“Identities” is a Groundswell series highlighting the intersection between who a person is, and the consumer choices they make. Each person’s unique identity plays a role in how they see and access the world, and each of these stories offers one individual’s perspective. Read other articles in the series here.
This article discusses the link between choices and TV shows. As with every choice you make, your decision to watch (or not to watch) a certain TV show carries financial weight. To learn more about this connection, check out this article on TV and diversity.
For the first time in 20 years, television has a sitcom about an Asian family.
ABC’s newest series Fresh Off the Boat is based off of chef and restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. Set in 1995, the sitcom follows the antics of a young Eddie (Hudson Yang), an 11-year-old Taiwanese American whose entire family (father, mother, and two brothers) is transplanted from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Florida. The dad, Louis (Randall Park) moves the family in order to run his restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch Steak House—but the whole family struggles with the change, in finding friends, community, and acceptance.
The premise of the show is one that’s close to my heart. My parents emigrated from Vietnam to San Diego in 1992; I am the only natural-born United States citizen of my family. When I found out that a show like this was coming out, I was pretty conflicted. On the one hand, I was excited that an entire show would revolve around characters who look like me—a show where Asian characters were the main characters, not your socially awkward fringe characters that you can’t understand (Pitch Perfect, anyone?) or super studious, ultra-competitive classmates.
Then, I started to worry. It’d be so easy for this show to buy cheap laughs from the standard Asian stereotypes. Sitcoms aren’t often known for nuanced cultural awareness. Would this one be any different? I admit, I was curious in how closely Eddie’s life would mirror my own. Would I relate to Eddie? Would I be able to see at least a little of my life experiences reflected in the show, or would I just be frustrated?
On February 4th, I tuned in apprehensively with 7.94 million other viewers—which makes FOTB the second highest ranked comedy premier of the season.
What I saw surprised me. And for a while I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. But now, after having watched the first 5 episodes of the show, I can say with confidence that I’m rooting for Fresh off the Boat to succeed.
1. FOTB’s Characters Aren’t One-Dimensional.
Asian actors are very rarely cast in TV shows or movies as the lead character, excluding the hyper-sexualized Lucy Liu and martial arts Jackie Chan films. And they’re definitely not cast as the main character of a TV comedy. In fact, in most shows and movies, Asians aren’t considered “funny” unless they’re acting out a full-fledged stereotype: tiger mom, cheap convenience/laundromat owner, computer nerd or school whiz, kung fu champion, or sexy girlfriend.
Showing Asian actors as more than a one-dimensional stereotype is important not just for Asians to see, but the greater American population as well. As a society, we need to push back on stereotypes, note similarities across boundaries, and engage in our differences. Fresh Off the Boat provides a unique, consistent opportunity to put one Asian family in the homes of thousands of TV-watching Americans.
2. Race Can’t Be Ignored. FOTB Tackles The Issue Head-On.
Race comes up fairly often in the show, and often in a laser-focus, in-your-face kind of way. In the very first episode, Eddie is called a “chink” by Walter, a black classmate. In this predominately white middle school, Eddie and Walter are the only minorities present—and FOTB pits them against each other as they scrap to see who’s at the bottom of the food chain, and who can get an “in” with the white kids, at each other’s expenses.
These moments are some of the keys that make FOTB unique—they handle issues of race and culture without apology. Probably one of the most relatable moments of the show for me is when Eddie is rejected at his new school because of his lunch. That day, Eddie’s mother had packed him a traditional Taiwanese noodle dish, which his peers saw, found strange, and mocked him for. That rejection is something that every kid in an immigrant family knows—a feeling of shame you get when normal, everyday things you love are suddenly made to seem wrong by your classmates.
The important thing to remember is: As a minority, whether you’re the only person of color in the room or the only Asian-American family TV sitcom on cable, you bear the burden of becoming the single representative of your entire race. This burden is automatic and ever-present, whether you want it or not.
But by not tiptoeing around race and culture issues, Fresh off the Boat is encouraging all viewers to think about our society from new perspectives. It can be lonely, isolating, and scary to find yourself different in a visible way.
3. FOTB Isn’t Perfect—But It’s a Huge First Step.
We should be clear: Fresh off the Boat is a sitcom about one Asian family. Their experiences, successes, and failures are NOT the one-size-fits-all explanation of all Asian and Asian-American experiences. In many ways, FOTB is a watered-down version of Asian life, culture, and experiences, designed to be palatable for a white audience—like the Panda Express of Chinese food.
For example, Eddie’s parents speak near perfect English. Jessica has a slight accent, while Louis drops his accent somewhere around Episode 2. While having a TV sitcom of characters with heavy or hard-to-understand accented English is a recipe for failure, the fact that the show ignores this common problem belies a fundamental part of the Asian immigrant experience. Navigating in a different country through a language that is not your native tongue is a hardship that thousands of immigrants—including my own family—face every day.
Clearly, this show cannot be used to represent ALL Asian-American experiences. There are definitely commonalities, and these commonalities should be understood in a way that allows viewers to recognize the diversities in Asian culture. But FOTB is just a starting point.
Other networks can learn from ABC. FOTB is the first Asian-American sitcom in two decades, after the last show was quickly pulled from the air after less-than-stellar opening reviews. If FOTB is successful, it will pave the way for future shows and movies with more minority leads. A new narrative will have the chance to emerge, much like how The Cosby Show paved the way for new programming that also featured predominantly African American actors and actresses.
Fresh Off the Boat is doing a good (but not perfect) job with highlighting the unique experiences of an Asian family. I’m rooting for this show to continue, albeit only if it continually strives for improvement. I’m excited that we’ve taken a step in the right direction, and I can only hope that it will pave the way for more robust and diverse television.
Chi Pham is the Program Associate for Groundswell’s Energy Program. A San Diego native, Chi attended Washington University in St Louis and graduated with a Bachelors in Environmental Policy and Public Health. She’s a foodie, environmentalist, and social justice advocate who firmly believes in procrasti-baking, Netflix marathons, and long hikes. Follow her on her website and on Instagram: @chipdip1.