In August of 2013, Deadline broke the news that ABC had committed to a single camera put pilot based on chef/entrepreneur Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off The Boat. In May of 2014 that pilot was picked up for series.
Starring Hudson Yang (TV debut), Constance Wu (TV shows for days), and Randall Park (Baby Mentalist, Asian Jim Halpert...and The Interview, Sex Tape, The Five Year Engagement, etc,) the series will tell the story of how Eddie Huang and his family moved to Florida and opened a restaurant. Hilarity ensues. Intense internet discussion quickly follows.
As with any Asian/Asian American representation in mainstream media this has raised some eyebrows and because the internet it has also raised a number of voices. From the gate the very title of the series fueled some back and forth (for a moment it was re-titled the cringe-worthy "Far East Orlando"), followed by a steady stream of Twitter and Facebook commentary that spiked around the launch of the trailer, an artful/widely (selectively) quoted piece by Huang, a subsequently weird press conference centered around chopsticks/some of those selective quotes, an SMDH-moment of a tweet from ABC, and finally the actual game day buzz around the premiere.
In all, there's been over a year and a half of internet conversation to get to this point. In that time the Asian American Twittersphere & blogosphere have gone through intense conversation/organizing around intersectional Asian American feminism, immigration reform, solidarity with the #NotYourMascot movement, Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and our weekly collective sigh around happenings such as UCI Asian American frat boys in blackface, the Asian Girlz music video, How I Met Your Mother racism, Miss Saigon, Mirai Nagasu, The Interview, Margaret Cho at the Golden Globes, it goes on.
We are going into 2015 charged.
And because things have been so charged, I've found myself reflecting back and examining the road that has led to this point. In thinking about the premiere of Fresh Off The Boat, I am thinking about all the folks who will be seeing an Asian American lead on their TV for the first time, and thinking about the first Asian face I remember seeing on TV, the honor going to PJ Phresh Phil of Canada's Youth Television.
PJ Phil (the PJs were the VJs of YTV) was the host of The Zone, an after school block of programs like Pokemon and Power Rangers. Every day after school, Phil would read letters from kids, point at the camera, then introduce the next show. He had a thick Canadian accent and sure as hell didn't seem to live anywhere local, but in the absence of actual relatives nearby and no one who looked like me on TV he became a sort of default older cousin. Unlike his co-PJs, PJ Phil had the bored, cool edge my older brothers had and I felt like he could be a relative, for reasons I wouldn't figure out until later.
As I got older I noticed that I was beginning to build a list in my head of TV shows with characters who looked like me. First there was The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo which featured Malaysian-born actress Irene Ng as a high school-aged intern at the local police station. Broadcast in the Nickelodeon 8PM slot (the "Hey Mac Hey Mac Kablam Rats Woo" jingle periodically pops into my head), this was arguably the first prime time children's show with an Asian American protagonist.
There were the bit parts like Trini on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or Keiko in Zoom. When visiting my grandparents in LA there was Liza Del Mundo on Toontown Kids. Then came the cartoons. Wanda from The Magic School Bus. Jade from Jackie Chan Adventures. I think I even added Ash Ketchum to my list.
It would not be years later when Mike Shinoda showed up in the video for In The End that I started to get why I was building that list, but by that time I was hooked up to the internet. I would shuffle through sites like AARising.com, RiceBowlJournals, and Angry Asian Man to find faces that looked like mine. It felt urgent.
Years later it would all make sense. I saw Margaret Cho speak while promoting The Cho Show (2008) and she explained how Asian Americans will introduce themselves to her crying, not because she believes she's especially talented but because she fills a gap. She continued that in a country so saturated in media, when we are not represented we feel invisible. My memory archive of 90's Asian American TV characters made sense. I was hungry to find myself and my story in pop culture.
I am now older and though I've found visibility, to this day I still feel a tugging at my chest. We live in an era when Asian faces exist on the other end of a simple YouTube search. We can see people who look like us in top-rated TV series' and on movie billboards. We are finally visible, but our stories are not always being told. This is where Fresh Off The Boat comes in.
The premiere of Fresh Off The Boat is significant. It marks the first prime network show that stars an Asian American family since Margaret Cho's All American Girl. The writers room is staffed with Asian Americans (though Huang notes that none of them are Taiwanese American). The executive producer is Chinese American (though Huang refers to him as a "good Chinaman"). It marks an opportunity for Asian Americans to work in front of and behind the camera and tell a story that is relatable, somewhat, to their own personal experience without having to play into weird stereotyping or complete back-story non-existence.
And so we are full circle. As with any significant thing, there is much chatter and criticism.
Though much of the conversation has been tied around events like the announcement of the title and ill-advised social media strategy, a huge chunk of it has been around how this show will represent "us." From Wu and Park's accents to the impending chorus of "Asians would NEVER do that" (I am told that at an earlier screening an audience member told the panel that his parents never kissed), a few very vocal Asian Americans are standing by to eagle eye this show and judge authenticity.
This sounds familiar.
Not only did All American Girl appear 20 years ago but it ignited a small but blazing firestorm. In one portion from her stand up film I'm The One That I Want, Cho recounts how the debut of her show kicked off opinions from all corners in the Asian American community including a protest-happy community leader and a young girl's letter to the editor in a local paper that read "When I see Margaret Cho on television I feel deep shame." In an effort to rectify the situation, the producers of All American Girl hired an "Asian consultant" to push her through it, a job David Henry Hwang claims ownership of in his play Yellowface.
Though it would be arrogant for us to claim complete responsibility for the demise of her show, the volume of commentary from the Asian American community did not help. The show lasted a season, was stretched out a couple episodes, then was canceled.
When we have nothing else to look at, we are forced to hone into what we can see. As the first Asian American family sitcom, our un-satiated need to see our stories drove us to lock a laser focus and ruthlessly dissect the show. This time around the situation is not so different. We have the first Asian American family sitcom in 20 years in our hands and editorial will happen in real time.
What will we do this time?
Our obsession with authenticity and our need to see ourselves will, perhaps, be our biggest tests in the coming weeks. This time around we have hindsight and can remind ourselves that though this story is in many ways one Asian American story, Fresh Off The Boat is ultimately not the story of Asian America; it is the story of Eddie Huang as told by the American Broadcasting Company. As hungry as we are to see our stories told, we must concede that this is not our own lived journey but rather one filtered experience in the ocean of Asian America.
While White people have such saturated representation that they are able to practice escapism and distance themselves from their televised counterparts, many of us must learn escapism and establish distance in order to best critique this show. We must remember that the opportunity does not lie in our ability to measure this show against our lived experience but rather the opportunity to learn how to share our lived experience by using it as a jumping off point. If we are concerned with how one show will portray all of Asian America, then I hope we are also working to tell more stories.
As humans we have the ability to simultaneously praise and critique in one sentence. A piece of art is not determined by its flaws nor its strengths, but rather the whole work and our collective commitment to evolving the narrative. Your neighbors will be watching Fresh Off The Boat through the lens of their lives just as I will be watching it and recalling the first moment I realized what tied me to PJ Phil and Shelby Woo. We have the opportunity to offer constructive critique, just as we have the opportunity to accept a multitude of reactions to the show.
In short, though our conformist/rebellious instincts point us towards piece-by-piece reaction, we have the chance to build and re-imagine off the whole. The show will not be perfect, and we should be comfortable talking and listening through the imperfections just as we should be comfortable celebrating the wins.
In the end, we must be ok with it failing just as much as we must be ok with it succeeding (and at the moment it is getting rave reviews). Primetime network TV is a wild west. We can't point fingers if the show goes down, we must instead use that energy to create even more narratives. Ultimately our community is not defined by mainstream acceptance, but rather by our own strength of voice and willingness to engage.
Fresh Off The Boat is just one chapter in the great expanse of Asian American storytelling and it is a chapter that we will someday need to look back on. How we talk to each other, offer critique, and process feedback will dictate conversation for years to come.
So what's next?