Why ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat Matters

Screenshot of Hudson Yang in Fresh off the Boat (ABC)

As she opens up her purple Rugrats lunch bag, she’s excited to find the food that her mother cooked for her. Inside the plastic container are chow mein noodles with stir-fried meat and vegetables. Wrapped in foil are one of her favorite snacks, crispy chicken egg rolls; But as the small second grader prepares to take a bite of her homemade meal, a classmate interrupts her.

“What are you eating?” asks her classmate, “That looks gross, how come you never eat normal food?”

The 7-year-old with the “super Asian” lunch turns red, and the next day, demands that her mother prepare “American” food instead.

That was me 15 years ago, an embarrassed Filipino-Chinese American who traded some of her favorite cultural foods for Lunchables, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

In my elementary school there were kids who weren’t used to seeing diverse dishes, and like the main character on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, I sometimes threw away my lunch because I desperately wanted to fit in.

For years, Asian-Americans have been portrayed as perpetual foreigners. Regardless of whether or not we were born in the U.S., or how assimilated we are to American culture, we’re not perceived as “American.” In many instances, the stereotype is reinforced through the portrayal of Asian characters in TV shows and movies.

According to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States. In the United States alone, there are approximately 18 million Asian Americans. However, despite the growing population, there’s still a lack of Asian-American representation in the media. How often do you see Asian American actors with main roles or a decent amount of screen time? Not often enough.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see a show like Fresh Off the Boat, which depicts one perspective of the Asian American experience. The comedy series is one of the first sitcoms to feature an Asian-American family in 20 years since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl.

Fresh Off the Boat, which is loosely based off chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, takes a look at Huang’s experiences growing up as a Taiwanese-American. When I first heard about the TV show, I was both excited and nervous. Finally, a show that I could relate to, a show with Asian-American protagonists; but I was worried. Would the show reinforce racial stereotypes or disrupt them?

When I watched the pilot, I laughed out loud. There were a few corny moments, but it was delightfully funny and well-written for the most part. I’ve only seen three episodes, but the show definitely has some potential. Hudson Yang is charming as the young Eddie, and Constance Wu’s timing and delivery as Tiger Mom Jessica is hilarious.

What strikes me most about Fresh Off the Boat are the scenes that are way too real. For example, young Eddie opens a container of chow mein only to be picked on by white boys in the cafeteria. This leads him to persuade his mother into getting him “white people lunch.” Another example that shows the Asian-American experience is when Eddie is continually praised for speaking great English, despite the fact that Eddie was born and raised in America. Although Eddie and his mother share the same ethnicity, they get into frequent arguments over the aspects of their culture. For example, I wanted to cry whenever Eddie told his mother, “You’re never on my side,” because I have said the same thing to my mother whenever we experienced differentiating clashes between our (Chinese-Filipino-American) culture.

Shit got real, I saw bits of my childhood on TV. For other viewers, however, the ABC show is far from groundbreaking. Some viewers voiced their fear on Twitter, saying that the show may continue to perpetuate stereotypes because of the context of its jokes. But we can’t expect one show to be a representation of all Asian Americans. In an interview with Vulture, Huang said, “This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian-America.”

You, the viewers, may not have had the same experiences as Huang, and you may not think his show is funny. However, Fresh Off the Boat is momentous because it offers a perspective on what it’s like to assimilate in America.