Fresh Off the Asian Solidarity Boat

Television and the Asian American community

By Carrie Lowe

Events of the last year and half have proven that we do not live in a post-racial world. Race, for all that it is a social construct, is a hot topic, especially among the young and Internet-focused. As someone who is part of that demographic, I have noticed a marked increase in young people of color moving towards blogs and social media to air grievances about micro-aggressions and underrepresentation, not to mention police brutality and white privilege.

There is a collective sense of, “We’re not going to take it anymore,” it being racist comments or ignorant opinions popping up throughout social media. Three months ago, I passionately argued through Facebook comments, with an eloquence usually reserved for research papers, against a girl who defended Iggy Azalea’s appropriation of black culture. Just last week, my nineteen-year-old younger sister fought a white German boy about the lack of representation of Asian Americans in media and Hollywood’s insistence that we are all the same.

That last argument is poignant in the wake of the announcement of a live-action Mulan and the new TV show, Fresh Off the Boat.

“It’s been a full two decades since prime-time television has seen an Asian American family sitcom,” begins Slate’s weekly review on the culture blog, BrowBeat. Coverage of the show is quick to point out that Fresh is the first American sitcom to feature an Asian American family since 1994’s All-American Girl starring Margaret Cho, which aired for one season. It is appropriate to call Fresh a landmark television show, pushing into the spotlight a minority group too often left out. The show, as of its tenth episode, has high ratings and critical success.

As is common in the current Internet age, Fresh Off the Boat caused a flurry of online conversation even before the first episode aired– Was it going to be offensive? Will the show make any difference if it is whitewashed beyond recognition? But, pre-show hype was exacerbated by a lengthy, loudly critical essay written for New York Magazine by the very man whose memoir and life the show is based on, Eddie Huang.

Huang accused the show of becoming “A reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.” Harsh, but a viable concern.

I read Huang’s memoir when it first came out, fascinated by a book written by a fellow child of Taiwanese immigrants. Though his writing style was difficult to read, Huang is unabashedly against assimilation. I immediately felt solidarity with his struggle, assimilation being an issue I, along with most Asian Americans relegated to the status of “model minority”, have had to figure out how to grapple with.

Huang is the opposite of the stereotypical submissive, quiet, model minority. Though many parts of Fresh have been whitewashed in the way most network television is, much of Huang’s refusal to compromise and assimilate is reflected in the show.

In an article for Salon, fellow Asian American journalist Arthur Chu praised Huang as “the hero we don’t deserve but the one we’ve always needed,” who “boldly grabs onto the third rail of racial politics with both hands.”

With Fresh Off the Boat, Huang is inviting us all to consider our roles as Asian Americans and to maybe hold on to that rail with him.

Asian American suddenly have something tangible to gather around, albeit most of the gathering happens on the intangible Internet. Slate’s weekly review is a discussion with Phil Yu, founder of the one-of-a-kind blog Angry Asian Man, Slate reporter Jennifer Lai, and a rotating third Asian American writer/activist/blogger. Guest have included Chu, comedian Kristina Wong, NPR’s Kat Chow, and Philip Wang of popular YouTube channel Wong Fu Productions. Topics of discussion range from Asian fetishes to being a “good Chinese boy”.

We finally have a voice. That is not to say that Asian American issues have not been a point of discussion before Fresh aired, but now, with the vehicle of a television show pushing from behind, Asian Americans have the “legitimacy” of a mainstream media to discuss real issues of representation or assimilation.

Topics of discussion that were originally only on niche blogs are now being hashed out in the New York Times and The Huffington Post. Fresh Off the Boat is more than just a TV show, it is a jumping off point for talking about real issues. More Asian American reporters are being given the opportunity to write about things that matter to them.

Being Asian is a point of pride amongst reviewers of the show. Julianne Hing of Colorlines writes that Jessica is her favorite character “because I’m a Chinese woman, too.” On “Fresh Off The Show”, an unofficial post-show discussion hosted by Yu and comedian Jenny Yang, Yang remembers watching her grandmother gamble during mah-johng.

There is a sense of community amongst Asian Americans now that the state of being Asian in America is out in the open. I leaped with joy when Eddie was banned from going to a sleepover because Jessica feared pedophiles. It was like a moment from my childhood that had felt solitary was suddenly universal and on the screen for the whole world to relate to. Many other bloggers have felt the same way.

The Asian American community is collectively ecstatic about Fresh Off the Boat, to the point where viewing parties, a phenomenon usually reserved for cult shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men, are now common. We are no longer alone, our issues no longer hidden.

“This is not going to be about the foreignness of this group of outsiders. It’s their experience from the inside looking out.” Yu said on Slate’s roundtable discussion. Jokes are being catered to our tastes and whiteness is not a given but a strangeness to be dealt with. We are being asked to consider the state of Asian America and our roles within it.

Growing up, I was only allowed to watch television on the weekends, a parental rule that backfired rather spectacularly when I spent every weekend binge-watching any television show I could find. Yet, in all of those episodes, I can count on one hand the number of Asian Americans whose role went beyond sidekick or secondary character. People who looked like me were not important enough, or maybe worthy enough, to have developed storylines, let alone ones that tackled what it mean to be Asian American.

Now there is Fresh Off the Boat.