Some quick, unedited thoughts in reaction to tonight’s premiere (FINALLY) of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat because I want to know your thoughts. I’ll go first. (THERE ARE SOME SORT OF SPOILERS…)
- I liked it. I thought it was funny. I like the kind of funny where I laugh out loud, and I laughed out loud. And my sons who are 15 and 13 sat down with me to watch both episodes and laughed, related, and repeated lines.
- Constance Wu’s portrayal of the mother Jessica Huang was lovely. She loves her children and her husband, but she isn’t going to take things lying down. She doesn’t mince words, but she isn’t one-dimensional. Hmmmm.
- There were as many “jabs” at white culture/people as there were stereotypes of Asian/Taiwanese American culture. White people food, white people bowing, white suburban SAHMs talking loudly, fast, and over anyone else alongside the grandmother who doesn’t speak English, stinky Asian food, and Chinese Learning Centers (CLC, which of course my sons thought meant College of Lake County). I grew up calling white people and their food “Americans” and “American food,” which to some degree still holds true in American culture.
- There were so many moments that sent me back to childhood. The stinky food thing. My sons started reminding each other about “the time you brought insert-some Asian food-here” to school and what reactions they received. My parents sometimes still talk about how their clothes smell after being at Korean bbq restaurant. The CLC thing never happened, but the push to excel meant my parents MADE Korean language worksheets and photocopied academic workbooks (I couldn’t write inside of them because they would re-use the book for my younger sister or make new copies of sheets when I didn’t complete them correctly) for us to do OVER THE SUMMER.
- Yes, some of those things that rang true border on stereotypes, which is probably why I read many, many comments about how the show was good but not perfect…
- But WHY DOES THIS SHOW HAVE TO BE PERFECT??? Why are so many of us Asian Americans adding that caveat? How many shows are perfect? I get it. This is the first show in 20 years featuring a family that looks remotely like mine so there is a lot of pressure. The pressure is real in terms of the network, etc. but it isn’t real in that the “Asian American community” does not, should not carry the burden of perfectly representing our story because there is no one story. I understand the burden in so many ways, but again I want to be held accountable and hold others accountable. How might we be perpetuating the stereotype of the model minority by expecting, even daresay hoping, this show, this ONE SHOW, would perfectly represent a multicultural community? It can’t.
- I’m grateful the show took on double standards and the word “chink.” I was caught a little off guard when it happened because you never get used to that, and why should we. But when the parents defended Eddie and asked why the other boy, who was black, and his parents were not in the principal’s office for using a racial epithet I said, “YES!” Now, I don’t know how many Taiwanese parents would’ve done that, but as a parent and as an adult who still hears “chink” thrown at me or my family I appreciated the call out. For the record, I didn’t punch back because I wasn’t going to start something I couldn’t finish. I swore back in Korean.
- It mattered to my sons. I was surprised that they wanted to sit with me to watch it live because who does that anymore. But there they were laughing and following along. They both agreed it will go into the DVR queue and when asked why they liked it both of them said they liked seeing Asians on tv. “The Asians. They are like us.” Yes, they are.
OK. Unfiltered, quick, off-the-cuff thoughts to jump into the conversation. I’d love to hear from all of you, Asian and non-Asian American!!
- Did you watch it? Why or why not?
- If you watched it, what did you think?
- What did you like the most? What made you cringe? Why?
- What were the things you resonated with? What didn’t you understand or get?
- Whatever else you want to add. 🙂
I agree – it doesn’t have to be perfect. I have mixed feelings but they’re positive overall. And there was probably some equal opportunity stereotyping that made it all more tolerable. The scene in which we realize that Eddie beat up the kid who called him a chink felt more like a revenge fantasy, since what my brother and a lot of my friends experienced was endless bullying and belittling and never got to fight back. Plus, our parents didn’t speak English well enough, nor would have had the confidence, to be able to stand up to a school principal like that. That said, I’m actually not upset with the less-than-authentic nature of that scene because for those who got bullied both physically and psychologically with denigrating racial slurs while growing up, that was probably a satisfying revenge fantasy played out on television in a way that might actually help restore some of the sense of dignity that was lost in childhood.
As a side note, I felt depressed after I watched it for uniquely personal reasons. I’m actually Taiwanese-American, and my parents immigrated from Taiwan in 1969 and 1970, so I thought that I might find more comfort and validation in seeing this family on television than I actually did. You see, my dad has never adjusted to the culture in the United States, and now at age 73, he says that he regrets ever having moved here. He probably has Asberger’s, and so all the social and emotional challenges that come with Asberger’s were multiplied a hundredfold when he moved here. He worked his tail off in order to succeed at his job but never felt like he could win the approval or affection of his “American” bosses because he just didn’t know how to relate to them. The prolonged stress and workaholism eventually led to a mental breakdown in 1982 from which he has never fully recovered. He’s a kind, loving, thoughtful, and hardworking man, but he still struggles with psychosis. So yeah, there were a lot of moments in the show in which I said, “Yes, that happened,” but there were also numerous moments in which I thought, “That was never my reality. I only WISH our lives had been so normal.” And something about that created for me a deep sense of loneliness and isolation.
Judy, I was so stirred by your sharing. I’m sorry to hear of what a difficult experience your dad has had. I think my dad had some similar feelings. He was pretty introverted, so living in the U.S. was difficult for him, not feeling confident with the language, etc… I totally resonated with your comments that the parents’ confrontation with the principal felt a revenge fantasy. I wished my parents could’ve done that, but I always felt alone in the academic school realm. But watching that scene, I loved that they did confront and fought back…I realize it’s kind of more what I do/did for my kids…so maybe it is the 2nd generation experience. Thanks for your sharing.
Judy, thank you for being so honest and vulnerable. I am hoping to read Eddie Huang’s memoir on which the show is based to get a better sense of reality v. TV fantasy. My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1971 and the possibility of owning a business didn’t come around until I was about to enter college. There so many things in the show I resonated with, but the parents (minus the CLC bit) were not what my parents were. However, what I kept thinking was that I hope I would be the parent to stick up for my kids in the principal’s office.
Very well stated, Kathy! Appreciated your insights on how one show cannot represent an entire multicultural community.
I loved that it went beyond just being superficially funny and captured both painful and poignant moments of growing up in 2 cultures. I got teary during the cafeteria scene. Why is it that as an accomplished, professional woman, I can be so easily transported back to my own childhood experiences of feeling different and “less than”? When I pack somen salad or spam musubi for my kids now, their friends think it is cool. But a lot of us grew up like Eddie, before Asian culture/food became trendy.
Nothing about the show made me cringe- the only thing that did were reading Tweets from people who totally “missed the boat”. But those were really in the minority last night. Encouraged by the overwhelming positive comments I saw from everyone, regardless of their cultural background.
I saw many of those tweets as well, and I kept thinking how so many of the same people who say representation in mainstream media doesn’t matter until they aren’t the ones leading the story.
And the cool Asian food still has its limits, right? There are the cool Asian foods and then there are the foods you only eat at family gatherings or order from the secret menu at the restaurant. In that way, I think that Asian Americans can still grow in our awareness and understanding of how we are “accepted” and belong, which is often based on our level of acceptability. As a Christian, I am grateful and can rest in the knowledge that who I am in all the facets of being are fully acceptable in Christ who gets that I’ve been created in His image and I am a Korean American woman.
Yes, resonated with the cafeteria scene. I also remember having friends over and having them say, “Ewwww. There’s something dead and stinky in your fridge”…referring to the kimchee. I loved the mom! I loved that she stood up for her kids and to the white teens who dined and ditched. She’s feisty and I loved seeing a strong Asian woman depicted rather than quiet and submissive. My mom is actually quite strong, so for me, her character was rather realistic. Even with her broken English, she had no problem confronting anyone! The whole CLC thing was so funny, too. It’s totally true of the Korean community/kids in L.A./La Canada. Looking forward to the future episodes.
My ice cubes will forever smell. That’s because yummy food smells…awesome!!! Yes, I loved the strength and sassiness of the mom because I know so many of us Asian American women are exactly that!!
Thanks so much for this follow up, Kathy. I spent last night in the ER with my mom, who fell and had to have lots of tests done. (She has a badly bruised mouth, is more confused than ever, but otherwise in one piece.) But I’m adding this to my Tivo queue now.
Oh no!! Prayers for you and yours in this season.
Pat and I watched it and found ourselves laughing throughout both episodes. In terms of how much it resonated with me, well I’ve become used to recognizing that most depictions and stereotypes of Asian American life don’t really describe my personal experience, but it was still comforting to see familiar situations and faces on screen. I didn’t look at it through the lens of “was it completely accurate and realistic” because what could it be measured against? Everyone’s experience has a different “accurate” and “realistic”.
I think it is interesting the father’s character is so warm and kind (not what you would normally expect for an Asian father figure). It may not necessarily represent the norm but it does somehow feel comforting to see an Asian American male portrayed that way. Similarly, I love that the mother is a strong, fiery woman, not submissive and passive. I think breaking those stereotypes is what could make the show successful for both Asian American and non-Asian American audiences.
I did find it interesting that in the first episode it was the Black student who called Eddie “chink” – not one of the white kids. I don’t know if that was keeping true to the story of what really happened, or if perhaps they strategically chose not to have one of the white kids say it because they were trying not to alienate their white audience. Not sure, but it was definitely an interesting choice.
Those are my thoughts so far!
Laura, I think the “chink” exchange was modeled after a real exchange, and I know that for some Asian Americans their first run-in with racial epithets came within a multiracial context. To me it pointed to the larger issue of race – white is on top and everyone is battling to get off the bottom.
I hope the show continues to do what the first two episodes did, and I’ll be looking forward to your commentary as well!
[…] It felt momentous and for the first time I wished I didn’t have to wait for Hulu to roll it out the next day. At first I tried to avoid tweets and spoilers but I finally gave in and was pleasantly surprised that the general consensus in the Asian American community was that ABC pulled it off. It’s not perfect but it’s good as Kathy Khang wrote. […]
I’m certainly glad to see Asians represented in the media, but at first, I was apprehensive. First, Eddie Huang’s memoir was certainly atypical of the Asian American experience. This is not a ‘tiger mom’,piano-playing childhood, it was alot of violence, drugs, partying, gangs, rap-music, cursing. Yes, there was certainly relatable moments-feeling ostracized at school and the bullying…but it wasn’t something I could relate to. So I worried about the TV show, and of course, being on TV, it had to be cleaned up, and also portraying the younger years would avoid some of the more ‘rough’ parts, including the rough parts about his dad (the TV dad is soft compared to the dad portrayed in the book).
That being said, after the first 2 episodes, I can say, I enjoyed it, and even made me laugh out loud. I haven’t watched sitcoms in quite a while, and when I do, I find them overly contrived, forced, and unnatural. So at first, I was a bit disappointed after the first episode, because it seemed too over-the-top, but once I embraced the ‘over-the-top’ antics, I thought it was laugh-out-loud funny!
Elaine, I think all of Asian America was apprehensive. Some of the preview clips made it worse for me having been around for All-American Girl’s epic fail. I haven’t read Huang’s book, but it is on order now. I’m hopeful that even as stereotypes are visited they aren’t the butt of the joke but a window into some more cultural commentary from the Asian American/Taiwanese American perspective!