Tale of a fish-out-of-water family

Tale of a fish-out-of-water family

As the first Asian-American sitcom in two decades, Fresh Off The Boat has a lot of expectations to live up to.

Fairly or not, this new television show - about an Asian-American family who moves to a mostly white Florida suburb in the 1990s - is seen as having the responsibility of depicting a culture that, more often than not, has been underrepresented in Hollywood.

Based on the memoirs of American chef and TV personality Eddie Huang, it is told from the point of view of 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang) as he, his Taiwanese-immigrant parents and younger brothers Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) begin their new lives in Orlando, where dad Louis (Randall Park) has decided to open a Wild West- themed steakhouse.

It is a classic fish-out-of-water situation as they try to fit into their lily-white environs, each with varying degrees of success.

As the restaurant struggles to get on its feet, Louis hires a white greeter because he suspects customers will feel more at ease when they see a "nice, happy white face" at the door ("Oh hello, white friend! I am comfortable!" he imagines them thinking).

Meanwhile, Eddie is ostracised in school, where kids make fun of the "stinky" Chinese lunches packed by mum Jessica (Constance Wu), whom he then begs to buy him the Kraft "Lunchables" (packs of ultra-processed ham, cheese and crackers) that everyone else has.

He does not quite fit in at home either, identifying more with the black hip-hop stars he idolises - because they express the outsider angst he so keenly feels - than the traditional upbringing of his parents.

As it pokes fun at this and various cultural quirks, the show and Huang - who serves as an executive producer and the voice-over narrator - have been accused of perpetuating stereotypes about Asian Americans.

And indeed, Fresh Off The Boat gets an awful lot of mileage out of things like Jessica's frugality and love of discount buys; the boys' grandmother's take-no-prisoners approach to gambling; and the community's much-vaunted emphasis on scholastic achievement (when Eddie starts getting straight As, his mother concludes the new school must be "too easy", and demands that they have after-school tuition as well).

Huang himself has been ambivalent about the series, which he has praised and slated in equal measure. He has gone on record saying he thinks it has pulled its punches and watered down his memoir, which deals with the abuse and violence he encountered as a child.

At the same time, he seems to think this was probably necessary to make the show palatable for the mainstream.

Yet while the fledgling series is certainly flawed - yes, it does trade in one too many well-worn stereotypes, not just about Asians but about blacks, Latinos, whites and gays, too - it is also charming, funny and often piercingly insightful.

Not just for Asians, either. Anyone who has been torn between the dominant culture they live in and the minority one they inherited can relate to little Eddie's determination to assimilate while also constructing his own singular identity.

It captures the complexity of this internal negotiation and tug-of-war in a way that few other TV series, much less sitcoms, have done. This may be why the reaction from Asian Americans has been largely positive.

In addition, the fact that the central characters are complex and fully fleshed-out will, ultimately, make it hard to reduce them to mere stereotypes.

Louis, Jessica and Eddie are brilliantly portrayed by Park (better known as Kim Jong Un in The Interview), Wu and the utterly adorable Yang, whose face manages to convey both youthful insouciance and vulnerability.

Although Huang believes they toned down and neutered much of his life story, the show does offer a bit of a taste of his unique personality, including his unapologetic redefinition of his cultural identity and reappropriation of epithets such as "chink" and "fresh off the boat".

For an unexpurgated version, viewers can check out his best-selling memoir or the popular culinary travel show Huang's World, which he hosts as part of the Vice TV documentary series.

There is a lot in the sitcom that will appeal to the audience here too.

The show recalls coming-of-age comedies such as The Wonder Years (1988 to 1993) and Everybody Hates Chris (2005 and 2009) with its sweetly nostalgic look at family life and the perils of growing up.

Yet it is also, undeniably, groundbreaking because of its cultural specificity. The last time there was a sitcom about Asian-American characters was in 1994, when All-American Girl - a comedy about a Korean-American family starring comedienne Margaret Cho - first aired.

Its cancellation in 1995 after just two short seasons and abysmal ratings and reviews was followed by two decades in which the vast majority of Asian characters on American television were at best peripheral and, at worst, awful caricatures.

Commentators such as Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang (who is, coincidentally, the father of the actor who plays Eddie) have spoken movingly of the impact this has had on the Asian- American psyche, especially among the young.

After a solid start, viewing numbers for Fresh Off The Boat have fallen perilously low in the United States, leaving it on the brink of being cancelled.

One can only hope that it clings on long enough to rally and keep going.

stlife@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 9, 2015.
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