Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Fresh Off the Boat" features fresh faces - finally

"It's been a long time..." as Rakim and Timbaland would say.

It's been a long time indeed since I've seen people who look like me on prime time network TV.
Meet the Huang family from "Fresh Off the Boat"
Image credit: Center for Asian American Media

Tonight was a milestone moment for me in watching the premiere of "Fresh Off the Boat," a sitcom featuring the Huangs, an Asian American family finding their way in Florida.

The show is based on the memoir of Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese American celebrity chef and hip hop aficionado. Huang has expressed some criticism of the show, which I understand, yet I am still rooting for the show to be successful. I enjoyed reading his memoir and was looking forward to the show premiere, wondering how they would bring his story to life.
Image credit: Random House

It was more than 20 years ago that we last saw a prime time comedy featuring an Asian American cast. "All-American Girl" starred Korean American comedian and actress Margaret Cho but was short-lived, canceled after only one season. At the time it premiered, I was a journalism graduate student and the editor of the university's Asian American magazine. I contacted the producers of the show to learn more about it and received a press packet asserting that "extra measures were taken to ensure the show's authenticity, including the hiring of two Asian American writers."

Asian American Voice cover
Autumn 1994 cover of The Asian American Voice
I devoted the cover of our autumn 1994 issue to the premiere of the show and the university's Office of Asian American Student Services sponsored a viewing at a campus cultural center. Some students loved the show. Taehyun Kim, an undergraduate student then and now a mass communications professor, attended the viewing and expressed appreciation for the Korean dialogue on the show. "It was hysterical!" he said.

Others felt uneasy.

"It's hard for me to watch this," said Elayne Chou, a graduate student then who is now a psychologist and executive coach. "I have a lot invested in it."

One student questioned the name of the show: "I thought this was patronizing and placating. It's like saying to the mainstream - it's okay! We're just like you!"

Twenty years later, I am watching a show called "Fresh Off the Boat," which directly addresses cultural conflicts in its first two episodes. Young Eddie Huang, played by the talented Hudson Yang, wears a Notorious B.I.G. t-shirt to school and finds seemingly like-minded schoolmates to eat lunch with – until he opens his container of his mom's homemade noodles and is banished from the table. The show uses the word "chink" right off the bat. Wow.

So far, the show is covering a lot of familiar terrain for me - the hardworking Asian immigrant parents, the struggle to assimilate, the emphasis on academic achievement, the strange (but delicious) homemade lunches. Some of these experiences were quite painful for me growing up in the midwest, as one of a handful (if that) Asian American students in school. But I found myself laughing throughout the show. And I can't want to see more. 

Did you watch the show? What did you think of it?

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