“Fresh Off the Boat”, the ABC sitcom based loosely on Eddie Huang’s memoir, recently finished its first season. While it finished with less than stellar ratings, most expect it to be renewed for a second season given its good overall performance.
Not everyone was thrilled with the “Fresh Off the Boat”, however. Before the series even aired, Eddie Huang criticized the show because he felt the material had strayed from his book. He wanted it to be edgier and to feature a domestic violence story arch at some point. Huang also felt that it didn’t accurately capture his childhood. He criticized the fact that the show’s writer and showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, was not Chinese and therefore couldn’t relate to his story and experiences.
Others have criticized the show regarding its authenticity, including complaints that the accents used are not truly Chinese-Taiwanese and not recognizing own individual experiences as Asian-Americans. There’s also been criticism of the story being too “Americanized” (Huang called it a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan”).
As an ABC (American-Born Chinese) person whose parents immigrated from Taiwan in the 1970’s, I agree with some of the criticism. I certainly felt that the story could’ve been a bit more edgy without turning off the audience (though I understand why ABC would not try to make a funny storyline about domestic violence - it isn’t funny). I certainly understand that Huang didn’t like that the show didn’t mirror his memoir and that the fictionalized Huang family isn’t like his.
Ultimately, however, I disagree with Huang on whether the show is too universal for one simple reason: I, along with many other Asian-Americans (and other Americans), wouldn’t be able to relate to his specific story any more than he can relate to Friends. The show’s focus is a family trying to find their place in America, which is a fundamentally American story. I don’t think the show would’ve been as popular, nor as well received by the Asian-American community or America at large had it stuck 100% to Eddie’s specific story.
In addition, I think the show has been authentic in showing the issues and struggles that Chinese-Americans and other immigrants face. The final episode of the season, for example, focuses on the fictional Huang family’s struggle to balance both the culture and traditions of America with the culture and traditions of their Chinese heritage. While aspects of it were played up for laughs, it is a real struggle that many first- and second-generation immigrants face.
For a lot of Asian-American kids like me, it’s a struggle to fit in. My parents did what they could to help my brother and I integrate into American/Western culture. We were given Western names at birth, leeway regarding what we wanted to study (no demands that we be doctors/engineers), and long leashes regarding many life choices. Even still, we were still often treated as outsiders who didn’t belong. I was told to “Go home, Chink!”, was told that I couldn’t have a Western name because only white people could have those, and had peers speak “Chinese” to me (Chingy-chong-ching-chong is gibberish, btw).
While the show is not perfectly authentic, I think its portrayal of Asian-Americans, particularly immigrants, is far more realistic than most network TV. We are not all doctors and engineers or good at math. We do not all drive souped up cars with fart can exhausts like in Fast & Furious. We are not a monolith. We are individuals who, despite struggling to find our place, feel at home and belong in America as much as anyone else. It’s about damn time for that part of our story to be told on national TV.