A year ago, if you had asked me to name an Asian character on television, I would’ve stalled for a solid five minutes before naming a grand total of one– Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead.
Now, I can name seven, a number that is simultaneously pathetically small and unusually large when applied to the context of Asians on television.
That massive (or marginal) increase is due to the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat. Based off of chef Eddie Huang’s memoir, the TV show follows the adventures of the Huangs, a Taiwanese American family that has recently made the move to the suburbs of Orlando. There, the main character Eddie (Hudson Yang) attempts to navigate the usual trials of any twelve-year-old with the added burden of being Asian in a predominantly white community.
Upon hearing about the show, I was initially skeptical. The idea of a sitcom featuring Asian characters was so foreign that I grew convinced that the show would be cancelled before it even had a chance to premiere. The name was not a comfort either as “fresh off the boat” is a derogatory term for immigrants who have failed to assimilate with American (code for white) culture. Even after learning that the name was taken from Eddie Huang’s memoir, I remained wary. I expected a tiger mom, a stoic father, math geniuses for children– all the components of your stereotypical East Asian family. I expected a caricature.
Despite these predictions, I prayed for the show’s success. For the first time in twenty years, an Asian American family would be the leads of a sitcom on a major television network. Since I was not around for Margaret Cho’s All American Girl, Fresh Off the Boat would be the first time in my life that I would see elements of my own experiences played out on the small screen.
The show proved itself in its first season and did what All American Girl, a sitcom centered on a Korean American family with a defiant daughter, failed to do; it was renewed for a second season. Although critics continue to praise the show and viewership remains relatively high, the Asian American community has grown divided over the past year. One of the major points of contention is that the sitcom promotes Asian stereotypes.
I can concede that some of the characters do have stereotypical traits. Evan (Ian Chen) and Emery (Forrest Wheeler), Eddie’s younger brothers, are unusually precocious. Eddie’s parents, particularly his mother Jessica (Constance Wu), push their children to achieve academic success. Additionally, both have accents, both are frugal, and all six members of the family appear to eat rice with every meal.
And to all of this, I say, “So what?”
Because although the characters exhibit some stereotypes, they are not stereotypes themselves. They are three-dimensional characters who happen to have stereotypical traits. Of these stereotypical traits, many are done in a satirical manner. While Emery is intelligent, he’s also very sociable and is seen with two girlfriends in one episode, a far cry from the socially awkward Asian nerd cliche. Jessica’s seriousness and fixation with academics may lead viewers to brand her as a “Tiger Mom” if it weren’t for the fact that she is easily one of the funniest characters on the show.
And that’s why I’m okay with the fact that Evan always wins his school’s science fair and Eddie brings unappetizing Chinese food to school.
A recent Fresh Off the Boat episode actually comments on the idea of media representation. In “Good Morning Orlando,” Eddie’s father, Louis (Randall Park), appears on a morning talk show with the intention of promoting his restaurant but instead ends up doing celebrity impressions. When he arrives home, Jessica scolds him for failing to represent Chinese people in a positive manner.
So Louis goes back and tries again, this time remaining very serious and refusing to laugh. Jessica chastises him again for giving off the impression that Chinese people don’t have a sense of humor. She attempts to send him back, advising him, “Show people that you can laugh at yourself. But be serious, too. A couple of light jokes. Nothing political. But don’t be boring, either. Don’t make waves. But be interesting. And pleasant. And also smart. You should be smart. And tall.”
Frustrated, Louis exclaims, “You realize doing all that is impossible, right? One person can’t be everything.”
And that is Fresh Off the Boat‘s biggest problem. As the only sitcom featuring an Asian American family, it has the burden of trying to represent the experiences of all Chinese Americans (and other East Asians because many people still fail to realize that Asia is made up of hundreds of different cultures).
Yet it can’t accomplish this herculean feat. Even with six Chinese American characters (five whole characters more than The Walking Dead!), the show still fails to adequately capture the Asian American experience.
How would this be fixed? The writers can’t do anything. The producers can’t do anything. The actors can’t do anything. In fact, no one connected to the show can solve the problem because the problem itself does not lie within the show. It lies in the fact that we only have one tv show featuring Asian American characters. It lies in the fact that five people will never speak for all 18 million Asian Americans living in the U.S. It lies in the fact that, although Fresh Off the Boat has made tremendous progress, it simply isn’t enough.
As Fresh Off the Boat continues to enjoy success, I hope its viewers, critics, fans, and haters realize that the show should not be seen as the final solution, the magical cure to the lack of Asian American representation media. Instead, it should be viewed as the promising start of a solution, the start to a world where there are not just one, or six, or even sixteen Asian characters in western television, but a world where there are enough to give voice to 18 million.