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Fresh off the Boat is Funny, Relatable, and Poignant

As a person of color myself, I am always eager for media narratives that center other people of color.  So when I heard about ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, especially on the heels of the debut of Black-ish, I was excited to watch, and appreciative of the fact that ABC has made a conscious effort to tell stories about us.  Fresh of the Boat is about an Asian family, not Black people.  But in watching the show, I marvel at how relatable is the experience of being a non-White face in a White space, even across ethnic differences.

Fresh off the Boat, based on a memoir of the same title by chef Eddie Huang, tells the story of Eddie, an 11-year-old, first generation Chinese-American in love with hip hop music and culture in the year 1995.  Eddie’s family – his mother Jessica, his father Louis, and his grandmother, who are Taiwanese immigrants, and his two younger brothers Evan and Emery – have just moved from Washington, DC’s Chinatown neighborhood to Orlando, Florida, because his father purchased a Western cowboy-style restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse.  The show follows the family’s experience navigating being Asian in a White world, from Jessica’s experience fitting in with the women of the predominantly White neighborhood into which they have moved, to Eddie’s experience navigating friendship and peer pressure in a predominantly White school environment, to Louis’s experience as a Chinese man selling White food to White people.  The show’s premier marks the first time a television show has starred an Asian lead character since American Girl was cancelled after one season twenty years ago in 1995.

In writing and talking about the show, Eddie Huang has said that his goal was to show that the Asian American experience is more diverse than the handful of stereotypes associated with it – to show that Asians can love rap music and run cowboy restaurants just as much as they can be doctors and laundromat owners, and at the same time portray the nuances of experiencing racial otherness as an Asian American specifically.  This, the show does well.  Still, it is within this depiction of otherness that I, as a person of color, find something to relate to.

The experience of being the only one, of bearing the burden of representation.  The experience of feeling alienated from the mainstream culture.  That of grappling with your racial identity in a White space, and recognizing that you may have to make certain compromises if you are to fit in.  These are experiences portrayed from a Chinese-American perspective that I relate to even as a Black man.  In one scene in the pilot episode, as the Huangs move their belongings into their new home, they are approached by several White women neighbors.  One of them expects the family to speak in broken language and tells Eddie slowly and in a condescending tone, “You’re English is very good.”  In another scene, upon realizing that White people don’t relate to Chinese immigrants with accents, Louis decides to hire a likeable White man as manager of his restaurant whose presence, he says, will say to White customers, “I’m just like you.”  Watching scenes like these, I am reminded of experiences I have had where White people express surprise because I defied the stereotypical expectations they had of me.  Or of the things Black people do to accommodate White people in White spaces and make them feel comfortable, like reducing outward ethnic-ness by not wearing hairstyles like dreadlocks or braids to work.  Cultural sacrifice is necessary for assimilation across the board.

Fresh also feels familiar because Eddie identifies with hip hop music and culture.  Eddie Huang, the author of the book, narrates the show using urban slang.  Classic tracks by Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and others serve as the shows soundtrack.  Eddie is always rocking a t-shirt with Nas or Biggie on it.  And each episode he reminds us of some advice he’s learned from his hip hop idols, such as “mo’ money, mo’ problems.”  In this way, Eddie reminds me of me.

But the show’s star quality is in the poignancy of its perspective.  This is where it bests Black-ishBlack-ish deals with experiences of racial otherness in White spaces, but, generally, each episode concludes with a kind of kumbaya, All Lives Matter reminder that, even though we’re different, we’re all the same, almost suggesting that the characters’ Blackness is inconsequential.  Fresh off the Boat does not do this.  As a viewer, you leave an episode well aware that the comedy and uniqueness of the Huangs’ experiences arise from the fact that they are not the same as the show’s other characters, and that you are watching an Asian-American family, not an American family that just happens to be Asian.  This is not sanitized for the viewer – you are forced to grapple with this, laugh at it, and learn from it.

Overall, Fresh off the Boat is a seriously entertaining show.  It’s funny, poignant, and relatable for any person of color who has ever felt like they were drowning in White people.  Hopefully, it’ll be around next year for another season.  It’s really important stuff.   People need to watch this.

Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington DC.  He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter.  He is a weekly opinion writer for Politic365 and an aspiring journalist.

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