Yes!”
In an interview with Time published 3 days later, Eddie Huang himself concluded “These conversations should be held in a public forum…so the rest of the country can learn and grow alongside of us.” Resonating his words here, my hope is that the things shared above may be topics where we can all (as Americans and even the global humanity) can engage in as we live with and deal with one another daily.
(About the Author: Wayne Yang is an adjunct at a couple of colleges–Kansas City, Kansas Community College and Toccoa Falls College. He teaches mainly anthropology and religion courses. He also is the primary caretaker of four preschool kids–triplets and a one-year-old. At the same time, he is trying to establish a nonprofit organization, Hmong Village, Inc., whose mission is to help, share and preserve the Hmong people, culture and language. Through his organization Wayne has spoken at church and academic events, workshops and conferences in the areas of the Hmong-American experience and effective ministry.)