TELEVISION: Fresh Off the Boat is a Fresh Look at the Asian-American Experience

ANNIE LUNDGREN WRITES – ABC’s newest primetime show, Fresh Off the Boat, reminds us that America’s complicated race relations can be funny, too. Set in 1995, the sitcom follows a Taiwanese-American family’s move from D.C.’s Chinatown to a white middle-class suburb in Orlando, Florida, where they learn how to fit in with “mainstream” Americans.

The narrator and main character, eleven-year-old Eddie, describes humorous culture clashes and misunderstandings between his family and its non-Asian neighbors. His mother initially tries to fit in with former-sorority moms, while his father opens a cowboy steakhouse to attract white customers.

Meanwhile, hip-hop-loving Eddie struggles to make friends at school. Gold chain necklaces, jerseys, and baggy pants comprise his wardrobe. Throughout his narration, he references and quotes 90s rappers. In the pilot episode he describes himself as the “black sheep” of his family and says, “If you were an outsider, hip hop was your anthem” – an ironic juxtaposition to his family’s conservative, Confucian values.

Lazy and ignorant white Americans are a common theme in the sitcom. Show creator, Nahnatchka Khan, does not shy away from exposing stereotypes such as the redneck, dumb blonde, conservative Christian, and limousine-liberal. When the mother, Jessica (played by Constance Wu), sees a white family celebrating their son’s C range report card, she exclaims, “I don’t understand these people, it’s like success is not important to them!” As a white viewer, I found this line funny and embarrassingly accurate.

Fresh Off the Boat pokes fun at Asian-American stereotypes, too, such as the mother’s micro-managing ways and cheapness or the father’s head-nodding. On the other hand, cultural clichés are also challenged, such as Eddie’s mother breaking into a soulful rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” at a neighborhood block party, or his nerdy younger brother attracting multiple white girlfriends. These scenes are few, but elicit just as much surprise and laughs from viewers.

It is about time a major network aired a TV show about the Taiwanese/Chinese American experience. They have lived and contributed to the United States since the first waves of Chinese guest workers in the 19th century. Today, they are among the best-educated and financially successful minorities in the country.

Fresh Off the Boat is an entertaining family sitcom that embraces stereotypes and satirizes them in a good-natured and tasteful way. The United States is one of most racially and ethnically diverse countries in the entire world. If we cannot laugh at own differences, who will?


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