Randall Park knows well that reflexive anticipatory cringe many Asian-Americans have developed any time they confront Asian-American representation in pop culture. So tired are the constrained depictions of them–the geeks, the Chinatown gangsters, the buck-toothed cafe proprietors–that John Cho hailed his own short-lived turn this fall as the romantic lead in the now-canceled “Selfie” as “revolutionary.” Park, who stars in ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” a half-hour sitcom based on the identically named memoir by restauranteur-raconteur Eddie Huang, says he understands why folks might be bracing themselves for his new show.
“Believe me, if I myself weren’t in it, I’d feel exactly the same way,” Park told Colorlines after the premiere of the pilot at the San Diego Asian Film Festival this past weekend. The show is set for mid-season release but doesn’t yet have an air date, according to Nahnatchka Khan, an executive producer and writer of the show.
“Fresh Off the Boat” is different though, Park promises. “To my surprise, almost to my disbelief, the network and the studio are very conscious of not offending [Asian-Americans] and not going there, to those easy places that they often go to, especially for this project.”
The show is based on Huang’s childhood as a Nas- and Biggie-obsessed son of Taiwanese immigrants growing up in stifling mid-’90s suburban Orlando. The Huang family’s first local venture is a hokey Western-themed steakhouse that’s a ripoff of another chain in town. They’re the lone Asians around, and their foreignness to their neighbors presents its own challenges to everyone in the family, especially young, trouble-prone Eddie, played by Hudson Yang.
Park plays Eddie’s father, Louis Huang, as an independent immigrant man who’s also a classic cheesy dad. Eddie’s father relocates his family from Washington, D.C. to Orlando to create a new life for his family, but he’s not above singing along, eyes closed, to Ace of Base on the radio either.
I was prepared to loathe it, but reader, I liked it. The writers succeeded in introducing an Asian family whose Asianness is neither the punchline to every joke, nor merely incidental. The writers used their 22 minutes to tell a clean story, filled out with funny asides on whiteness and jokes about Asians (my favorite being Asian people’s love of free stuff) that didn’t feel like they were made at the characters’ expense.
That doesn’t mean the show is without its problems. Park and Constance Wu, who plays Eddie’s mother, Jessica, struggle with their Taiwanese-inflected English accents. It’s never as painful as listening to Julianne Moore’s attempt at a Boston brogue on “30-Rock,” but it’s a considerable distraction. At a post-screening panel with executive producers Khan and Melvin Mar, Park addressed it head-on: “One thing I hear is the accents, that they’re not authentic,” Park said. “And I’m with you. I’m working on it and it’s important to me to get it right. I don’t want [the Taiwanese community] watching to to look at me and be like, ‘It’s fake.’ I want them to look at me and be into the story.”
As for the sharpest criticisms that the show’s title is offensive, Khan said producers made a decision not to go with a “safer” name for the show. ”I hear people say that white racist people are going to [feel like they have license to] use the phrase now,” Park said. “My whole thing is, white racist people are going to use anything to be racist. Do you know how many times I was called Harold during “Harold and Kumar”? Racists are going to be racist no matter what.”
“Fresh Off the Boat” also happens to be what Eddie Huang named his memoir, which provides its own cover for the producers of the television version of Huang’s story.
“Fresh Off the Boat” will be the first sitcom about an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” broke that barrier 20 years ago. Whatever may or may not have changed in the intervening decades, including the glorious success of the Shonda Rhimes empire, “Fresh Off the Boat” benefits from its ties to Huang, a real person with an outsized personality. The show is about a specific family and therefore can partially sidestep the unreasonable pressure to be a defining representation of Asian-America.
That doesn’t mean viewers don’t still have very high expectations for the show. During the Q&A portion of the screening, an audience member asked the producers about their decision to allow Park and Constance Wu’s characters to share a short kiss. “That’s atypical,” a woman in the darkened hall said. “I looked at that and that was really unrealistic.”
“I understand why the show means so much to people and why people are putting so much on it,” Park told Colorlines. Asian-Americans in particular may tune in expecting to see their own parents on screen, but the actor says you can’t please everybody. “Some other people might be like, ‘Why don’t Asian people ever kiss each other?’ So you can’t please those people and also please the people who say that Asians are [depicted as being] asexual.”
“I’m super proud of this show, and also aware of my community’s desires, in terms of representation,” Park said. “I don’t begrudge the criticism because you have such a lack of representation. People want it to be perfect for them because there’s nothing else like it.”