It’s hard to talk about “Fresh Off the Boat” without talking about how historic its arrival is. If you’ve followed the chatter, or even just the doings of Eddie Huang, the irrepressible restauranteur whose memoir inspired the show, then you know. It’s been 20 years since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” aired. It was the first and last sitcom to feature an Asian-American family. On Wednesday night, “Fresh Off the Boat” ended that two-decade long silence when ABC aired its first two episodes.
At a Los Angeles screening hosted by comedian Jenny Yang and Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu at the Japanese American National Museum, that history was in the air. Nearly 500 people RSVPed to attend the screening in a theater which hosts warned had a capacity for 190 people. More than an hour before Wednesday night’s first episode even aired, the line started growing down the block.
And the thing was, it wasn’t a pay-per-view boxing match, or even premium cable. Hundreds of people waited in line–and a hundred more were turned away, hosts said–to watch plain old network television together.
The crowd laughed, cheered, aww-ed in unison and even shushed each other when commercial breaks ended. After each episode, a panel of Asian-American smarty-pants media folks–Yang, Yu, Cal State Long Beach professor Oliver Wang, Visual Communications’ Milton Liu, and Disgrasian blogger Jen Wang–chatted about what had just aired. Mics were passed through the crowd for discussion. The audience clapped for each other after people commented. There was a palpable sense of excitement–and relief–in the crowd.
“This is f-cking huge,” a man in the audience said after the first episode aired. “We’re watching a sitcom not making fun of Asian culture. And it makes fun of white culture and our relationship to it? That’s f-cking huge.”
Jenny Yang narrated an experience familiar to many Asian-Americans: the anticipatory bracing that Asians have learned to do before seeing themselves in any form of mass media. So often depictions of Asians and Asian Americans onscreen are reductive and heavy-handed, if not downright offensive, that folks are accustomed to cringing beforehand. “Representational anxiety,” she called it, offering a hashtag: #repsweats.
Now, about the two episodes that aired:
Eddie Huang is the chubby, hip-hop-loving, D.C.-born son of Taiwanese immigrant parents Louis and Jessica who’ve decided to move their family to Orlando, Florida. One gets the sense that Huang would have had a hard time fitting in in any controlled environment, but the suburban South ends up being particularly stifling for young Eddie.
Eddie, played by Hudson Yang, is the lone Chinese kid in his class. His younger brothers Evan and Emery, played by Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler, respectively, are as sweet as Eddie is unruly. Eddie brings pungent Chinese noodles when every other kid gets sent to school with scentless sandwiches and Lunchables. And in the school cafeteria, that difference alone is all his classmates need to make him a pariah. Seeing this, the only other kid of color, a black boy, seizes on the opportunity to get out from under the bottom of the school’s social (read: racial) hierarchy, and bullies Eddie, calling him a chink. The ensuing fight lands Eddie in the principal’s office.
His parents, meanwhile, are having their own troubles finding their footing in their new city. Huang’s dad Louis, played by Randall Park, opens a struggling ripoff Western-themed steakhouse, and grasps at ideas to bring his family out of the red. Under pressure from his wife, Jessica, to stem the flow of their family’s cash out the door Louis’ first business idea is to hire more white waitstaff. Perhaps their whiteness will help his white customer base feel more comfortable eating at his restaurant, he hopes.
In the second episode Jessica, played by Constance Wu, tightens up the operation, plugging up the holes in the restaurant’s pepper shakers, keeping count of every crouton in the salad bar and scolding a waitress who dares give patrons extra napkins. When Eddie comes home with straight A’s, raising Jessica’s suspicions about the rigor of Eddie’s school, Louis senses an opportunity to get Jessica out of the restaurant by suggesting she tutor Eddie and the boys. Orlando doesn’t have the Chinese afterschool tutoring centers D.C. had, so when Jessica decides she’ll run her own out of their home, it’s a win for Louis, but not Eddie. By the end of the episode, we get a glimpse of Jessica’s classic hard-ass Asian parenting, and her private, softer heart she’d prefer people not know about.
So much is happening in these scenes that I’d wager has never aired on network television before. There are so many Asian-Americans (six of them, total) in so many successive scenes, for starters, that their presence alone is barrier-shattering. And the jokes land. They’re funny. This family’s Asian-ness is central to their identity, but the writers don’t ask the audience to laugh at that. And race isn’t just the wink-wink subtext–it’s interwoven throughout the Huangs’ experience in a surprisingly frank and realistic way.
That’s not to say people haven’t had reason to be anxious. Last month, the real Eddie Huang lambasted the producers of “Fresh Off the Boat” for neutering the political reality of his childhood in order to make television that was more palatable for a mass U.S. audience. In the days leading up to the premiere, the official Twitter account for “Fresh Off the Boat” tweeted an offensive illustration to promote the show. But on Wednesday night, those anxieties seemed to melt away with every passing segment. “I don’t think people should watch this just because there’s Asian people on screen,” Yu said in between episodes. “But I think this is something we can actually get behind.”
I know it’s too much to ask of any one sitcom to expect to see my own childhood reflected back at me. The Asian-American experience is way too diverse. But, there were moments of “Fresh Off the Boat” that brought me back to my own childhood. My mom, too, forced math workbooks on my siblings and me. She’d pass them to us during morning drives to school–why let a perfectly good car ride go to waste?–and on vacations. She’d also pack an electric keyboard in the trunk of the family van before road trips so we’d never have an excuse to skip out on piano practice. It was a memory I’d completely buried until last night.
I also don’t think I’ve ever seen a Chinese mom on television sit at her kitchen table, take a knife and freehand peel an apple, and then eat the slices straight off the blade, as Eddie’s mom did in Episode 2. It reminded me of so many Chinese moms and dads I’ve known, for whom peeling and slicing fruit to serve as a snack is a deeply ingrained social ritual. Only someone who knows, would know. I am so used to ignorant television shows whose target audience seems to be white beefcake numbskulls. I was almost stunned to see even a throwaway moment that felt like a nod to me, an Asian-American woman. I’ll definitely be watching next week.
“Fresh Off the Boat” airs on ABC on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET. Read Colorlines’ interview with Randall Park here.