Fresh Off the Boat: Asian-American Representation

In the opening moments of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, Chef Chu (Sihung Lung) slits a fish, scales it,
slices the fatty pink filets into strips, coats them with flour, and drops them into a sizzling pan of oil, all with the exquisite control of a master musician. Crisp chopping sounds intersperse the upbeat tune of a guqin plucking throughout the background of the scene, and we watch with satisfaction as Chef Chu slices a daikon radish into wafer-thin, perfect white moons.

Maybe “we” is a bit of an overstatement here.

This scene fish-hooked me with childhood nostalgia, for I had grown up hearing the clatter of chopsticks against bowls of sunny egg custard, mapo tofu swimming in fiery oil and sichuan peppercorns. But to the general American audience that first viewed Eat Drink in 1994, it might have seemed charming. Quaint.

Eat Drink certainly would have seemed less accessible than celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s new show on ABC, Fresh Off the Boat. Adapted from Huang’s 2013 memoir of the same title, the sitcom tells the story of his experience growing up Chinese-American in hard-core suburban Florida. Yet in comparison, Eat Drink Man Woman challenges the popular consensus that Fresh Off the Boat sprang out of a vacuum for Asian and Asian-American narratives in American media.

Food For Thought 

There are compelling reasons to compare Eat Drink Man Woman and Fresh Off the Boat. They share several basic plot points: both chronicle generation gaps between parents and children, both feature Chinese protagonists, and both are driven by issues of food (Chef Chu has dysfunctional taste buds; Eddie Huang’s father moves the family from Washington, D.C. to Orlando to open a restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch). Moreover, the creators of Eat Drink and Fresh Off the Boat have a common occupation: cooking. After Ang Lee graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, he spent six years unemployed as a full-time househusband, preparing elaborate meals in addition to cleaning, child rearing, and scriptwriting. Eddie Huang opened a successful Taiwanese bun shop called BaoHaus in Manhattan and hosts the competitive cooking show Snack-Off on MTV.

The idea of food as both identity and cultural conflict thus saturates Eat Drink and Fresh Off the Boat. The former serves up an obvious metaphor in the form of Chef Chu’s failing sense of taste, which parallels his struggle to understand the romantic and professional entanglements of his adult daughters. Fresh Off the Boat’s first episode subverts stereotypes with Eddie Huang’s father, Louis, as the new owner of a steakhouse rather than a Chinese restaurant. At the same time, Eddie gets ridiculed for bringing noodles instead of the ubiquitous Lunchables box to school. Food’s politics—at once divisive and culturally fluid— make Eat Drink and Fresh Off the Boat a unique pair of lenses through which to analyze American media’s response to Asian-American narratives.

The comparison is not a perfect one: Fresh Off the Boat is a TV show funded by a major broadcasting company, while Eat Drink Man Woman was Ang Lee’s personal artistic project. The former is set in 1990s Florida, while the latter takes place in 1990s Taipei, Taiwan. So why compare apples with oranges? The two works adapt “minority culture” for general viewing in completely divergent ways. Fresh Off the Boat seeks to make the Asian-American experience appealing and relatable to a mainstream audience. In contrast, Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman seeks (in part) to make American viewers reflect on their understanding of modern Chinese culture. This difference in intent mirrors one in popularity that ultimately silences an older generation’s experiences and stories.

An Acquired Taste 

“Our parents worked in restaurants, laundromats, and one-hour photo shops thinking it was impossible to have a voice in this country, so they never said a word,” wrote Eddie Huang
in an article in New York magazine on February 4. “This is our ground zero. Network television never offered the epic tale highlighting Asian America’s coming of age; they offered to put orange chicken on TV for 22 minutes a week instead of Salisbury steak … and I’ll eat it; I’ll even thank them, because if you’re high enough, orange chicken ain’t so bad.”

Fresh Off the Boat undeniably breaks new ground as the first successful show on a major television network with an Asian protagonist. All-American Girl, a previous flop by ABC, starred stand-up comic Margaret Cho and strove to portray cultural clashes within a Korean-American family. Entertainment Weekly panned the comedy for “endorsing ethnic myths” and allowing “stereotypes [to take] the place of humor.” In contrast, Fresh Off the Boat remains one of Tuesday’s top comedies on ABC, with 6.0 million viewers watching its March 3 episode. If the clumsy, sweet, slapstick writing falls short of the “epic” bildungsroman Huang envisioned, Fresh Off the Boat at least succeeds in breaking out of the niche phenomenon category and becoming a mainstream hit.

However, the show’s mass appeal speaks to more than just a preference for sitcoms over foreign art films. The episodes follow a reliable recipe that caters to both general viewers and younger Asian-Americans: culture clash, commentary, and vindication. The culture clash takes place between Eddie Huang and his parents or various members of his mostly-white neighborhood; it serves to amp up the humor and set the stage for commentary. Eddie faces various trials and misadventures that mock the explicit and implicit racism in his community, and then he receives vindication. Sometimes we see Eddie get a video game he wants or outwit his nemesis, a cartoonishly egotistical white classmate named Brock. Sometimes we see Eddie gain street cred among his male peers by groping the next-door trophy wife during a block party. The vindication ties up the episode’s moral threads into a neat little bow, and makes Eddie the obvious champion of each conflict he encounters.

Missing from this formula is an exploration of Asian-American parents’ stories. Huang’s interview with New York magazine reflects Fresh Off the Boat’s focus on second-generation immigrants, who can tune in for a reliably familiar plot every week: the stress of report card day; a lecture on the importance of hard work; not being allowed to sleep over at other people’s houses “because,” as Eddie’s mother puts it, “pedophiles.” Yet the adults in Eddie’s family are often reduced to simply issuing witty one-liners or overlooked completely. The series continues to underutilize Grandma Huang, in spite of the fact that in 2013 nearly 28 percent of Asian-American families lived with at least two adult generations under the same roof and grandparents often help with childcare.

Huang himself has criticized Fresh Off the Boat’s “neutered” and “exoticized” depictions of his father and mother, respectively. Although the characters of Louis and Jessica Huang subvert stereotypes and humanize Asian-American immigrant parents, their characterization feels Disneyfied and subordinate to Eddie’s story. Louis Huang’s role seems to be to dispense father-son advice, while Jessica Huang continually bemoans Eddie’s inability to behave like a “good Chinese boy.”

Given Fresh Off the Boat’s 22-minute episodes, this hierarchy of narratives ostensibly makes sense. Eat Drink, in contrast, can support nuanced portrayals of parents and children coming to grips with a brave new world of cultural change, because it has time to meander. The camera lingers over slice-of-life details like the bubbling of crepes on a griddle, traces the elaborate ordeal of dicing and stewing and kneading and plating that Chef Chu goes through each Sunday to prepare the family dinner. The subplot of his failing taste buds intertwines with his three daughters’ romantic entanglements and growing impatience to leave the family home. From Chef Chu’s denial of his health problems in front of his daughters to a secondary character whose wife and children live in the United States, Eat Drink portrays a complex and multifaceted view of modern Chinese society to American audiences. Huang’s statement that Fresh Off the Boat’s storyline starts at “ground zero” thus silences filmmakers like Lee, who gave a nuanced voice to an older generation faced with the dual challenge of understanding a new culture and their own children.

The slow-cooking nature of Lee’s films—and others like it— creates a major obstacle to gaining as much media attention as Fresh Off the Boat has. As a result, stories like Huang’s can seem to come out of a vacuum for Asian-American narratives. Broadcasting companies also have incentive to favor young minority television watchers over older ones. University of California, Los Angeles’s Bunche Center for African American Studies found that shows with a 40-50 percent minority cast had the highest median ratings, while shows with less than a 10 percent minority cast received the lowest median ratings. ABC’s release of three such “diverse” family sitcoms in the past year (Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, and Cristela) suggests that minority and immigrant children’s stories are here by popular demand—even if their parents’ stories aren’t.

Making Race Kosher 

To its credit, Fresh Off the Boat does an excellent job of cheerfully lambasting casual racism against the Asian-American community. Scenes that poke fun at a white neighbor who “compliments” Eddie on his English, or the group of chirpy, rollerblading suburban mothers that titter at Jessica Huang’s non-“exotic” name, would have been controversial prior to shows like Scandal, Modern Family, and now Fresh Off the Boat, which helped normalize conversations about race in popular culture. But Fresh Off the Boat also shies away from less low-hanging fruit: the privileges Chinese-American children have compared to their immigrant parents, the double pressure of being culturally estranged from both your neighbors and your children. This contributes to the misperception that there was a lack of nuanced, successful Asian-American stories in American media prior to Huang’s semi-autobiographical sitcom.

Fresh Off the Boat captures the essence of why diversity in media matters—we, like young Eddie, all want to see ourselves
as worthy of being protagonists, whether in stories or in real life. However, lost in translation are the stories of parents and grandparents, who also have claim to labels like the “Asian-American experience.” Including artists like Ang Lee in the conversation around Fresh Off the Boat would not mean sacrificing comedy for commentary. Rather, it would expand the show’s scope beyond seeing Eddie Huang do all the things white protagonists do; it would challenge the audience instead of just having them laugh along; and it would give a more truthful voice to those who are still preparing Sunday dinner in the kitchen, listening to sizzle of fish and the clatter of chopsticks.

Photo Credits: Pixabay/Cattalin

Leave a Comment

Solve : *
23 − 8 =