By Kevin Tang
On April 3 this year, ABC aired the third episode of family sitcom Roseanne. In a brief scene, Roseanne and Dan Connor wake up on the couch, realizing that they missed Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat during their nap.
“We missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” Dan yawns.
Roseanne sardonically replies, “They’re just like us – there, now you’re all caught up.”
Unfolding at the volatile intersection of race and media representation, ABC’s Fresh off the Boat authentically captures the Asian-American experience. The show, which is loosely based off of its titular memoir published in 2013, follows the life of Eddie Huang, an adolescent who struggles with his identity after moving to suburban Orlando. Along the way, he and his family must overcome many obstacles as they try to make sense of the American Dream.
As Roseanne’s comments indicate, this show is needed more than ever before. In a time when racial diversity is being eroded by powerful media figures as well as government institutions, media representation of all minority groups is essential to champion their humanity and voices. Humorously charming, Fresh off the Boat unapologetically depicts a truly genuine Asian-American narrative, a story that is sorely lacking in modern media.
This visual Bildungsroman features numerous plots, each portraying unique and nuanced facets of Asian-American culture. Although the narratives often compete with one another, they seemingly weave into one cohesive story that authentically encapsulates universal truths about the immigrant experience.
Meet Eddie Huang – a teenage boy who, after living in the sleepy Chinatown streets of Washington D.C, suddenly finds himself in a predominately white public school. Eddie’s life is suddenly upended as he desperately grapples with his newfound awareness of his racial identity. After facing constant exclusion and snide remarks from his white classmates, he finds himself trapped in a role that conscripts him into certain stereotypes he is unwilling to bear. For instance, he paradoxically becomes both a “model minority” as well as a shambling English speaker. Attempting to fit in with his white classmates, Eddie soon internalizes the logic of his own discrimination and is caught in limbo between two worlds: one in which he eschews his rich Taiwanese culture and another in which he must obediently follow his parents. The constricting realities of his race intensifies, portraying an immensely relatable and sincere immigrant story.
At the same time, Fresh off the Boat also presents the struggles of Eddie’s parents. Louis Huang, Eddie’s father, too faces his own hurdles as he tries to achieve the American Dream. Owning a cowboy themed steakhouse called Cattleman’s Ranch, Louis is a cheery father who naïvely embraces all that is American. Meanwhile, Jessica Huang is a loud, abrasive “tiger mom” who takes it upon herself to educate her sons. Simultaneously, she masquerades as a typical American woman to befriend the army of blonde, rollerblading moms that rule the local neighborhoods.
Although each member of the Huang family share multifaceted but similar conflicts, they have different coping methods. From Jessica’s isolation from American culture to Eddie’s quiet solace in rap music, this family sitcom presents a distinctly Asian-American experience that accosts the audience with timely questions in 2018: What does it mean to assimilate? What does it mean to integrate? What does it mean to be American?
Renewed for its fifth season, this family sitcom has had resounding echoes throughout the media industry. In three years, Fresh off the Boat has already been nominated 20 times and won four awards. This success has energized Asian-American representation, from the surging 88rising mass media company to the recent movie Crazy Rich Asians. To the audience, these characters on the big screen empower many to become the protagonists of their own life. Eddie Huang talks like me. Looks like me. Feels like me.
At the end of the day, this witty family sitcom has broader, cultural implications that extend beyond Asian-Americans. With fierce vitality, Fresh off the Boat ruptures institutional whiteness that pervades our society as it comments on the universal immigrant experience. It shows society how racial minorities are pigeonholed into conflicting roles that constrict their individual agency. It shows society how they can understand the lived experiences of minorities. It shows society why the rich diversity of America matters.
Although shows like Blackish and Fresh off the Boat may have not yet solved issues of wealth inequality or under representation in government, they offer a powerful, visceral message of hope. They persistently chip away at the whiteness that is not only a cultural power but also a gatekeeper to economic and political power. And as Eddie once said, “You don't have to pretend to be someone else in order to belong.” With a scintillating message of solidarity among all communities of color, Fresh off the Boat will become an enduring cultural icon, leaving an indelible influence on our collective struggle for equality and social justice.