After hearing from a fellow (reely)dope writer and a few people around the office talk about how funny ABC’s new Asian-American sitcom Fresh Off The Boat is, I decided it was my duty as a Chinese-American dude to decide for myself by hopping over to Hulu to catch the first four episodes.
Let’s get a few things straight before I really get into the review. The term, “fresh off the boat,” or FOB for short, is not exactly a term of endearment. It means exactly what it sounds like. It means you are so new and unfamiliar with American culture that it is painfully obvious to those around you and enough to warrant someone to call you a FOB. FOBs are blissfully unaware and oblivious to their own FOBiness, and they don’t care to notice. They came to this country the way they left, and they intend to stay that way. The only difference to them is really the location they now find themselves in. To them, ignorance really is bliss.
So when I watch a show called Fresh Off The Boat, I’m expecting the rawest look into Asian-American life, something more akin to a documentary than a sitcom. Maybe with a host like Anderson Cooper walking around interviewing an Asian family too big to be living in a space too small, trying to make it in this new country. Something like that.
But that’s not what FOTB is. Instead, Fresh Off The Boat is a sitcom based off the memoir of self-proclaimed chinkstronaut Eddie Huang, who, according to Wikipedia, is a chef, restaurateur, and former lawyer (what a chinkstronaut is and why you would call yourself that, I don’t have a clue.) The show does it’s best to humorize what it was like for Eddie Huang’s TV self, Eddie Wong, to fit in and grow up in Orlando when they move from Washington D.C. for their dad’s new steakhouse restaurant.
What I think is funny is that Wong’s experience is definitely not a FOB experience. Apart from the steakhouse, that’s nearly everyone’s experience growing up in Florida. Seriously, if you replaced all the Asian characters in FOTB with any other ethnicity and titled the show accordingly, you’d have the same vanilla sitcom of a kid from somewhere trying to fit in.
Being Chinese American, Florida born and raised, and having parents who owned a Chinese takeout joint for the first 20 years of my existence, I thought Fresh Off The Boat would be like looking into a mirror of my life, and in many ways, it was. For all the nitpicking I’ve done thus far, the show does have a lot of truths to it. (Note: there are minor spoilers below for anyone who hasn’t yet watched any part of FOTB.)
For example, in the episode where Eddie can tell his dad is up to something by the mere fact that he says “I love you.” While it’s funny to people who aren’t familiar with it, this is a real phenomenon in Chinese culture. Nobody says, “I love you,” to his or her relatives. My parents rarely say it to me, and I rarely say it to them. That’s not to say we don’t love each other. It’s an unspoken love, expressed by asking whether we’ve eaten yet.
And then there’s the inherent stinginess and cheapskate business practices that seem to underlie all the decisions the Wongs make. That’s pretty true as well. My parents opened the restaurant the day after Hurricane Andrew or some other hurricane wrecked Florida. My dad tells the story with pride. He said we had a line out the door because every other place couldn’t open, while we worked by candlelight.
And then there was the infamous CLC, or Chinese Learning Center. I actually went to a place exactly like this, called Kumon, but it might as well be called the CLC with all the Asians that go there. And, yes, grades were important to my Mom. I dreaded report card day even when I had nothing to worry about. I nearly pissed myself when I got my first C.
Yes, there are tons of truths about being Asian American told accurately in FOTB, but I don’t know if it’s enough for me to like FOTB. I want to, but I just can’t. I grew up with Chinese parents and Chinese relatives, in a Chinese household. It was and is my life. It’s the way I grew up. So when I watch FOTB and see these aspects of my culture and heritage, I can’t say I find it funny. I just sort of shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” It’s like being told something you already know.
On top of that, I just can’t come around to liking Huang’s TV counterpart, Eddie Wong. He’s the show’s main character, and I just feel like everything about him is trying too hard – trying too hard to fit in, trying too hard to be accepted, trying too hard to be tough, and his dialogue/acting is trying too hard. Maybe that means I just don’t like Eddie Huang. I’m never met him nor have I read his memoir, but Eddie Huang seems like a pretty eccentric guy who breaks the mold of Asian stereotypes (see: “chinkstronaut”). But I’m not here to slander the man. I don’t even know him. I just don’t vibe with edgy, rebellious, me-against-the-world types all that much.
The crux of the matter is that I didn’t grow up like Eddie, but in some ways I did. I can’t quite relate to Eddie himself as much as I can relate to the way his family operated and behaved on a very basic, cultural level. Eddie could wear clothes two sizes too big, get into a fight at school, and call his mom a trick, but in my experience, any Chinese kid caught calling his mom a “trick” would’ve never seen the light of day again. Me calling my mom a “trick” would’ve been very not funny for me growing up. So if you ask me, there are more Chinese kids growing up like Eddie’s brothers in FOTB than there are like Eddie.
I’m not saying the show has to fit how I grew up or how every single Asian kid grew up. That would be impossible. But the show could’ve been called Huang’s World or something less sweeping than Fresh Off The Boat, because this is really a look into Eddie Huang’s life more than anything else. It’s less about being Asian American and more about a kid named Eddie who wanted to do his own damn thing and just happened to be Asian. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It just puts me in the proverbial spot between a rock and a hard place on whether I’m for the show or not. FOTB being more about Eddie than a look into Asian American life is something I have to keep reminding myself when I watch FOTB, as well as something I hope the audience can keep in mind, too.
Overall, I can see why the wider audience thinks the show is funny. For the first time in a while, there’s a show that gives a wide audience a look into Asian-American life. The truths, as I said, can be humorous to those that don’t know them, and that alone is worth a watch.