Just recently, ABC ordered a pilot for a new sitcom based on notable chef and restauranteur Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off The Boat. Part of me is super excited something like this is being picked up by a major network, but the other half of me is nervous and frankly, a bit scared.
By the way, as I am just starting to write this, I’m already finding myself preparing and thinking of how to defend these thoughts to dissenters. That in and of itself makes me even more nervous.
Earlier this week, I attended a film screening in Wesleyan’s Asian/Asian American Film Festival, which showed a film entitled Someone I Used to Know. They managed to invite actor and producer Brian Yang, who is most well-known for his role as Charlie Fong on Hawaii Five-0. After the film, there was a brief Q&A session with Yang, discussing the reasoning behind this independent film (which featured an Asian-American cast), amongst a few other things.
What he said that stood out to me the most, however, is the state of AAPI in the media/film and television today. He mentioned the difficulty to bring the AAPI community together to support other AAPI (which is true—and mainly due to the immensity of the AAPI diaspora and diversity within that very diaspora), as well as the sheer lack of AAPI characters on screen that play non-racialized roles.
Think about it. Most Asians/Asian-Americans you’ve seen on TV or film have played extremely racialized roles. As much as Jackie Chan has been a star figure in breaking into the US entertainment industry, for example, he’s all about martial arts in his films. While there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all we really see when Asians are represented on screen—racialized characters that rely on stereotypes to form the basis of their being.
Lucy Liu in Elementary is one of those exceptions that exists—her role as Watson does not spend any time on her ethnic background. But we could probably count on one hand the number of characters like Liu’s Watson exists in popular culture.
Back to Fresh Off The Boat. As I said, this upcoming sitcom makes me both nervous and excited. But right off the bat, I’m already disappointed that a new TV show mainly surrounding AAPI is going to be racialized. Hell, it’s based off of a memoir of an Asian-American—and there’s nothing wrong with that, but part of me wishes that for once, I can see AAPI playing major roles on screen that doesn’t constantly rely on their “Asian-ness”.
Additionally, the few details available on this right now are slightly disturbing on another level. From Deadline:
Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir, it is set in the 1990s and revolves around a Chinese family that moves to suburban Orlando. (Huang’s real-life family is Taiwanese.) It centers on hip-hop-loving Eddie, raised by an immigrant father who is obsessed with all things American and an immigrant mother who is often bewildered by white culture. With his father owning and operating an All-American Steakhouse chain, this loving family of FOB (“fresh off the boat”) Taiwanese Americans try to live the American dream while still maintaining their cultural identity and sense of family.
"…it is set in the 1990s and revolves around a Chinese family…Huang’s real-life family is Taiwanese."
Alright, okay. I don’t know about you, but that’s a red flag for me already. Why couldn’t they just keep it based on a Taiwanese-American family? I don’t care if people don’t know what or where Taiwan is—this could’ve been such a good learning moment and could inject more discussion into the discourse around the China/Taiwan issue (which, at this point, is barely talked about in the US).
Additionally, Taiwanese/Taiwanese-American culture and Chinese/Chinese-American culture may share a huge number of similarities, but they’re still distinct and unique from each other. The history that shaped those two cultures have diverged significantly from each other in the last century, so it’ll also be interesting to see how this reconciles the two.
And don’t you dare say to me that “it’s great that there’s going to be an Asian family on TV already anyway.” No. America has done enough to try and erase the diverse nature of the AAPI diaspora. And you know what? It is insulting to someone who is culturally one ethnicity to ask or even joke if they are of another. Your ignorance or sense of humor is disparaging and unnecessary.
I see much potential for hilarity and good stories. The trick will be striking the right balance of nostalgia, immigrant humor and Huang’s unmistakably original voice.
And I agree. But it’s a difficult course to navigate. I just hope they stay true to Huang’s memoir and not veer into the land of stereotypes and accents.
I guess we’ll see.