Fresh Off the Boat: The New American Family

January 30, 2015

The future of Asian America listens to '90s rap. 

That's right. In case you haven't heard, Fresh Off The Boat is due to air on ABC next month. Based on Eddie Huang's memoir of the same title, it's the first television show to feature an all-Asian-American cast since Margaret Cho's 1994 sitcom, All American Girl. A far cry from its predecessor, Fresh Off The Boat offers a more current, trans-generational take on living la vida suburbia, and being a yellow face in a white place. 

It's the '90s, and hip-hop-obsessed-Eddie Huang (Hudson Yang) and his Taiwanese family are moving from Washington DC to Orlando, Florida so Eddie's ambitious father, Mr. Huang (Randall Park), can open a Wild West-themed steak restaurant. But as Eddie's father fetters over the success of his small business, Ms. Huang (Constance Wu), Eddie and his adorable brothers (Ian Chen and Forrest Wheeler), grapple with fitting into a community characterized by extreme homogeny.    

I know what you're thinking. This set-up looks familiar.

Undeniably, the show recycles familiar tropes -- rigid accents, ample American Dream comments, even a cringe-worthy, infantilizing Ace-of-Base singalong. But in spite of the kitsch, the show offers much more than tasteless jokes to appease non-Asian audiences. The show's characters are relatable enough as it stands in the pilot -- and will hopefully transcend its prescribed niche. Mr. Huang’s drive for success and Ms. Huang’s social obliviousness may be based in stereotype, however, it's these same traits that ultimately make the family endearing. Viewers will surely chuckle at this ten-year-old Asian kid, overly clad in Orlando Magic gear, striking poses to a rap beat -- who does he think he is?! But as the show progresses, we, as viewers, come to consider that, perhaps this is his authentic, badass self, after all. 

As such, Fresh off the Boat is layered enough to appeal to the culturally-informed. There is unexpected sass, hilarious side-eye and a universally-relatable struggle for adolescent normalcy. There is enough snark and jabs about race in America to counteract the show's self-deprecating humor. What is it like for an Asian woman to roll with a flock of white housewives? How does it feel to be ostracized because of your diet? What does white suburban homogeneity look and feel like from the outside in? To answer these questions, the Huangs weigh in. Responding to gossip, Ms. Huang rolls her eyes and mumbles: “All white people make the same mistakes...” In a flashback, the Huang brothers glare disapprovingly at lost tourists who point to a map and slowly, deliberately say: “WHITE... HOUSE...?” Then, in protest of noodle lunch, Eddie demands: “I want white people food!" The Huangs say it like it is. 

Fresh Off The Boat brings forth some long-anticipated dignity and street-smarts, and both are achieved without taking itself too seriously. Every insensitive racial comment is met with something: a look, a retort, or a reflective moment. It exposes a commentary that has remained absent from largely one-sided public conversations on race. And While Fresh Off The Boat may retrace old steps, its sensibilities hold promise for a more comprehensive take on American living.

Kyle Casey Chu is a San Francisco native musician, media artist, and MSSW candidate at Columbia University.


Kyle Casey Chu

Kyle Casey Chu is a Queer Fourth-Gen Chinese American San Francisco native musician and media artist. You can check out more of his work here.