Seeing Myself in Fresh Off the Boat

When I watch ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, I see my mom.

I see her packing three lunches, feet shuffling in house slippers, wearing an oversized T-shirt from a summer trip to Waikiki, lovingly instructing her two xiao bao beis to eat their xi fan for breakfast and not-so-lovingly screaming for her third offspring to wake up.

I see something that looks like my origin story, my life as an Asian-American kid in a white suburban neighborhood, and I feel a fondness that cannot be put into words.

But the Huang family is not my family. It’s not even creator Eddie Huang’s family, though it is based on the restaurateur’s 2013 best-selling memoir of the same name. It’s a snapshot of one Asian-American family, and a relatable, funny one at that.

When I see my mother on screen—albeit presented with a heavier Orientalist accent and as a more exaggerated caricature—our stories as Asian Pacific Islander (API) women in America feel real. As Margaret Cho, former star of All-American Girl, the 1994 sitcom that last featured a predominantly Asian-American cast, told us, “You don’t understand invisibility until you realize that you’re not invisible any more.”

Jessica Huang, played by American actress Constance Wu, is fully visible as the quintessential Asian matriarch and the undeniable heart of the show. She’s not singing The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother every Tuesday night on ABC, but she’s also not shying away from the reality of raising three second-generation Asian-American kids in a world hell-bent on reminding them of their otherness.

In a recent episode, Jessica sits among a throng of neighborhood women (all white, all users of the “exotic” epithet) and attempts to bridge the gap between them. One woman proudly remarks, “I watched a documentary about China in college.” The self-congratulatory oohs and ahhs of the housewives are the soundtrack to my upbringing in “white America,” and the feigned approval on Jessica’s face personifies my—and so many other’s—half-hearted attempts at cultural assimilation.

Eddie’s classmates’ repulsion at his lunch of leftover noodles is right out of the Asian-American kid handbook. I can remember countless times my lunchbox became a site of cultural exploration for my non-Asian classmates, like the time I lied and said the rou song on my fried rice was “gorilla hair.”

It’s exciting to see Asian-American stories told with such accuracy and rib-tickling familiarity. Trust me, our Asian mothers could write entire seasons’ worth of material. My mother is just as much an Amy Chua-style-motivator as she is a Diana Vreeland-bon-mot-tossing fashionista, and that’s the beauty of nuanced portrayals of API individuals, whether or not they’re framed within the context of a mostly white community. My mother may not be Jessica Huang, but she’s certainly never been Carol Brady or Claire Dunphy either.

It seems like the loudest opinions about Fresh Off the Boat have come courtesy of everyone other than Asian Americans, and particularly Asian-American women. So it’s more than a little refreshing to hear someone like Constance Wu speak matter-of-factly about why her face on screen matters: “It’s important to see Asians in those leading roles because it changes what I’m calling the anglo-heteronormative status of TV.”

I could lament ad nauseum the ways that lack of Asian and API representation disenfranchises, erases and misrepresents an entire population of people. And I could also just as easily talk about the dumpling-shaped halo that forms around my heart with every new mention of a traditional Asian dish on a major cable network (can I get an amen for Jessica’s mention of xiao long bao in the pilot?), but this is, ultimately, a love letter to the API individuals in my life whose portrayals are long overdue.

In my conversations with family members and fellow API-idenitified individuals, we’re privy to the fact that Fresh Off the Boat is not the best we can do in terms of the portrayals of Asian Americans in 2015. Eddie Huang himself has been outspoken about his “existence underneath the Bamboo Ceiling” and how the show became a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans resembling moo goo gai pan.”

I agree with Eddie, but I’m still committed to watching the Panda Express version of being Asian American because at the end of the day something is better than nothing.

Whatever your reservations are about watching Fresh Off the Boat, I urge you to try it first—like some Asian delicacy—before you write it off for good. For a lot of non-Asian viewers, there’s an understandable shifting in one’s seat when white people—and their racial ignorance—are the butt of the jokes. But beginning to understand the compulsive need to say, “but that’s not me” might be a healthy exercise in understanding how Asian Americans are too often silenced.

With Chinese New Year right around the corner, here’s hoping for a year filled with more, deeper and perhaps spicier representations of API folks. Although Fresh Off the Boat is a far cry from perfect, it’s still a seat at the table.

So I’m going to take it, and you can bet I’ll be bringing my mother’s home cooking with me too.

Photo of Constance Wu courtesy of Disney | ABC Television Group licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Jenevieve Ting is a student at the University of Southern California and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Next Magazine and Thought Catalog. Find out