“You get a seat at the table. Then you get to change the rules.”
Fresh Off the Boat’s Eddie Huang (played by Hudson Yang) meant these words quite literally. He was talking about the Abraham Lincoln Middle School cafeteria, where “a seat at the table” symbolizes acceptance by the white students of the school. Still, the words neatly summarize Fresh Off the Boat’s attitude towards representation of Asian Americans on TV: you have to give some to gain a little.
“We’re in the Wild West,” says Eddie’s father Louis Huang (Randall Park), and while this is true of the Huangs, a Taiwanese-American family moving from D.C.’s Chinatown to suburban Orlando in 1995, it’s also true of the sitcom itself.
One of the things that had people wringing their hands over Fresh Off the Boat’s premiere was the fear that it had to resort to cheap jokes about Asians to get views. Well, the jokes are there. If you’re going to be the first Asian American family on TV in 20 years, you have to make some sacrifices. However, while Fresh Off the Boat does have its fair share of stereotypes—the nice and easygoing Asian man, the tiger mom who drills her sons in math, the Asian kid who’s good at math (Eddie’s younger brother, Evan, played by Ian Chen)—it’s also very real. I can vouch for the Chinese Learning Centers (universal across the years; I had to go to one), as well as the boombox-playing Huang grandmother’s perfect Mandarin.
Additionally, Eddie Huang’s very character shatters all stereotypes. The real Eddie Huang is a celebrity chef; Fresh Off the Boat is based on his memoir of the same title. The show’s Eddie is neither the perfect Asian son, nor the stereotypical American boy. His love of hip-hop and his love for his family keep him somewhere in the middle.
Fresh Off the Boat comically straddles this middle line by making fun of everyone equally. For example, the show cleverly parodies questions that members of minorities often face and turns them into sources of humor: Eddie’s mother Jessica (Constance Wu), when confronted by a group of rollerblading stay-at-home Orlando moms, asks, “Are you all sisters?” (You’re both Asian, you must be related! comes to mind.) Eddie flashes back to a scene where he and his brother are staring at white tourists lost in D.C.’s Chinatown—tourists who ask for directions in dramatically slow English and end up sounding more foreign than the Huangs do. And Louis tries to use his employee Mitch’s “Americanness” to draw in white Orlando customers, showing a tongue-in-cheek recognition of the way race plays a role in all of our daily judgments, whether we’re aware of it or not.
But even beyond the comedy, Fresh Off the Boat starts out with a lot of potential. It’s honest. It’s raw. By the end of the first episode, after the only black character has called Eddie a “chink,” it’s not even trying to pretend to be an American show that happens to have Asian American characters. It’s an American show with Asian Americans characters and something to prove: that our stories are unique, important, and worth telling.
The cast pulls off these characters with aplomb. Hudson Yang’s swagger commands the camera, while Constance Wu’s unique mix of humor, fierceness, and vulnerability crown her the queen of the show. The younger brothers don’t get much character development yet, but they serve as excellent foils for Eddie: Emery (Forrest Wheeler) as the cool kid at school, and Evan as the mom-pleasing math whiz at home. As Louis, Randall Park plays a smiling, easygoing man who genuinely believes in the good in people, and who is trying his best to keep his household (and his restaurant) together. Together, the characters form a hilarious and dysfunctional family who will do anything for each other—including, as Jessica proves, run into would-be dine-and-dashers with a car.
“Us coming to this new place will make us all stronger,” Louis says at the end of episode one, when Jessica asks him why they had to sacrifice comfort for fear and uncertainty. If this is true for the Huangs in 1995, perhaps it will be true for Asian Americans in 2015, twenty years later.
Fresh Off the Boat has earned its seat at the table—let’s see if it can change the rules.