Welcome to the first of our weekly roundtables on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, starring Randall Park, Constance Wu and Hudson Yang. We are really excited to be discussing this show, which — for better or worse — is significant in being the first major network sitcom about an Asian-American family in about twenty years.
Esther: Initial impressions?
Belinda: I want to start by saying that Constance Wu is a goddess!
E: Haha yes! When she showed those boys what’s what with her minivan? Goals.
B: She is definitely my favorite character so far. I was going through and jotting down funny quotes… and they were like 90 percent hers.
Karen: I think she also has terrific comedic timing.
E: “What… is this store so excited about?”
B: And her facial expressions.
K: Like, the mannerisms are so mom-ish that I forget she’s only in her 20s.
E: True, that is a weird thing though… how they cast such a young actress. I guess that’s what Eddie Huang meant when he wrote that the mom was “exoticized?” Like they had to make her sexy somehow because a scary Asian woman who’s also not sexually appealing is just a no go?
B: She seems young, for sure; too young to be their mom. The accent seems a little contrived too.
K: I thought Eddie Huang was talking about her accent [when he said she was exoticized].
E: Oh I see. Yeah the accents seemed pretty put-on… especially because Randall Park is Korean…
K: He dropped the accent in episode 2 though, I noticed upon re-watch.
B: I think so. They could’ve still chosen someone who looked older but is attractive. But I don’t think that’s an issue of exoticizing her. That’s something Hollywood does to all women; it’s just ageism.
E: True. Do we want to talk about what our hopes/anxieties were for the show going in? There’s been so much buzz about it in the interwebz… so much pressure.
B: I need to read Eddie Huang’s memoir. I haven’t yet, so I wasn’t exactly sure what I *should* want to expect, you know?
K: Honestly, I feel like the show was gonna get picked apart as soon as I saw the trailer, because it’s the only Asian-American show on TV in such a long time. And because of that I felt more compelled to go into it optimistically.
E: It’s the first in twenty years! That’s crazy.
B: It seemed to be getting a lot of support from Asians, though. Especially among the ones I had talked to and knew. A lot of Asian-Americans feel that representation, good or bad, is a step forward and is important.
E: Definitely. I’m more inclined to be generous toward the show… because I feel like if we, as a community, are so vocal in our dislike of every major opportunity for “mainstream” representation we get, the opportunities might dwindle, you know?
B: Any experience is going to be cornstarchy. Even that of a white family, you know? It won’t be dead on to his memoir because of the nature of the show.
E: Yeah true, it always has to be more vanilla. Haha “cornstarchy” I love that.
K: I agree. I think Mindy Kaling faced a lot of similar criticisms when her show first started. Not to say all of the criticism is invalid, but it’s unfair because you don’t see white-centric shows getting the same kind of scrutiny for racial dynamics and representation.
E: And she still gets heat for not making her show more about race.
E: I think people are just anxious and afraid to get too hopeful, especially because it IS a network show so there are all of these constraints on the subject matter and tone. Anyway, after reading Eddie Huang’s article about how much the show had been neutered, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the sharp tone the show sometimes takes.
B: I think the show did a brilliant job with it, as far as the racial dynamics go. It was clever about it and never distasteful. Like that lunch scene with Eddie and the black kid. It was nuanced with showing how both he and the black kid were picked on, but in different ways, and were fighting to not be on the bottom.
E: I felt like white constructs of exotic Asianness were mostly the butt of the jokes, rather than presenting Asianness as inherently exotic.
K: Well that’s one good example of what I was saying re:POC-centered shows getting scrutinized. I’ve already seen a bunch of criticism about how the portrayal of Eddie’s interactions with the black kid are anti-black.
E: Hm I could see how people would take it as anti-blackness, but I think it’s actually a really nuanced portrayal of how even kids can be aware of really complicated racial power dynamics. Like you see Eddie making an overture toward connection, but both he and the black kid know that the lunchroom (and in broader white society), whiteness rules the roost.
B: Yeah, like he doesn’t fit in with the black kid just because he likes hip-hop, like he initially assumed.
K: I agree with you. And I want to see what they do with that from here on out, if the black kid is a recurring character (which I really hope he will be!)
B: I hope they *do* become friends. That “chink” comment, though… [the real] Eddie was called a chink by a black kid as a kid… and felt it was important to keep that bit in, despite the network being like… Awk.
E: But you know, that really felt like the kids repeating what they hear the adults around them saying. And that moment contained a tiny detail that was really touching to me… because when the black kid shoved Eddie he also prevented him from MICROWAVING his pizza Lunchable! And you know the white kids would have made fun of Eddie for that.
K: Oh my gosh, yes.
B: So that was intentional?
E: That detail felt intentional to me, for sure. Not necessarily in an overt or intentional way but I feel like it’s adding nuance to the staging of these racial confrontations, like these kids are acting out racial dynamics that become more and more pronounced as they get older. And yet there’s a kind of understanding between them underneath that. Like the black kid saying, “Oh, the white people didn’t welcome you with open arms?” That’s both an insult and a kind of warning.
B: Oh man, that’s deep! I hope that was intentional. I did kind of pick up on that, but didn’t think much of it.
K: I like that interpretation, E. I really do hope they explore that more in upcoming episodes.
B: Agreed. I hope he is a recurring character.
K: Also because the actor who plays the black kid also has great comedic timing and some good zingers.
E: The “you’re at the bottom thing” seems so relevant to me re: the complicated history of black and Asian political alliances. I mean the lunchroom is really political, haha.
K: Yes! Can we talk about the lunch thing?
B: The lunchroom is always a symbol of social dynamics.
K: Because that — i.e. white people being repulsed by an “exotic” lunch — totally happened to me too.
E: It’s kind of a primal scene. It’s both racial and also just the complicated anxiety/dynamics of being a kid.
K: Yes, especially when the black kid says his best friend is a 40-year-old man. On the one hand, that’s played for laughs, but on the other hand, it’s kind of also indicating how disconnected he is from his white peers.
E: I hope the old man friend gets shown later.
K: Me too!
E: Maybe it’s his dad or something!!
K: Speaking of which… I want to talk about Eddie’s brothers too. Because they are adorable but also great foils to Eddie. The running gag of how Emery immediately integrated into his surroundings was hilarious to me.
E: I think they did a really good job writing the dynamics between the mother and children too. Like I was so touched when Eddie and the mom went to buy the white people food for lunch, haha.
K: I totally agree — each of the brothers represents a specific attitude towards their parents.
E: Eddie’s “seat at the table” speech killed me, so proto-political. Yeah.
K: Even the little things like Jessica asking Evan to “help mommy” when she’s getting into the house on her rollerblades.
E: But it’s a real act of love to spend good $$ on a Lunchable when the mom was calculating the cost of napkins.
K: It’s nuanced but so well-constructed
B: Ah, so true! With the Lunchable. Those things are not cheap haha. And the pepper… oh man.
E: I hope they explore the parents’ dynamic more. That whole “I love you” thing was played for laughs but not really explored.
K: Yes, but to be fair to them, it worked well and was totally relatable.
E: Yeah for sure. I just want to hear more about it. Like I got the sense that the different attitudes on running the restaurant can also be read as different attitudes toward ‘integrating’ into white society.
B: Ahh, totally agree about their methodology with running the restaurant.
K: Yes. I don’t think one parent is necessarily more right than the other but it’s really touching at the end of the second episode when they try to compromise with each other. It folds family dynamics into racial dynamics.
B: Louis just seems much more assimilated than Jessica overall.
E: Or more eager to be. It’s so funny that the restaurant is in Orlando though, rather than Texas, because then it’s less about being “authentic” American and more about performing Americanness. Orlando just strikes me as a really artificial place, like overdetermined by all the theme parks and entertainment industry.
B: Yeah, that’s a good point. Their comments about this being the “West” (like the theme of the restaurant) but how it’s really the “South” and they can’t afford California.
E: True, because the West… California… that would be more Asian, haha.
B: The whole restaurant is a metaphor potentially… it’s like this contrived Western feel. Nothing authentic about it.
K: The restaurant commercial at the end of episode one…
K: …was probably my favorite moment from both episodes. I really appreciate how unafraid this show is of parodying white culture.
E: My favorite moment was… “enjoy your stick, white friends.” I mean I think they handled that pretty well because it didn’t come across as like, “look at the Asian way of doing things, it’s so much better and will lead to more success.” It’s totally not a Tiger Mom mentality.
B: Yes, truly! That’s bold. And like Esther said, it’s playing off of the fact that white people see Asians a certain way and that they’re misguided in their views and THAT being the humor.
K: Yes, exactly, Belinda.
E: Misguided perceptions of all kinds are the joke. Like when Eddie was so surprised that the white kid knew who Biggie was… Although I hope that will come back later in a satirical/unsympathetic way.
K: I agree. I do want the show to examine more closely the potential white appropriations of black culture, and perhaps Asian culture as well, although that may be too heavy for a sitcom.
E: Yeah. Well they’re kind of getting into that already, in very subtle ways. The whole lunchroom dynamic was a total “we are all oppressors” moment.
B: “A white dude and an Asian dude bonding over a black dude. This cafeteria’s ridiculous.”
E: Like, we are all complicit in white norms at times no matter how much we strive not to be.
K: Very true.
E: Hopefully we’ll meet his family or something? Though I do think the Orlando setting kind of precludes any comprehensive representation.
B: True… that’s probably the point. So you think Eddie and the white kids liking Biggie is appropriation of black culture in a sense? Did the black kid not even like hip-hop or identify with it?
E: Idk, we didn’t see enough of him to say, but yeah I think it’s definitely pointing us toward the idea of appropriation. Like, Eddie doesn’t just espouse the ideas/philosophy of a certain kind of black masculinity — he literally wears it over his body.
B: Eddie made a comment about how if you’re an outsider, hip-hop is the way to fit in.
K: Yes, and I loved the boombox scenes with the grandma!
B: Those were so funny. I like that she only speaks Chinese.
E: I hope they will do more with her character
B: Maybe at this point it shows the generation gap there… like look how far removed Eddie is from her. He basically uses her as a prop and there is no relationship dynamic between them thus far.
E: Yeah, although the mention of their practicing together for Eddie’s entrances was really sweet.
K: I loved when she said to the taxidermied rabbit, “You were too slow.”
B: YES! The “you were too slow” comment had me in tears.
K: Yeah, Belinda, I agree about the generation gap thing. Right now the grandma is kind of a bit part. We don’t even know whose mother she is. But other than that aspect, I think that so far, the family dynamics between the Huangs are playing out nicely again, it’s totally relatable.
E: Yeah, I’m excited to see the rest of it. I was almost giddy with relief that I don’t have to schill this show JUST because it’s about Asian Americans, haha. Like, it’s actually funny enough that I would watch it even if I didn’t care about APIA [Asian/Pacific Islander American] representation.
K: Right. I hope it does get more attention beyond the APIA community, because it’s a genuinely funny show.
B: I completely agree! I would watch this regardless, but it’s nice to be like, “Oh, that reminds me of my own experiences.”
E: The fact that it’s a 90s nostalgia show might also help it along. Like, even if you don’t necessarily identify with the particular Asian American aspects of the experience, I think it’s effective as nostalgia.
K: Yeah. Also, these two episodes made me belly laugh more than any recent sitcom.
B: Agreed! The ending of the second episode with the sticker system was so good… How did you guys feel about this quote: “We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement.” –Eddie
K: Again, not to whittle it down to personal experience, but that expression of “love” almost exactly echoes something my mom said to me once. So in that respect, I appreciated that quote.
E: Haha I mean I think it highlights an important element to keep in mind with this show: it’s easy to forget that this is still a particular story about a single family, and despite all our identifications with the show, it’s not claiming to represent all of Asian America. I know some people are mad because they think it’s very narrow in its representations, but to ask one show to represent all of Asian America would be impossible. So like, I identify with that quote in some ways but if other viewers don’t… that should be totally fine.
K: Yeah. I think back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk about the danger of a single story…Since this is the only representation of an Asian American family on network TV, people might take it to be THE representation.
B: Yeah, so that pertains to the Huang’s family dynamic — which is evident — but not necessarily all Asian-Americans. And I think viewers do know that… if they know it’s based off of an actual memoir and real family.
E: I mean, you don’t see white audiences picking apart every episode of Friends being like, “it didn’t happen for me EXACTLY like that.” Yeah, most viewers know it’s based on an individual memoir but I think there’s still this impulse to put so much crushing weight of representation on it. Just reading the twitter feed about it, some viewers were like, “this show is racist, my family didn’t make us go to CLC and not all Asians do that”…which is besides the point, I think.
As a whole, we’re excited to see where this show goes and what’s in store for the Huang family as they navigate the humidity and microagressions of lily-white Orlando. You can follow the rest of the conversation at Acro Collective (www.acrocollective.net) starting from episodes 5 & 6, where it will be part of a weekly/biweekly roundtable series on Fresh Off the Boat. Stay fresh.
Meet the panel!
Belinda Cai is the owner of this blog. She’s a journalism graduate student who’s really good at stress eating.
Esther Yu is a graduate student in English literature, studying Asian American writing and pop culture.
Karen Huang is an English graduate student by day, and a shameless fangirl by night. She sometimes has existential crises over delivery food.