Why We Love "Fresh Off The Boat"

Fresh Off The Boat is a show that millions of Asian-Americans identify with, especially when they are so under-represented in mainstream media.

The third season for Fresh Off The Boat premieres tomorrow, and I couldn’t be more excited. 

When I first saw the trailer to ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, I immediately set a reminder for the premiere date. A show about a family that looked like mine and talked like mine? I was astonished. Outside of car chases that happened to wend through a bustling Chinatown and flashbacks to a protagonist’s formative years in an exotic ninja village, I had never seen so many Asian people congregated on a TV show at one time.

And indeed that may have been more true than I ever realized, since the one previous show centered around Asian-Americans, Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, was cancelled 20 years ago. 

As I have gotten older, I’ve grown increasingly aware of the dearth of Asian representation in media. When Asians are featured in mainstream media, they are often the butt of a stereotypical joke. Even films that have a primarily Asian cast sometimes bring in a white actor to act as the hero.

Perhaps my thoughts were not so clear at the time, but I remember that any time I saw an Asian-American appear on a screen, it gave me a frisson of glee. That’s a pathetic state of affairs. 

Fresh Off the Boat has generated a lot of press and more than a few think-pieces on racial representation and Eddie Huang during its first two seasons. Eddie Huang, whose memoir the series is based on, has perhaps wound up becoming this show’s harshest critic, tweeting that the show “has gotten so far from the truth that I don’t recognize my own life.” But I’m here to tell you that regardless of how far Huang feels the show has deviated from his vision, Fresh Off the Boat is worth watching. Its very conception is a watershed event, saying something to the effect that yes, we Americans have waited a long time for something that reflects us in all our colors. And why yes, to a minority of 17 million and counting, visibility is important. Thanks for asking, ABC.

But also, it’s funny.

These half hours are entertaining and laughter filled. Hudson Yang’s Eddie Huang, is an adorable 12 year old who knows how to deliver his lines, but Constance Wu (who plays his mother) is perhaps the breakout star of the show. She is the embodiment of all Asian mothers, conveying the Tiger Mom personality and superstitions to a T. Stereotypes and culture-clashes are played for laughs certainly, but this is a humor that teases and doesn’t needle; I was watching it thinking ‘so real’ over and over.

Why Do Asian Stereotypes Work For “Fresh Off The Boat”?

There are a couple pieces on the blog that denounce the use of Chinese actors in stereotypical roles in Hollywood. Why do these stereotypes work in Fresh Off The Boat? 

Because even though certain stereotypes are invoked in Fresh Off The Boat, such as Jessica Huang’s frugalness or obsessive fear of the number 4, the series does a good job of portraying the characters as so much more than their stereotypes. We see their hardships, their successes, and see them struggle with obstacles that are relatable to all families, not just Asian ones.

Constance Wu said the following in regards to the Tiger Mom trope: “I'm playing [a character] that has an arc, occasionally elements of Jessica's personality do fall into a Tiger Mom stereotype. But I'm playing them because they are true to her, not because I am exploiting a stereotype.”

Ultimately the writer at ScreenPrism concluded that unless you are part of a culture, you have little authority over what represents its collective identity. As author Eddie Huang said, “Don’t tell me what needs to be offensive to me.”

This series is simply chronicling the experience of one boy who grew up in a certain family. A family that happens to be Asian. I can find no offense in that. There is also an incredible amount of care placed in the details. The grandmother who speaks in Chinese, actually speaks in Chinese. The red bowls the Huang family uses, well believe it or not, are bowls my family used when I was little and my parents were new immigrants. These little touches with all its familiarity, lends this show dimension, makes it all the more precious.

Yet perhaps Fresh Off The Boat’s greatest success so far is showing that as much as these characters are “fresh off the boat,” as much as they are out of place with their stinky tofu and chicken feet, in America they are no more quirky than any of their non-Asian neighbors. Here is simply a family like any other, chasing the American dream.

Fresh Off The Boat's Season 3 premieres 9/8c on Tuesday, October 10th, 2016.

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