Fresh Off the Boat Is Offensive and Ignorant

An Asian-American family moves to a neighborhood where they are practically the only Asians, the family business is (literally) a Western restaurant, and the kids end up going to the restaurant after school to do their homework. That sure sounds a lot like my childhood, except I’m Canadian.

My parents also didn’t produce a TV commercial where they got their Caucasian staff to say, “My neck gets red, ’cause of my white skin is out in the yellow sun.” And I never went up to another random kid to ask, “Does the yellow man like dumplings?”

That’s a stereotype. And a lot of what we see in the new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat can be seen as wildly racist. And offensive. And inappropriate.

And maybe it is, but that’s precisely why I’m enjoying this show so much. The fact of the matter is that a lot of us CBCs (Canadian-born Chinese) and ABCs (American-born Chinese) had childhoods that were not dissimilar from that of Taiwanese-American Eddie Huang. We found ourselves struggling to bridge the gap between our parents’ immigrant generation and the “new” western culture that surrounded us. Like Eddie, I’ve been asked many times about where I was really from when I told people I was from Vancouver.

And also like Eddie, I was the Asian kid who got ridiculed at school for the “weird” and “smelly” lunch that mom packed. Like Eddie, I got heavily into the hip hop and “gangsta rap” culture of the 1990s. He may have been more East Coast with Biggie and I may have been more West Coast with Tupac Shakur, but the notion of life as the outsider “trying to get a nut” is identical.

Yes, a lot of the material from the first two episodes of Fresh Off the Boat can be offensive, or stereotypical, or inappropriate. But you know what? It’s also remarkably accurate and, if nothing else, it represents a major step for the Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) community in terms of getting more mainstream representation in popular media.

Aside from a handful of movies–like Harold and Kumar (fun fact: John Cho, who played Harold, was also the “MILF guy” in American Pie)–we don’t see much of this sub-culture in movies or TV. Depictions of life in Tokyo, Hong Kong or Seoul don’t represent the experiences of first-, second- or third-generation immigrants in North America. To my knowledge, not since All American Girl in the early 90s have we seen a sitcom about an Asian-American family.

I say it’s about time. And if the offensive and brash attitude of Eddie Huang is how Asian-Americans will get the attention they deserve, then I’m all for supporting that “Based FOB.” It’s not the first- and second-generation immigrants who will be offended by Eddie Huang and Fresh Off the Boat; it’s going to be the long-established Caucasian liberals who think the jokes go too far.

And therein lies the challenge: in playing up the stereotypes for laughs and depicting Asian-Americans as “different” from mainstream culture, we could be expanding the divide. Or we could be bringing us all closer together. Over some exceptional dumplings.