By Guest Contributor Kevin Wong
The plot for Fresh off the Boat is a classic “fish out of water” scenario. Eddie (Hudson Yang) is a 12-year-old Taiwanese-American, who moves from a diverse, city neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to a mostly white, suburban neighborhood in Orlando, Florida. His family consists of two younger brothers, a grandmother, stressed out mother Jessica (Constance Wu), and flustered father Louis (Randall Park), who wants to open a successful, Western-themed barbecue restaurant. Primarily, everyone’s just trying to fit in.
Jessica, for instance, takes up rollerblading with the neighborhood Stepford wives. This has great comedic potential- how does an Asian American woman clash with the expectations of privileged, suburban society? The Stepfords, to their credit, do not view Jessica as an intruder or an undesirable in their neighborhood – more so, they view her as a curiosity to be poked and prodded. It’s a nod to a more subtle type of racism that exists in the modern world. The term “racist” does not only encompass name calling and hate crimes — it encompasses passive discrimination, positive stereotypes, and microaggressions that, accumulated over time, can be comparably damaging.
The most interesting aspect of Fresh off the Boat is how it deals with Asian American masculinity. Each Asian male character has his own way of exploring it, and they each tend to do so through the lens of another ethnic identity, rather than their own. Louis, pursues the “cowboy” archetype, in an effort to bring more white folks into his restaurant. Eddie co-opts hip hop, black culture — he’s listening to Dre’s beats, quoting Biggie’s rhymes, and repping Nas’ Illmatic on his clothes. It’s illuminating.
In American culture, Asians have few male icons, and so they look to other, cultural stepfathers as a way to define themselves. It rang true for me in a way I hadn’t anticipated – it brought me back to my college years, when I blasted Public Enemy and read Malcolm X. Years of “turning the other cheek” to white men left me frustrated and wanting. I found solace in black youth culture, which told me that my anger was justifiable, and proactiveness should not be repressed.
Eddie has adopted the postures of hip hop, but he has not internalized them. The first chance he gets, he abandons Walter, the one black kid in the lunchroom, to go sit with the white kids. Both Eddie and his white classmates bond over a common love for Biggie, while alienating the one kid who shares Biggie’s ethnicity. It’s a moment of paradoxical irony. Eddie gets it thrown in his face near the end of the episode, when Walter calls him a “chink” in front of the entire school. Walter’s justification is fascinating — that it’s Eddie “turn” to be on the bottom of the social ladder. Will the show continue to explore this minority-on-minority prejudice, and develop a love-hate relationship between the two least popular kids in their class? One can hope.
What rings less true is the “tie it up with a bow” ending, where Louis and Jessica defend Eddie’s fighting by threatening to sue the school. A cute, easy way to resolve the conflict, but it is a bit unrealistic. Nothing prior in the episode gives me any indication that the parents would behave in such a way and so suddenly when their entire mantra beforehand was to not make waves and not cause trouble. Eddie, eavesdropping on his parents, is shocked by their outspokenness. I was too. If the show superficially resolves all hot button issues in the first several episodes, then what is left to discuss and debate? This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Imagine, if you will, an Asian sitcom, on American television, that has the courage to address Asians in an honest manner. Racial issues would be a single facet of this family’s lives. It would not be some alienating “I’m Asian” show, with a quota of Asian jokes — the humor would spring organically, from the universal struggles that all families face. It would be natural, and it would be quietly groundbreaking in its own way.
This is my hope for Fresh off the Boat, and for it to be so, the show must be comfortable with a lack of resolution. These complex problems of race and culture cannot be resolved in thirty minutes, and the writers should not try to do so.
Bottom line: Is it funny? Yes. It’s very funny. More importantly, Fresh off the Boat has heart. I like the characters, and if I can identify with them, then the humor will become deeper and more resonant. I’m definitely going to be tuning in to the ABC Network when the full series debuts as a midseason replacement this fall.