Don’t call me Fresh Off the Boat

If you haven’t already heard, a new family is hitting the airwaves tomorrow (Wednesday 8:30|7:30c on ABC), and I am excited, nervous, curious, and afraid. It’s not every decade you get to see an Asian American family featured in an episode of a television show, let alone an ENTIRE television series, but that’s what we’re going to get with “Fresh Off the Boat.”

Did I mention I am excited and afraid?

The show is based on Chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same title, and you can read all about the show here. It is the story of an immigrant family experiencing culture shock as they chase after the American dream. I haven’t gotten a sneak peek; I’ve seen what the general public has seen.

And I am hopeful but I am holding my breath.

Eddie’s family looks like mine in the way all East Asians can get lumped together under the umbrella of Asian Americans. We look alike without actually looking alike. The family featured on the show has roots in Taiwan, which actually is an entirely different country than the one my family and I immigrated from (South Korea, which is different than North Korea). But for all intents and purposes, Eddie and his family are my family.

Why? BECAUSE WE ARE NEVER ON TELEVISION. Yes, Lucy Liu has a role. Yes, John Cho had a leading role in a romantic comedy that was canceled (Selfie, if you didn’t know). Yes, we Asian Americans can also claim Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead. Yes, there are other Asian American actors currently on network television but I would have to Google them in order to name them. If you are white, Anglo, or can pass as either you have just about everyone else. Seriously.

Even growing up in the church, God, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were all depicted as white. Think Sistine Chapel. Think felt story boards. I hear Burl Ives’ voice in the Bible story audio cassettes my parents bought me and my sister. The only time God wasn’t white was when He was Black, thanks to Bill Cosby.

No one sounded or looked like me because the underlying message I got was that no one wanted to sound like or look like me. It wasn’t all that underlying. I may be 44 years old, but the teasing, bullying, and physical harassment were memories formed well into my 20s. Classmates making fun of my name, my eyes, and my nose, and laughing at what they thought I might be eating or the way they thought my family might speak. Boys in the form of grown men driving pick up trucks slowing down screaming racial slurs at me as I walked the neighborhood, driving back around just in case I didn’t understand the first time.

“Go back to where you came from, Chink! Gook! This is America! Learn to speak English. Did you hear me? Love me long time.”

I don’t know how Eddie’s story pans out in the series, but I found solace, courage, and healing in a group of Asian American Christians as an undergrad. This thoughtful group of college students from all over the country understood me in a way other friends had not. They understood my faith in Jesus and the complicated experiences of growing up as an immigrant or as the child of immigrants. Our collective pain and our collective joys became our inside jokes. We had lived through common experiences that set us apart from the white students (and the black students), and we shared words in our mother tongues, food from our mother’s kitchens, and lecture notes and study guides when we could. We knew what it was like to be the foreigner, the stranger. We understood the enormous pressure to succeed because of the great cost our parents had paid. We understood no one wanted to be like us (unless they thought we all set the curve in the classes); that was going to be up to us. We had to learn to love ourselves as God had created us. Imago Dei. In His image.

So those jokes, those were the jokes we made about ourselves for ourselves. FOB or “fresh off the boat” was a label we applied to ourselves even after so many others had been forced upon us.

Those were our jokes, our jokes to tell ourselves in the safety and loyalty of one another.

I’m hopeful non-Asian American America will finally learn to laugh with us and stop laughing at us, but I’m still holding my breath.


  1. Helen Lee February 3, 2015

    Haha! It looks like we both have similar ideas in mind. Mine comes out tomorrow morning. =)

    • Kathy Khang February 3, 2015

      Helen, does that mean we all look alike and think alike? 😉 from what I’m reading, you and I are not alone. It’s “just” a tv show and not just a TV show.

  2. Alia Joy February 3, 2015

    “No one sounded or looked like me because the underlying message I got was that no one wanted to sound like or look like me.” <—This exactly. I remember being a girl and seeing no one who looked like me except Kristi Yamaguchi and Connie Chung. It's 2015 and I wonder who my daughter will see that looks like her. I'm holding my breath hoping for change but it's so slow coming. Everywhere, not just in Hollywood but in the church, in the Christian blogosphere, in publishing. I don't know what Fresh Off the Boat will be like. I'm a mix of hopeful and dread. We don't have tv so I'll watch it the next day on Hulu.

  3. Judy Dominick February 3, 2015

    Kathy, I don’t know if you’re aware of Eddie Huang’s experience with the producers of the show. He’s been shaking things up a bit on Twitter. You can read about it here:

    There’s this (warning – lots of expletives):

    And then this:

  4. pastordt February 3, 2015

    I really hope you’ll do a follow up after the first few episodes and tell us what it feels like to you to watch it. If there are a lot of jokes about how people look, I will struggle with it a lot, but you seem to imply that some of those jokes are ones you use with friends who understand – did I read that right? Thanks for alerting us to this particular program, Kathy. Now I’m really curious.

  5. Velynn Brown February 4, 2015

    Kathy Sis,
    I hear your hope and I hear your fear. I’m cheering along side you with and for your people. I grew up with Vietnamese, Chineese and Korean friends.
    Many of them struggled with living in and out of two worlds -but I got it and we cheered each other on.
    I remember talks about growing up with strict parents, eating the same food each week and being the only hope of our parents. We also shared mixed tapes of Michael Jackson, Boy George and Whitney Houston because that was where we were from as well.
    My greatest gifts in those friendships were holding each other in high esteem as we honored together our legacy and culture but also the space and air we gave each other to discover our own God-designed selves.
    Those that create/share our brown-skinned stories I feel don’t understand/own their influence, responsibility and power. Laughter is good even necessary to get us through the pain of being marginalized. We can laugh easily at ourselves best when we know that the joke is there to ease our burdens not insult our dignity. The Cosby Show, Different World even the Fresh Prince of Bel Air are a few shows that gave us both comic relief and a needed healing. The healing came because a greater collective of who we are as a whole was represented and celebrated. That is my hope for this show in its long long long overdue representation of your beautiful and diverse Asian cultures and nations.

    • Kathy Khang February 5, 2015

      Thank you, sis! We need to get together in person!!

      Your list of shows were all part of my television consumption, and it saddens me to think that my children until last night had never “had a show.” For that matter, I hadn’t either since “All-American Girl” did not last a season and that was really it until “Fresh Off the Boat” which is crazy. Just crazy.

      Here’s to our stories!

  6. Wendy H. February 4, 2015

    I’ll be watching the show and actively trying not to put all my many hopes onto it. What, one TV show can’t end racism against Asian-Americans?

  7. Starlette McNeill* February 4, 2015

    Reblogged this on Race-less Gospel and commented:
    I share this reflection by Kathy Khang to aid in our conversation on race and its intersections with faith and popular culture. I appreciate the author’s honesty, transparency and perspective. I hope that others will give more thought to the ways in which identifying in America can be a difficult and painful process. But, remember that we are not alone, that there are others who share our story and who will journey with us as we look intently and listen deeply for our true name.


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