A-pop! A closer look at ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ — Finding the nuance in the taboo

By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

This month, I want to discuss the use of racial slurs in the media.

In my last column, I highlighted how ABC picked up the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” for a mid-season premiere. This will be the first show in 20 years to star an all-Asian cast since comedian Margaret Cho’s long-defunct sitcom “All American Family” in the 1990s.

“Fresh Off the Boat” is based on celebrity chef and restaurateur Eddie Huang’s book, “Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir,” which explores Huang’s adolescent life in the 1990s, after his family relocates to a Caucasian suburb of Orlando, Fla. The show promises cultural, comedic, and hip hop hijinks from the perspective of a Taiwanese and Chinese American family.

A growing debate over the use of “fresh off the boat”

Though Asian Americans are mostly optimistic about the show’s pick up, critics are upset about the use of “Fresh Off the Boat” as the show’s chosen title. Some people argue that its use will normalize the term for non-Asians, giving them a “safe” entryway into Asian culture. Others claim that the title sets Asian Americans back, as “fresh off the boat” is a derogatory term used to describe Asian immigrants as being less acculturated to American culture. It is most common to hear the phrase used within Asian circles.

But there is something interesting happening with the show’s title here.

Huang, who is a producer for the show, actually fought to keep the sitcom title. For him, the use of “Fresh Off the Boat” is his way of reclaiming the term. He argues that the phrase is only pejorative if its use and context is negative.

Instead, he sees the term as a source of pride, and a way to express his reverence and connection to his ancestral roots. Huang is also quick to point out that its use on the show is representative of his unique experiences as a Taiwanese and Chinese American. He does not claim to speak for anyone else. Mostly, he dislikes it when people tell him what he can’t do or can’t be.

The pilot also reveals that his young protagonist equivalent, played by newcomer Harrison Yang, encounters racial bullying at school, such as being called a chink. Some people were surprised by the casual use of racial slurs on the show. But Huang also stands by this decision.

“If you’re going to be real and have a real discussion about [race and racism], then you have to use it,” said Huang in a video interview with TIME.com about the show’s various controversies.

“If dominant culture is going to misunderstand it and use it, I can’t control that,” Huang said. “But I know that my intention is very honest, it has integrity and it means a lot to me to reclaim the word. … I grew up with people who just got [to America] and that experience is very special to me. And it’s also an experience that dominant culture tried to shame me for.”

Thinking critically about the show’s impact for the future

With such few shows representing Asians on television, it’s easy to place a lot of faith and expectations onto this sitcom. I know I’m guilty of this. Many of us are starved for accurate or relatable media representation that it’s easy to criticize Huang for not being a paragon of political correctness. But does Huang have a responsibility to represent all Asian Americans with this show? Some people think so.

Personally, I do think there is some responsibility. He should think broadly of the people he’s depicting in a primetime sitcom, in addition to the audience that will view and interpret the content. But what I like slightly more is how Huang offers a different and fresh perspective on Asian American identity, despite the controversy that comes with it. It adds to the growing diversity of Asian American voices and representations in the media.

Will the title “Fresh Off the Boat” help or harm the show’s success? It’s too early to tell. But I feel cautiously optimistic for the show’s potential to change the media landscape for Asians. I am not sure if I fully agree with Huang’s use of the phrase, but I do respect and understand his decision to keep it.

If anything, I like what the show’s title is doing for Asian American identity — it’s fostering critical discussion for more complex, diverse, and multilayered definitions of self-identity in the media. Identity is fluid and dynamic, and that’s what I see happening here, in Huang’s attempt to reclaim the phrase. (end)

Vivian Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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