When “Fresh Off the Boat” premieres tonight on ABC, it will be the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years. In 1994, “All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho, debuted on the same network and survived a singular season. Since the show’s cancellation, Cho has been vocal about the network executives’ utter cluelessness and racial tone deafness over her show, from suggesting show names like “Dim Sum, Lose Some” and “Wok on the Wild Side” to passive-aggressive jabs about her appearance. Although, since they passed on the name already, “Dim Sum, Lose Some” might have to be the name of my future memoir; I never like to see a pun go to waste. Unless, of course, it’s terribly racist. I will have to think about this more. Moving on.
I remember watching Cho’s show as a kid and while my parents found the comedy crass and silly, I saw a glimmer of hope. Yes, the characters were broad and stereotypical, but even though I’m not Korean-American, I thought to myself, “Finally, people who look like me in Hollywood who aren’t just Mr. Miyagi or that one Asian news anchor!” It was normalizing to see myself represented even if in a broad, continental sense.
And while a lot can happen in 20 years, a lot can not happen. As recently as 2013, audiences were more likely to see an alien or creature of some other fantasy race than an Asian woman. So I think many of us Asian-American pop culture fans have adhered to a “take what we can get philosophy” for awhile now: the emasculated nerd, the I.T. guy, the kung fu master, the seductress who always always wears some version of a cheongsam and red lipstick. As an audience whose underrepresentation has, up until recently, squelched the nuances of our stories and experiences, we have had to take the broad strokes because they’re the only ones available. It’s a hunger reflex of sorts. We’ll take the junk food if it just means getting fed; we’ll take it because it’s there.
“Fresh Off the Boat” is based on chef/TV host/ex-lawyer/author Eddie Huang’s autobiography of the same name, which, in part, chronicles his early life and his family’s move from Washington, D.C. to predominantly Caucasian Orlando, Florida in the 1990s. In a New York Magazine article that showcased the bombastic, hip-hop-laced swagger that has come to define his brand, Huang – whose parents emigrated from Taiwan – criticized ABC’s reduction of his story into a “cornstarch sitcom.” After much back-and-forth between Huang and “F.O.B.’s” show runners, he finally comes around, reluctantly accepting of network mandates: “People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ‘em with the soy. Baking soya, I got baking soya!”
I get where Huang is coming from, but what he misses, in his initial censure at least, is that most network sitcoms are cornstarchy: basic, reductive and, oftentimes, bland. They go for the cheap, broad laughs, general enough to be appreciated by the widest swath of the viewing population and only specific enough to be inoffensive to that same swath. If one of the fundamentals of comedy is honesty, then a staff of writers and show runners who have first-hand experiences with being the products of immigrant communities are bound to spice up that starch; they add the much-needed flavor, whether it’s Persian or Taiwanese. Huang has clarified his comments since.
And that flavor, ultimately, is distinctly American. See, what has been so lost in the purview of TV and film made in the good ol’ U-S-of-A is that – aside from Native Americans – all of our stories are immigrant stories. We all came from somewhere, our arrival times different but our destination the same. Those staggered timelines mean that the cultural norms of the “old world” are closer to some of us than they are to others. The immigrant stories, and those of the children who become the hyphenate Americans at the crevasse of old and new worlds, make up the patchwork of American-ness that distinguishes us from every other country in the world.
Thus, “Fresh Off the Boat” is coming in, loaded with baggage, under a Tiger-Mom-during-SAT-season level of pressure to represent but not offend, to tell a specific story that’s general enough for everyone, to fill up a two-decades-long drought of normalizing an entire population. Its more recent controversy – over a tweet that depicted various immigrant stereotypes through cartoons in ethnic garb – has thrust the show further into the spotlight. But I’m excited that it’s made it this far and is already generating good buzz.
Of course, the show could still fall flat on its face, descend into caricature, get all up in that cornstarch and roll around in it until there’s no trace of five spice left. But for now, I’ll take it because it’s there, because it’s about damn time.
“Fresh Off the Boat’s” two-episode premiere airs tonight on ABC, 8:30 & 9:30 p.m.