Complex identities miss the “Boat”

by Benjamin Tran / Beacon Correspondent • February 26, 2015

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Though Fresh off the Boat is a step toward achieving Asian-American visibility in media, it lacks depth and complexity .
Though Fresh off the Boat is a step toward achieving Asian-American visibility in media, it lacks depth and complexity .

For all the early exaltations at an American show finally featuring Asian-Americans, ABC’s Fresh off the Boat is still just a mere declaration of arrival for this group in the entertainment media rather than a full-fledged, multifaceted narrative. The show, which premiered earlier this month, is based on a popular memoir by Asian-American chef and writer Eddie Huang, and follows his culturally polarized upbringing and his encounters with racism in school and society. But its televised adaptation gives the false impression that the only real difficulties we minorities face are in confronting the stupidity and vapidity of racial ignorance. 

Fresh off the Boat is a show that disguises itself as “breaking stereotypes” by showing how “Americanized” the family’s become. You don’t have to show them trying to open a cowboy themed restaurant or have them sing a lame Ace of Base tune in the family minivan to challenge stereotypes—all of this serves no use but to relate to what the writers obviously perceive to be the “average” American. The only plus side to all this is that its airing may open the doors for individuals, and Hollywood as an industry, to take more chances on presenting the Asian-American experience. Perhaps some of these chances will be taken on narratives that present that experience as unique and complex. 

When I first heard about Fresh off the Boat, I was perplexed by the extraordinary amount of media hype it received, considering the relatively prolonged and unnoticed absence of Asian-Americans in media. There seems to be a presumptuous notion that casting Asian-Americans, or any minority for that matter, is not profitable enough for mass audiences. This idea, which has always felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me, is based on a brazen assumption that white Americans will automatically turn their heads away from anything that isn’t smothered with faces of their white brethren. There is a dishonest and racist tinge attached to this, and I’ll never use it as an excuse to explain why Asian-Americans haven’t been depicted in the media more. 

The truth is this: when escaping from impoverished countries like Maoist China or Cold War Korea, many “off-the-boat” immigrants didn’t have the option or finances to pursue a career in art. Their pragmatism was their main survival tool, and this attitude was passed down to their American-born offspring and has since been embedded in the Asian-American consciousness. In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians only make up about 5 percent of the American population, so the lack of voice in the media shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. 

Because there are so few of us, future Asian-American filmmakers and artists have a responsibility to show mainstream America that we are relatable, complex individuals, not simply constrained by our reactions to the white world and their reactions toward us. Let’s talk about the young Chinese teenager who has to juggle English classes at Nassau Community College while working two jobs so that her sister in Shenzen doesn’t spend the rest of her youth making our iPhones. Let’s be serious just once

I’ve learned that Eddie Huang himself has shared my sentiments of disappointment in the show’s quality. In response to his memoir being depicted on screen, Huang wrote in Vulture that his story had become “an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian male.” 

I haven’t read Huang’s memoir, but I had heard from numerous reviews and friends that, for the most part, its televised adaptation had simply "got it." When I tuned in to the program during the show’s premiere on Feb. 4, I couldn't help but find myself roaring with laughter when the mother (played by Constance Wu) says she prefers the dense and chaotic Chinatown food markets over the tranquil American grocery store that she describes as "looking like a hospital." One scene that hits particularly close to home for me was our protagonist Eddie (played by a surprisingly talented Hudson Yang) glumly hitting the books at home, watching in envy as his white friends gleefully enjoy playtime outside. 

I was even more amused, and also mildly disturbed, by how right the show got it when honing in on Eddie’s racial encounters at school. I could certainly relate to and recall the informal and malicious-sounding way in which my white classmates would say, like they did to Eddie, “Yo Chinese kid! What's your name? Something Chinese, right?” In fact, on occasion, I am still asked what my “real” name is, like on the first day of my Introduction to College Writing class freshman year. I still cringe at the memory of that ignorant boy's smug, blank stare, oblivious to why I had not bothered to acknowledge his question. 

What makes a “minority-led” show like The Fresh Prince or Everybody Hates Chris more complex than Fresh Off The Boat is its vast array of comic situations that extends itself beyond race and color. Almost every white person on Fresh Off The Boat is a caricatured ignoramus. When Eddie and his family first move into their new neighborhood, they are welcomed by an obnoxious crew of rollerblading bourgeoisie—white women whose first contribution to the narrative is their astonishment at the protagonist's "English being very good.” The problem isn't in revealing the occasional ignorance of white people, but in tediously employing that ignorance as its sole vehicle for humor (and plot)—as if white people are the only things keeping us awake at night. 

Something tells me the show has a particular bone to pick, likely due to all those years of Asian negligence in the entertainment media. I get it. I suppose it excuses many of the show’s overt generalizations to a certain extent. But unless Asian-Americans want to continue to be seen as what Huang calls the white man’s “preferred lapdog of color,” filmmakers and artists need to tell stories that truthfully portray the ostracized Asian-American experience without the excessive frivolity. Though this show is a small step, Asian-Americans still have ways to go.